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Southern Cultures 13.3 (2007) 132-143

Alan Lomax
The Long Journey
William R. Ferris

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Figure 1
How can we wrap our arms around Alan Lomax? His love for music and for poets like Carl Sandburg is reflected in the prose style of his writings on music and dance. Scorning what he called "chair-bound scholars," he pursued an unending journey in search of the truth and beauty that he found in folksong and dance. Alan Lomax, on stage at the Mountain Music Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, 1940, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.
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This essay was first presented as an address in January 2006 at a conference titled "The Lomax Legacy: Folklore in a Globalizing Century," sponsored by the American Folklife Center and the Association for Cultural Equity, New York, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

How can we wrap our arms around Alan Lomax? He was a force of nature who appeared superhuman. I thought of Alan as a Minotaur—half man, half supernatural—who defied life as we know it. His very walk seemed to defy gravity as he slid gracefully with his distinctive gait. Sally Yerkovich recalls seeing Alan one day at the National Endowment for the Arts as he and his sister Bess walked side by down the hall, each holding reading glasses in their extended right hand. They moved with that familiar Lomax stride that covered great distances and led them both to people and places that we celebrate today.

No two institutions have shaped my life more deeply than Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress, and their worlds are inextricably linked. We should reflect on the appropriate symmetry of the Library of Congress's acquisition of Thomas Jefferson's library of 6,487 books in 1815 and of Alan Lomax's library of 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of motion picture film, 2,450 videotapes, 2,000 scholarly books and journals, hundreds of photographic prints and negatives, and over 120 linear feet of manuscripts. Standing two centuries apart, Thomas Jefferson and Alan Lomax are both icons of American culture, and their legacy is intimately tied to this great library. Their respective collections are intellectual bookends that ground us both in our nation's past and in its future. Thomas Jefferson and Alan Lomax chronicled written and oral traditions that together constitute our cultural birthright as Americans. Mr. Jefferson would be proud to know that his library has grown to over 29 million books, and Alan must be wryly smiling to see old friends and colleagues gathered to honor his legacy.

Alan Lomax's passion for folk music is part of an American tradition that historian Bryan Garman links with Walt Whitman's celebration of the working-class hero. In Leaves of Grass Whitman dreamed of a race of singers who would celebrate the working class as the heart of American democracy. Garman argues that Whitman inspired musicians such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, each of whom chronicles American song. Like these singers, Lomax had deep ties with twentieth-century American folksingers.

"There is an impulsive and romantic streak in my nature that I find difficult to control when I go song hunting," Alan Lomax confessed. His love for music and for poets like Carl Sandburg is reflected in the prose style of his writings on music and dance. Scorning what he called "chair-bound scholars," he pursued an unending journey in search of the truth and beauty that he found in folksong and dance.

The Library of Congress was a second home for both Alan Lomax and his father, John Lomax. They worked at the Library's Archive of Folk Song for many [End Page 133] years, and each deposited thousands of recordings there. Their recordings of songs like "Rock Island Line," "Good Night, Irene," and "John Henry" are as familiar to Americans as our national anthem.


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Figure 2
Stories about Alan Lomax and his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 132-143
Launched on MUSE
2007-09-17
Open Access
No
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