- Adventures of a Ballad Hunter by John A. Lomax
By John A. Lomax. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017. ix + 275 pp. Illustrations, index. $18.95 paper.
Enthusiasts of the American folksong owe a heavy debt to John A. Lomax (1867–1948), who devoted his formidable energies crisscrossing the country recording people singing folk-songs. [End Page 218] His labors culminated in folding nearly 10,000 recordings he made between 1908 and 1942 into the Archive of American Folksongs at the Library of Congress.
In 1947 Lomax wrote his memoir, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter. This important account of his efforts has been out of print since 1972. The University of Texas Press now offers it in a handsome new paperback edition.
The first half of the book offers a detailed and engaging account of Lomax’s work largely spent in the Great Plains. His story begins in the Bosque Valley, Texas, where the author grew up. Lomax initially describes the songs he learned as a small child from passing cowboys encamped near his home, at revival meetings, and informally taught to him by Nat, a formerly enslaved youth who was employed by Lomax’s father. Lomax “came to love Nat with the fierce strength and loyalty of youth.” Yet one page later, the reader learns rumors of Nat’s murder at age twenty-one. Such vivid characters appear, sing, and then disappear on every page of this memoir. Some of Lomax’s encounters are heartbreaking, many are funny, and all invest Lomax’s memoir with a wealth of humanity.
Lomax shares the gradual professionalization of his work from early rejection by indifferent English professors to his amateur efforts at song collection leading to his embrace by influential Harvard faculty who supported his work financially. Throughout Lomax’s chronicle, a tone of amateur enthusiasm prevails. His account of how he popularized the song “Home on the Range” best illustrates this quality of the book. Lomax’s travels took him to San Antonio in 1908 where he consulted with a former trail cook turned saloonkeeper only after the man had a day to sober up. Upon sobriety’s return, the man sang this Great Plains classic beneath a mesquite tree as Lomax made a cylinder recording.
Eventually Lomax’s memoir takes him to the American South with special emphasis on segregated prisons where his African American sources, most notably Lead Belly, provide Lomax with a wealth of important folksong material.
Lomax preserved the voices of Americans from fading and along the way captures a bygone era when Americans sang for one another and for themselves. This memoir illustrates the urgency of songs in the lives of a diverse people.
University of Oklahoma