- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

The best thing about Alan Lomax was that he had an ear for good music. The noted musicologist and field recorder was never a household name, though the musicians he discovered (Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie) have had a welcome place in America's living rooms for some time.

His death July 19, at the age of 87, is a reminder of the legacy he left behind. Mr. Lomax's passion was to find the folk songs that had built the United States, the kind of backwater music that cared little for commercial trends, and bring it to the people.

Million-dollar recording studios were not his milieu. His tools were portable tape recorders (and later video cameras), and he found his musicians everywhere, even in prison.

That's where, on a sound-gathering trip for the Library of Congress with his folklorist father, John, a young Alan first heard the music of Huddie Ledbetter (later known as Leadbelly). Father and son helped champion his release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, starting the career of one of the first black folk performers to gain an audience with white Americans.

Mr. Lomax wasn't one to rest on his laurels. He continued working with his father but also undertook projects on his own and with other noted writers and artists, including Zora Neale Hurston. His travels took him all over the country and around the globe.

Long before "world music" was piped out of trendy cafes, Mr. Lomax was trekking through Haiti and the Bahamas to capture the Caribbean sound. His recordings of Woody Guthrie helped light a torch under a young Bob Dylan and fellow Greenwich Village folkies.

Mr. Lomax spent hours talking with pioneer Jelly Roll Morton about the origins of jazz. In the 1960s, he released a 10-disc series on folk songs of Great Britain. Even in the 1980s, he videotaped traditional folk performances for the PBS series "American Patchwork."

Throughout his life, he hardly sat still and constantly leapt from genre to genre, searching for music in its most emotional, and basic, forms.

The best way to honor him is to listen to the scratchy sounds of Leadbelly crooning "Goodnight, Irene." Or the bluesy holler of Muddy Waters on "I Can't Be Satisfied," an early version of which Mr. Lomax cut in the musician's living room.

If your ears agree with his, you'll know whom to thank.


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