Folklorist, Ethnomusicologist, and Musician. He is remembered as one of the great American field collectors of 20th century folk music, with over ten thousand recordings for the Library of Congress and played a vital role in both the American and British folk revivals in the 1940s through the early 1960s. His father, also a folklorist and author, was a noted authority on Texas folklore and cowboy songs and a professor of English at the Texas Agriculture and Mechanical (A&M) University in College Station, Texas. He was home schooled at an early age due to health reasons. After attending the Terrill School for Boys in Dallas, Texas, he was enrolled at the Choate School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) in Wallingford, Connecticut, graduating in 1930 at the age of 15. He enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin and the following year he entered Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1932 he dropped out of Harvard due to finances along with the death of his mother, and accompanied his father on his folk song collecting field trips for the Library of Congress. During this time he co-authored "American Ballads and Folk Songs" (1935) and "Negro Songs as Sung by Lead Belly" (1936). He eventually went back to the University of Texas and finished his Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy in 1936. In 1939 he hosted a series on CBS's nationally broadcast "American School of the Air," called "American Folk Songs and Wellsprings of Music," where he would sing and present other noted performers of the time, including Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Josh White, and the Golden Gate Quartet. The individual programs had a far-reaching audience in the United States, Canada, Alaska, and Hawaii, but he soon concluded the show's concept did not do justice to the vernacular culture of folk music. In 1940, under his direction, RCA produced two groundbreaking suites of commercial folk music recordings, which were Woody Guthrie's "Dust Bowl Ballads" and Lead Belly's "Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs." Also in that same year, he and a close friend, Nicholas Ray, wrote and produced a fifteen-minute program, "Back Where I Come From," which aired three nights a week on CBS with a racially integrated cast of musicians and speakers. Despite its success and high visibility, the program never was able to secure a commercial sponsor and it ran for only 21 weeks before being cancelled in February 1941. From 1937 to 1942 he was the Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Songs of the Library of Congress, continuing to collect independently when Federal funding for the program was eliminated in 1943. He also recorded numerous interviews with many legendary folk and jazz musicians, to include Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, and Jelly Roll Morton and initiated some of the very first "man-on-the-street" radio interviews of ordinary citizens. He served in the US Army during World War II, producing and hosted a number of radio programs in support of the war effort. After World War II, he produced a highly regarded series of commercial folk music albums for Decca Records and organized concerts at New York City's Town Hall and Carnegie Hall that featured blues, calypso, and flamenco music. In 1949 he hosted the radio show "Your Ballad Man" that was broadcast nationwide on the Mutual Radio Network which featured a wide spectrum of music. In 1950 he was one of many in the entertainment industry who were singled out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as being sympathetic to Communism (he was repeatedly investigated and interviewed by the FBI from 1942 to 1979 and nothing incriminating was ever found), and in September of that year he relocated to London, England, to avoid the distraction. While in London, he edited the 18-volume "Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music," a anthology of music recorded from his visits to different European countries. In 1959 he returned to the United States and produced a concert, Folksong '59, at Carnegie Hall that included for the first time rock and roll and bluegrass musicians performed on the Carnegie Hall Stage. Later that year he began a folk song collecting trip to the Southern states, which were issued under the title "Sounds of the South," some of which were featured in the Coen brothers' 2000 comedy film "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou." In 1977 he was a consultant to Carl Sagan for the Voyager Golden Record sent into space aboard the Voyager Spacecraft, to represent a broad spectrum of music from all cultures of the world. During the 1970s and 1980s he was an advisor to the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Festival and produced a series of films about folk music called "American Patchwork," which aired on PBS in 1991. In 1983 he founded The Association for Cultural Equality, located at the Fine Arts Campus of Hunter's College in New York City, New York, which was designed to facilitate cultural equality, practice cultural feedback, and to preserve, publish, repatriate, and freely disseminate its collections. In 1986 he was the recipient of the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Regan and in 2000 he received a Library of Congress Living Legend Award. In 1993 he won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award for his memoir "The Land Where the Blues Began" (1995), which connected the story of the origins of blues music with the prevalence of forced labor in the pre-World War II American South. In 2001 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy from Tulane University and in 2003 he received a posthumous Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements. His "Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax" won in two categories at the 48th annual Grammy Awards in 2006. He died at the age of 87.
Bio by: William Bjornstad