Alan Lomax, the musicologist who unearthed musical styles the world over, discovering blues and folk musicians and presenting them to national audiences, died Friday at his Florida home. He was 87.
Dubbed the “father of the American folk song revival,” he first presented Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Burl Ives and Pete Seeger to a national audience on his radio programs in the 1930s and ’40s.
As a radio producer and field recordist at the BBC, he sparked a British folk song revival that soon fueled the British pop-rock invasion. He also assembled the first recorded overview of world folk songs for Columbia Records, made the first recordings of blues legend Muddy Waters and created an oral history with Leadbelly.
The musician Moby sampled several of Lomax’s recordings for his 1999 album “Play,” a multimillion-seller that merged old blues and spirituals with electronic music.
Two songs from the Lomax Collection, “Po Lazarus” and “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby,” appear on the multimillion-selling Grammy-winning “O Brother, Where Art Thou” film soundtrack. And his book on New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton served as the basis of two Broadway musicals.
Born in Austin, Texas, he worked with his father, the folklorist John Avery Lomax, and by 1933, the duo had launched a major effort to develop the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress.
They produced thousands of field recordings of folk musicians throughout the American South, Southwest, Midwest, and Northeast, as well as in Haiti and the Bahamas.
The Lomaxes published several influential collections of American folk songs, beginning with 1934’s “American Ballads and Folk Songs” and “Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly” in 1936.
In 1960, Lomax published “Folk Songs of North America” and his 1993 work, “The Land Where the Blues Began,” won several book awards.
Lomax was appointed director of the archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, and by 1939, in addition to graduate anthropology work at Columbia — he earned a philosophy degree at U. of Texas — he produced the first in a series of national radio programs for CBS. His primetime series “Back Where I Come From” introduced listeners to artists such as Guthrie and Leadbelly, and from there he built an industry by creating books, records, broadcasts and concert series, including “The Midnight Special” at New York’s Town Hall.
Several 1940s field trips took Lomax deep into the musical and cultural world of the black American South. In Mississippi, he was the first to record hill country fife-and-drum music and, in 1942, the 29-year-old singer and guitarist McKinley Morganfield, who would later go by the name of Muddy Waters.
Lomax’s 1946 recording of music and talk by the blues musicians Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson, remains a classic recorded document of black musical history.
In the 1950s, Lomax recorded folk surveys of European musicians, and he began an overview of world folk song that would be published in 18 volumes by Columbia Records. At Columbia in the 1960s, Lomax developed systems designed for a cross-cultural analysis of song, speech, dance and movement styles.
Lomax made a film, “The Longest Trail,” in 1986 about the Amerindians of North and South America. He also made a miniseries for PBS, “American Patchwork.” In the 1990s, Rounder Records began reissuing many of his recordings.
Lomax is survived by his daughter, a sister, grandson and others.
Services will be held Tuesday in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Donations can be made to the Blues Music Foundation for the Willie Moore Fund c/o Experience Music Project, 2901 Third Ave.,
Seattle, WA 98121.