‘Lomax the Songhunter’—Capturing Old Songs Before They Become Extinct

Alan Lomax “the song hunter” dedicated his life to collecting the world’s folk tunes before they permanently disappeared.

He traveled extensively to different corners of the world to record unique sounds and songs of indigenous people whose paths he crossed.

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Documentary film title. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Had it not been for his passion in collecting, preserving, and sharing these songs with the world, they may have just disappeared forever. Sadly, he passed away in 2002.

His father, John Lomax, famously traveled the south with a field recorder back in the 1930’s, discovering Lead Belly and introducing Woody Guthrie to the world. Alan shared his father’s enthusiasm for music and was not intimidated by the large scope of his accomplishments.

A young Alan Lomax. (Screenshot/YouTube)

A young Alan Lomax. (Screenshot/YouTube)

One year prior to the death of Alan Lomax, documentary filmmakers Adri Schrover and Rogier Kappers decided to make a film about him titled Lomax the Songhunter.

The filmmakers hit a complication very early on after Lomax suffered a brain hemorrhage and was unable to speak. Lomax was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge when it came to music, so it was quite a shock that this now seemed trapped inside him.

Part of the film consists of time spent with Lomax as he listens to questions and seems to understand. With a smile on his face he struggles, unable to speak back. Many found this footage of Lomax too confronting and the film was criticized for this. From my perspective, I didn’t mind it as it is a reality of life. I could see how my view could change on this with time though—perhaps it is a more sensitive topic for a slightly older demographic. Lomax’s daughter also is interviewed and we learn of the often strained relationship.

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Magnecord reel-to-reel tape recorder. (Screenshot/YouTube)

The filmmakers hit the road following the footsteps of Lomax. They re-visit many of the shepherds, farmers, housewives, laborers, and weavers whose sounds he recorded decades before. They end up in remote Spanish and Italian villages and isolated Scottish Islands. We hear memories and music. The film is intercut with footage of Lomax’s colleagues as they all reminisce about the man that was “the songhunter.”

Also worth noting in the film are archival recordings of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, footage of the cotton fields, rock quarries, and prisons where Alan Lomax captured America’s music.

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Adri Schrover and Rogier Kappers on a journey to re-visit who Lomax recorded decades earlier. (Screenshot/YouTube)

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Peter Kennedy with footage of Portland ‘quarrymen’s work songs’ recorded by him and Lomax.  (Screenshot/YouTube)

Alan Lomax. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Alan Lomax in 1991 CBS interview. (Screenshot/YouTube)

At the end of the film, we hear a 1991 CBS interview with Lomax. Here is a memorable quote from it:

“I think our job is to represent all the submerged cultures in the world. I mean, you and your CBS and all the big amusement industries represent a way of silencing everybody. Communication was supposed to be two way, but it turned out to be basically one way. From those people who can afford to own a transmitter which costs a few million dollars to a little guy who can afford to own a receiver that costs a few bucks.

“So there are millions of receivers and people at the other end, and only a few transmitters. I think that is one of the major—if not the major human problem now. Because everybody is off the air.”

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Shepherd songs. (Screenshot/YouTube)

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Rural village in Italy. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Alan Lomax was an incredible man in his field of work, as were the people and songs that he recorded.

So if you do like what you hear, it is well worth more research into the people he recorded; you can take a look and listen here. I would need a lot more than one article to cover these gems.

You can watch Lomax the Songhunter documentary quite cheaply here.

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