'The Unearthed Treasures Of The Lomax Recordings' Panel

Live Shots: South by Southwest 2001

River High, Mountain Deep
Photo By Gary Miller

'The Unearthed Treasures Of The Lomax Recordings' Panel

Austin Convention Center, Friday, March 16

Together with the legendary work of his father, John, Alan Lomax's prolific 62-year career ensures the name "Lomax" will forever be brought up quickly in most any conversation on the subject of field recordings. Born in Austin on January 15, 1915, Alan Lomax recorded and produced more than 100 recordings of folk music in the U.S., the Caribbean, England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, and Spain from 1933 until his debilitating stroke in 1995. Despite interference from racist authorities in the southern U.S. and the fascist Franco regime in Spain, Lomax had a knack for going into dispossessed communities and quickly finding the most talented people (e.g., Son House, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell) singing the best songs. Recent proof of his work's resilience can be heard on Moby's Play and on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, both of which succeed artistically and commercially by recasting timeless Lomax field recordings in a new context. Friday's South by Southwest panel at the Convention Center sought to shed light on the philosophies that directed Lomax's work, beginning with Rounder Records director and panel moderator Bill Nowlin revealing that Lomax was a very busy man, always moving on to the next project. "One of the first things we did when we started Rounder in 1972 was contact Alan Lomax," he said. "We had some good talks, but nothing really eventuated from it." The fact that Rounder didn't reach an agreement on releasing the Lomax recordings until the mid-Nineties is due in large part to Lomax's unceasing work schedule. Rounder is now in the process of releasing The Alan Lomax Collection, a massive undertaking that will eventually span 150 albums. Lomax's daughter, Anna Lomax Chairetakis, said he had a "sensitive appreciation for vernacular poetry and a sense of music as performance." Though Lomax was concerned that the proliferation of mass media could eventually lead to "cultural grayout," he embraced new technologies, from 400-pound recording equipment he used in the Thirties to multimedia in the Nineties. "He saw the importance of opening up the recording medium to the grass roots," said Chairetakis. The first question to the panel concerned the issue of artist compensation, a task easier talked on a panel than done, given the wealth of material concerned. Rounder, for its part, has established an artist's pool, and Chairetakis also mentioning the possibility of reinvesting some proceeds from the Lomax collection in the communities where the recordings took place. "I'd be concerned if Moby didn't try to give back in some way," commented producer Jeffery Greenberg. "Nevertheless, transfer of cultural information is something all societies have to deal with." Indeed it is. In any case, the issue of compensation would be nullified if not for the tireless work of Lomax to study and preserve the world's musical heritage. As Dean Blackwood of Austin's Revenant Records so eloquently put it, "You listen to this stuff and you feel like you're listening to something close to the primordial goo."

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