Alan Lomax, musicologist, was born in Austin on January 31, 1915, the son of Bess (Brown) and John Avery Lomax. He attended the Choate School in Connecticut and spent a year at Harvard University, but enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin and graduated in 1936 with a philosophy degree. He married Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold the following year.
He pursued graduate studies in anthropology at Columbia University in 1939 but proved better suited to life on the road than in academia. His father, one of the founders of the Texas Folklore Society, had begun recording cowboy songs as a youth, and in 1933 Alan made his first trip as his father's traveling assistant, helping lug a 350-pound "portable" recording machine through the South and West. In Angola, Louisiana, the Lomaxes discovered and recorded a prisoner named Huddie Ledbetter, who became better known by his nickname, Lead Belly. Alan Lomax also interviewed the New Orleans jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton in 1938; the resulting book, Mister Jelly Roll (1950), is considered a classic work on jazz. In the early 1940s Lomax also made pioneering recordings of two other giants of American music: folk singer Woody Guthrie and blues singer McKinley Morganfield, who became better known as Muddy Waters.
The Lomaxes collaborated on several influential publications, including American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934), Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936), Cowboy Songs (1937), Our Singing Country (1938), and Folk Song: USA (1946). The senior Lomax became curator of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, and Alan joined him as assistant director in 1937. By the end of the 1930s, the two had recorded more than 3,000 songs.
In 1939 Alan Lomax began a weekly program on CBS radio's American School of the Air and then became the host of his own show, Back Where I Come From. In 1948 he hosted On Top of Old Smokey on the Mutual Broadcasting System and performed with Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson in support of Henry A. Wallace's unsuccessful presidential campaign.
In 1950, as his leftist political views became increasingly unpopular at home, Lomax moved to England. His fieldwork there helped inspire the skiffle craze of the late 1950s, which heavily influenced such British rock-and-roll groups as the Beatles. His recordings of British folk music were released as a ten-album set in 1961. He also made extensive field recordings of folk music in Spain and Italy that were issued in the eighteen-volume Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music (1955).
By the time Lomax returned to the United States in 1957 the folk music revival was in full swing. His book The Folk Songs of North America was published in 1960, and he became a consultant to the annual Newport Folk Festival. He remained true to his leftist convictions, finally publishing Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, originally compiled in the 1940s with his friends Guthrie and Seeger, in 1967. Despite his political views, however, Lomax was a musical conservative who had little use for such hybrid forms as folk-rock. In 1965, when the electrically-amplified Paul Butterfield Blues Band performed at Newport, an outraged Lomax got into a fistfight with Bob Dylan's manager.
In 1962 he became a research associate at the Columbia University anthropology department and Center for the Social Sciences. He stayed at Columbia until 1989, when he moved to Hunter College and began developing the Global Jukebox, an interactive multimedia software program surveying the relationship between music, dance, and social structure. Lomax also became a champion of the notion of "cultural equity," a term he coined, which advocates making modern media technology available to traditional, local cultures. The Association for Cultural Equity, located at Hunter College, maintains the Alan Lomax Archive and organizes workshops and symposia.
Lomax wrote, directed, and produced the documentary film The Land Where the Blues Began (1985) and American Patchwork, a five-part series shown on the Public Broadcasting System in 1990. He was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 1986. In 1993 his book of memoirs, also called The Land Where the Blues Began, won a National Book Award. His recording of a Mississippi prisoner named James Carter singing a work song called "Po' Lazarus" was featured on the Grammy Award–winning soundtrack of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax, an eight-CD boxed set released on Rounder Records, won two Grammy awards in 2006.
Lomax retired in 1996 and moved to Florida. He died at Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor on July 19, 2002, and was survived by a daughter and stepdaughter. A documentary film, Lomax the Songhunter (2004), was released on DVD in 2007 and nominated for an Emmy Award.