Excerpt from [Ghost Notes] Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music by Michael Corcoran
Though Austin’s reputation as a music hub was established in the ‘70s, with the Armadillo World Headquarters and the “progressive country” scene, the town’s time of tuneful prominence goes back to 1910, when John A. Lomax created a national fascination for the Western motif with Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. Austin couple Henry and Virginia Lebermann transcribed the words and music, including “Home On the Range” from a black barkeep in San Antonio, from primitive wax cylinder recordings that have long since disintegrated.
With a growing family to support, Lomax moved onto other pursuits in the 1920s and was working for a bank in Dallas that collapsed soon after the 1929 stock market crash. The depression got worse when wife Bess died in 1931, leaving him with two school-age children to raise. Alan was 16, Bess was nine.
Oldest son John Jr. encouraged his father, then 65, to get back into “ballad hunting,” a passion born from the cowboy songs Lomax heard growing up on a ranch in Bosque County, about 40 miles north of Waco. In 1933, John started collecting songs for the Library of Congress and was named the head curator of its Archive of American Folk Songs. Son Alan, 18, shared his passion for cultural preservation.
The next year, John Sr. married Ruby Terrill, the dean of women students at UT. But just a few days later, John and Alan were on the road from Austin, getting permission to collect songs at the Clemmons Prison Farm outside Brazoria and state penitentiaries at Huntsville and Richmond. They kept going to Louisiana State Penn in Angola, where they recorded a prisoner nicknamed “Lead Belly,” who sang them a song he called “Goodnight Irene.”
The summer of ’34 in Louisiana was a major juncture in Alan Lomax’s life, as he wrote that he “had my first glass of wine, my first shrimp creole, my first full-blown love affair and made my first independent field recordings.” For part of the sojourn he was joined by his girlfriend Becky Machanofsky, a Russian-born Jewish social worker- and avowed Communist- he met in Austin. Becky urged Alan to break free from his father and move with her to Brooklyn. They soon split up.
The Library of Congress provided the Lomaxes with a 350-lb recording machine, which fit into the family’s Ford after the back seats were removed. Superior to the old wax cylinder recorders John Lomax used to collect trail songs in the early 1900s, the new machine cut grooves onto a disk as the songs were sung, giving the singers a thrill when Lomax played back the record they’d just made. “Man, that boy can sing the blues!” Muddy Waters exclaimed in 1941, after his first-ever recording, helmed by Alan Lomax.
Some of the authentic folk songs the Lomaxes recorded and saved for future generations: “House of the Rising Sun” (AKA “Rising Son Blues”), “Frankie and Johnny,” “Streets of Laredo,” “Sloop John B,” “Git Along Lil’ Dogies” and “The Old Chisholm Trail.”
The Father of American Musicology, John Lomax died at age 81 in 1948 and was buried at Oakwood Cemetery in East Austin. Son Alan, who lived to be 87, was put in the ground next to his parents in 2002. Together and separately they recorded more than 15,000 songs of the commoner class. Many have been digitized and can be streamed from culturalequity.org.