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Monday, July 19, 2010

Family associations - Alan Lomax, Sam Hinton, Pete Seeger































One of the many reasons I remain in love with Austin is because it contains so many amazing relics of Texas cultural history. I find it extra fortuitous that one of my years-long obsessions, the Lomax family, has such an entwined history with the town I love. On Saturday I drove over to the Center for American History at UT, so I could spend some time with the John A. Lomax Family Papers, which are archived there. I don't know how it had escaped me that they have such a great collection here. I suppose I figured that the Library of Congress has everything cool that I'll ever want to write about. But do I live on the East Coast? Nope. Luckily, Texas has enough to keep me happy.


I've been writing a term research paper for one of my history classes; about the history of the cowboy ballad and its place in the development of a folkloric America. It's a basic research paper...not too detailed and only ten pages long. In it I interlace the history of song collection as an early 20th century fascination and tie the collection process itself in with the development of frontier songs, folk ballads and the braggadocio-laden "tall tale" tradition of the American cowboy.


Naturally, as with most music for which I find myself most entranced, I found that the work of John A. Lomax and his son, Alan Lomax, is the hub of this particular cultural wagon wheel (one with many, many spokes). In my paper I used "American Ballads and Folk Songs" by both John and Alan, as well as John Lomax's 1947 personal memoir "Adventures of a Ballad Hunter," to provide good primary sources for both the songs and their systematic documentation.


History by its very definition always an extremely subjective study...and the Lomaxes intentionally (and sometimes inadvertently) shaped our country's musical history with their work. I find their documentation processes compelling, especially when compared to that of my uncle Sam's autobiography, where he outlays his own kind of systematic and scientific approach to both documentation of vaudeville and folk music cultures, and also of biological species that he encountered during his lifetime. What a fount of information, and all just waiting for me to tie it in!



Although the paper is already written and I don't intend to use the John A. Lomax Family Papers as direct source material for said paper, it doesn't really matter. That's just one paper, which doesn't compare to almost fifteen years of intense personal curiosity about the Lomaxes. I had to ask to see some of those boxes.


So here is what I discovered in the Center for American History archives on Saturday:


There are countless (COUNTLESS) handwritten notes by John A. Lomax (whose handwriting is slanted near beyond legibility!) and other individuals. On the back of almost all of these thin, yellowed pages are written the names of the people who contributed the song. Fascinating!


I happily unearthed several drafts of "Adventures of a Ballad Hunter", from roughly-scratched-on paper in that slanty writing to typewritten and proofread pages from the final manuscript. I loved finding out the things that were scratched out and never made it into the book that I so love.


I also found a funny little note from 1944 in which John asked his son Alan for feedback on his draft. See the picture!!!


"Dear Alan: Do you think the enclosed can be made to do for an introduction. Look it over and speak your mind. - Father"


- to which another handwritten note by his (obviously hipper) son, replied:


"This is swell - a little sententious toward the end."


Awesome.


It made me tear up at the obvious mutual respect they had for one another. It made me wish my dad were still living so he could look MY stuff over. God only knows he would love what I'm doing now.


Let's see - what else did I find out? I found out that Alan Lomax had between one and three young women writing to him over a period of ten years (for most of which he was married to Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold). He had a couple of other wives and loves over the years (Shirley Collins being one of them), but none were noted in the signature lines of the letters that *I* read that day.


I was just sort of leafing through everything, trying to keep a snappier pace because there was so damned MUCH of everything and the CAH closed at 2pm. But when I opened Alan's folders and I saw a yellowed paper with a first line that scrawled, "Alan - I got your heartless letter today"...whoa! What?


I found myself embroiled in the seperate dramas of a woman named Faith and a woman named Mishka (although I was writhing with guilty curiosity for a while since the first few of Mishka's letters looked like they were signed "Mike"). The letters were all about their love and admiration for Alan and his having fallen in love with other people...among other anecdotes from which I might gleen some further interesting facts, at a later date. It was rather like seeing an archaic paper episode of "Jerry Springer" - I don't particularly enjoy watching it unfold, but it's too engrossing to ignore!


Another thing which I didn't know (although I should have!) was that John Lomax was good friends and a colleague of Charles and Ruth Seeger, who were also music and cultural historians of the era. What's interesting is that they were in turn the parents of Pete Seeger (and no doubt the source of his starting repertoire).


What's even more interesting is that I had dinner with Pete Seeger when I was a teeneager, because my uncle Sam Hinton was playing a multiple-act folk music bill in Kansas City with Pete Seeger. I know they were lifelong friends. I also know that Alan and Pete knew each other all their lives on account of their parents' friendship, and I knew that Alan and Sam also had a friendship hearkening back almost to when Sam lived in Texas in the 30s (although I think they met after that, in the early to mid 1940s). I talked with Sam after Alan died in 2002, just to see how he was doing. He missed his friend, of course.


I would find it enjoyable and incalculably rewarding to research and write an extensive piece on the history/dynamics of the lives and friendship of Sam Hinton, Alan Lomax and Peter Seeger, who shared a lifelong love of music and folklore and maintained personal and professional associations with one another for almost 50 years. Along with, of course, the help of many sources including the Lomax Family Papers, Sam's autobiography, and Adam Miller's biography (which I have yet to obtain).


I also skimmed over some very lengthy letters from Woody Guthrie to Alan, which also warrant closer scrutiny in the future.


I am so thankful to my father and my father's family for teaching me about Sam and his legacy (and my grandfather Jon Gnagy's too), and for passing on to me a passionate love for history, culture, education and music. I also thank the the powers that be that I now live in a town that enables me t0 drive only 12 minutes to find a dusty, crumbling wealth of information in 40+ closely guarded boxes of papers and photographs that I can touch, smell, and learn from.

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