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JOHN A. LOMAX - Adventures Of A Ballad Hunter

JOHN A. LOMAX - Adventures Of A Ballad Hunter
Souvenir Press ISBN: 9780285644137

First published in 1947 and now reprinted in a 70th anniversary paperback edition, Adventures Of A Ballad Hunter is the vibrant memoir of pioneer American folksong collector John Avery Lomax (1867-1948). Back in 1908, galvanised by the enthusiastic exhortations of George Lymon Kittredge (his teacher at Harvard), John Lomax set out on horseback armed with an Edison phonograph and wax cylinders, on a mission to record and preserve America’s folk music. His initial interest in cowboy songs was swiftly extended to all manner of indigenous musics from mountain ballads to work songs, children’s songs to spirituals, fiddle tunes to blues; in other words, exemplifying and celebrating the sheer inclusiveness of American culture. Lomax’s odyssey was to continue intermittently over a span of almost four decades, and from the early 1930s he was accompanied and assisted by his second son Alan (who was to continue and expand the pioneering work in the ensuing decades). Field recordings made by the Lomaxes were deposited in the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress, and many have since been commercially released on useful CD anthologies such as American Folk-Blues Train and Rounder’s Deep River Of Song series, as well as digitally and via the Global Jukebox project.

John Lomax’s memoir proves compulsive reading. It strikes a readable balance between being helpfully factual and cheerfully anecdotal, and is written in a lively style that puts the reader right there in the field with him. It contains priceless first-hand accounts of encounters with many of the singers and musicians from whom the songs were collected, including treasurable episodes such as the “discovery” of Lead Belly during a visit to a Texan prison farm and the Damascene moment of hearing the spiritual Honey In The Rock at a South Carolina funeral home. The text is liberally spiced with duly contextual extracts from the song lyrics (a latter-day digital edition might well have included links to relevant sound clips).

Part-autobiography, part-travelogue, part-adventure-yarn, part-philosophical-treatise, but wholly engaging on all counts, Adventures Of A Ballad Hunter is an essential artefact of American folk culture.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 124 of The Living Tradition magazine.