John Lomax

“My grandfather travelled around the country and lived with the cowboys”

Interview with John Lomax III, musicologist
© Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly.

On a sunny day in late September 2013, I met with John Lomax III, grandson of America’s legendary musicologist John Lomax. Lomax III is a renowned music writer and collector himself. He runs also an international mail order service, specializing in country, Americana and folk music records. We sat on a bench in front of the Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville and recorded this interview.

Hi, John, thanks for your time! Tell me, what made your grandfather collect all these folk songs?

He travelled around the country and lived with the cowboys. He sat around the campfire and listened to their songs. At some point he decided to write down the words. He didn’t know music. He developed a system of notation for the melodies. Eventually he got a recording machine, one of those big things with a horn. And he carried it around the back of his horse. Later he and his son Alan had the recorder build in in the back of their automobile. It weight about 400 pounds. So they had a studio in the car!

Did he go to college?

Yes, in the 1980s he went to college. He attempted to continue to collect folk songs, but his professors at the University of Texas didn’t agree. They told him that it was not worth it to study the music of the common people, but the classical or religious one. He didn’t agree with that, of course. He found a gentleman, the preeminent English scholar in the US, a professor at Harvard who was willing to help. He told my grandfather that what he was doing was absolutely valuable and he helped him to get Tin Pan funding.

When did he write his first book?

His first book came out in 1910, called “Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.” That book had most of the cowboy songs that we still sing today. He collected songs from 47 states. His later books had a broader musical palate. He collected songs in prisons. He recorded blues and that’s how he found Lead Belly in Louisiana.

How did he have money for all these trips?

It was mostly his own. Then he began giving lectures. They put him up and paid him something.

Are you a song collector as well?

No, I collect other things. I have about 8000 vinyl albums, a few thousand singles, about 15 000 black and white photographs of musicians (promo pictures). Plus I have written 3 books, hundreds of magazine articles.

What are your books about?

One is called “Nashville Music City USA” and it came out in 1986. Prior to that, I did the “The Townes Van Zandt Songbook”. In 2001 I did one called “Red Desert Sky”, it is about Kasey Chambers and her family.

What is your background?

I have a degree in history and library science from the University of Texas in Austin. During my studies I listened to a lot of music and hung out with musicians. I decided that I should find a way to continue to do it and be able to afford it. So I started to write. It was around 1966 when I had my first articles published. And I have been doing it ever since – not only for magazines here, but also in England and Australia. It was never my main source of income, but I love doing it.

You have a CD distribution company. Will they eventually disappear?

Yes, but people still buy them. They want to read the information from the booklet. MP3s were created for spoken word, not for music. It is a shame to compress the sound and diminish the quality of it. I found it very disturbing. But people are willing to trade quality for convenience. They want to carry around 8000 records and listen to them, on computers, on their phones. That’s where the world is going.

It was very nice meeting you John; I wish you all the best!

Lilly Drumeva