- Folk Song U.S.A. (1947)
- Our Singing County (1941)
- Negro Songs as Sung by Lead Belly(1936)
- American Ballads and Folk Songs(1934)
- Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp (1919) republished: 1927 & 1931
- Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910)
By Larry Crowell (SHS)
John Avery Lomax, a folklorist, was born in Goodman, Mississippi, on September 23, 1867. In August 1869 his parents set out for Texas in two covered wagons. They arrived in Bosque County before Christmas and settled on a farm above Meridian. As a young boy, Lomax learned to do farm work and attended short terms of school between crops. He lived on a branch of the Chisholm Trail, where he was exposed to many cowboys ballads and other folk songs. Before he was twenty, he began to write some of them down.
After teaching in rural schools for a few years, Lomax entered the University of Texas in 1895, specializing in English literature. After graduation, he worked at the University of Texas as registrar, manager of Brackenridge Hall (the men’s dormitory on campus), and personal secretary to the president of the university. In 1903, he accepted an offer to teach English at Texas A&M University and settled down with his new wife, Bess Brown Lomax, to what promised to be a quiet life in the country.
Rural country living did not suit Lomax for long, however. In 1907, he jumped at the chance to attend Harvard University as a graduate student. Here he had the opportunity to study under Barrett Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge, two renowned scholars who actively encouraged his interest in cowboy songs. This experience changed the course of Lomax’s life and work. Both Wendell and Kittredge encouraged him to take up seriously the collection of western ballads he had begun earlier. He returned to Texas the following year, after earning a Masters of Arts degree to resume his teaching position at A&M. Encouraged by Wendell, he applied for and received a Sheldon grant to research and collect cowboy songs. The resulting collection, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, was published in 1910 to critical and popular acclaim.
Later on, following Kittredge’s suggestion that Lomax establish a Texas branch of the American Folklore Society, Lomax and Professor Leonidas Payne of the University of Texas cofounded the Texas Folklore Society. Lomax later became the president of the American Folklore Society. In June 1910, Lomax accepted an administrative job at the University of Texas. Throughout the next seven years, he continued his research, and also undertook lecture tours. All this came to an end in 1917 when Lomax was fired along with six other faculty members as the result of a political battle between Governor James Ferguson and the university president, Dr. R.E. Vinson. His academic career in ruins, Lomax moved to Chicago to accept a job as a banker. Shortly afterwards, Ferguson was impeached and the Board of Regents withdrew its dismissal of the faculty, but Lomax did not return to his former job. Instead, he divided the next fifteen years between banking and working with various University of Texas alumni groups. During that time, he did minimal song research and without ready access to a major library most of the research he did do was through correspondence.
Lomax’s first wife died on May 8, 1931, and on July 21, 1834 he married Ruby R. Terrill.
Lomax traveled 200,000 miles and visited all but one of the states in search of folk songs. He visited prisons to record on phonograph disks the work songs, reels, ballads, blues, and spirituals of black inmates. Lomax often recorded in prisons in the hopes of finding an isolated music culture “untouched” by the modern world. Lomax did not only record those imprisoned. For example, at the Angola prison farm in Louisiana, Lomax encountered a talented black musician by the name of Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter. When Leadbelly was released form prison, Lomax took him on a tour in the north and recorded many of his songs.
In 1919 Lomax published Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp. It was republished in 1927 and 1931. He edited other collections: American Ballads and Folk Songs in 1934, Negro Songs as Sung by Leadbelly in 1936, Our Signing County in 1942, and Folk Song: U.S.A. in 1947. Also in 1947 his autobiographical Adventures of a Ballad Hunter was awarded the Carr P. Collins prize as the best Texas book of the year by the Texas Institute of Letters.
Beginning in 1933 Lomax was honorary curator of the Archive of Folk song at the Library of Congress, which he helped establish as the primary agency for preservation of American folk songs and culture. During this time American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934) and Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936) were written and complied by John A. Lomax, Alan’s son, and Alan Lomax.
Lomax died in Greenville, Mississippi, on January 26, 1948.
- 1867 September 23 – born in Goodman, Mississippi
- 1869 – moved to Basque County, Texas – lived on the Chisholm Trail
- 1895 – enrolled at the University of Texas
- 1903 – taught English at Texas A&M University and settled down with his wife, Bess Brown Lomax
- 1907 – attended Harvard University as a graduate
- 1910 – published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads
- 1910 June – accepted administrative job at the University of Texas
- 1917 – fired from his job because of the political battle between Governor James Ferguson and the university president, Dr. R.E. Vinson – shortly afterwards the decision was withdrawn
- 1919 – published Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp
- 1931 May 8 – Lomax’s wife Bess Brown died
- 1933 – he became the honorary curator of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress
- 1934 – published Adventures of a Ballad Hunter
- 1934 July 21 – Lomax remarried to Ruby R. Terrill
- 1936 – edited Negro Songs as Sung by Leadbelly
- 1943 – edited American ballads and Folk Songs
- 1942 – edited Our Singing Country
- 1947 – edited Folk Song: U.S.A.
- 1947 – his autobiographical Adventures of A Ballad Hunter was awarded the Carr P. Collins prize as the best book
of the year by the Texas Institute of Letters
- 1948 January 26 – died in Greenville, Mississippi
by Larry Crowell (SHS)
When young John Lomax of Texas set off for college, he carried at the bottom of his trunk a small roll of cowboy songs. Several years later he summoned up courage to show them to one of his professors who advised him that frontier literature was cheap and unworthy, and that he had better devote himself to great literature. Luckily for Americans, he disregarded this advice and set out instead on a life of ballad collecting.
Adventures of a Ballad Hunter is John Lomax’s story of his life. And because of the kind of life he has lived, it is the story of not one, but many Americans: of cowboys crooning to their dogies; of the last of the Ohio Canal Captains; of blind old Emma Dusenberry singing of knights in golden armor; of Henry Truvillion, head track layer, who kept his men moving by his songs and calls; of Sin-Killer Griffin’s memorable Calvary sermon in the Texas Penitentiary; of Lead Belly and Iron Head and Clear Rock; of saloons and dances; of camp meetings and burials and baptizing.
John Lomax spent many years of travel up and down the land seeking the songs Americans sing. In his book, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, you will find the rich, full flavor of American speech, the color and feelings of the various regions of our country, the independence and strength of its people, and story after fascinating story of their lives.
- Excellent biography of Lomax plus photos can be found here.
- Last Cavalier : The Life and Times of John A. Lomax, 1867-1948(Folklore and Society) by Nolan Porterfield tells the story of Lomax. Reviews are found here.
- Library of Congress home page for John A. Lomax.
- Adventures of a Ballad Hunter by John A. Lomax is now out of print.
- The Handbook of Texas online gives a biography of Lomax from the Dallas Morning News (1948).
- Reviews of American Ballads and Folk Songs by John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax.
- Southern Mosaic: John Avery Lomax (1867-1948). Lomax Home Page. John Avery Lomax (1867-1948) URL: memory.loc.gov/ammem/lohtml/lojohnbio.html
- Lomax JA Hood County Texas Genealogical Society. JOHN AVERY LOMAX. 1867 – 1948. Folklorist. By Wayne Gard. URL:www.granbury.com/~ancestor/z/biog/LomaxJA.htm