Many of our most cherished cowboy songs like "Home on the Range", "The Old Chisholm Trail" and "Sweet Betsy From Pike", might have been lost forever if not for John Avery Lomax's tireless collecting. It is fitting the the Western Music Association bestow this honor on my grandfather now for 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of his trailblazing work, Cowboy Songs, later re-titled Cowboy Songs And Other Frontier Ballads.
Rather than expostulate upon the value of this slim volume myself, here's one of our most famous cowboys, Theodore Roosevelt, whose handwritten comments constitute the book's foreword and begin thusly:
"You have done a work emphatically worth doing and one which should appeal to the people of all our country but particularly to its people of the west and southwest. Your subject is not only exceedingly interesting to the student of literature, but also to the student of the general history of the west." . . .
Lomax's book also presented us with numerous other treasured songs, some examples being:
•Days of '49 •Jack o' Diamonds•Jessie James
•The Buffalo Skinners •Little Joe The Wrangler
•The Dying Cowboy •Hell in Texas •The Zebra Dun
Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp followed in 1919, then, with his younger son, Alan, American Ballads and Folk Songs and revised, enlarged editions of the initial work, Cowboy Songs. Altogether, John's books have presented, preserved and promoted thousands of songs which weave the fabric of our cultural existence.
Born in 1867 in Goodman, Mississippi, John and his family traveled west in a covered wagon in 1869, part of the post-Civil War migration. The family settled on Bosque river bottomland, outside Meridian, Texas, smack dab in the middle of what soon became the Chisholm Trail.
As he lay abed at night, young John could hear the cowboys singing to quiet their herds. Soon he began slipping from the house to hang out with the cowboys and hear their songs. He began memorizing the words while still a teenager, later developing a method of melodic notation though he had no formal music training. Little did he know that this secret passion would become his life's work and bring joy to millions!
The bulk of his collecting work was done prior to World War II. In his autobiography, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, Lomax estimates his travels encompassed 47 of the then 48 states. His earlier trips were undertaken on horseback, lugging the then state of the art recording gear -- a huge horn shaped receiver attached to a hand cranked phonograph machine.
The 1933 trip alone, a venture my father, John Avery Lomax Jr. planned and led, with Alan joining in, covered over 25,000 miles, all on rudimentary roads, with a 390 pound recording machine built into the trunk. There weren't any motels, so they pitched camp and slept on the ground most nights, preparing their meals around a campfire, just like the cowboys and other vagabonds whose songs they sought.
These are but a few insights into the character, dedication and achievements of John Avery Lomax. Those wishing to learn more are directed to Nolan Porterfield's excellent biography, Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax as well as the books mentioned in this essay. Savvy Internet users can find a short bio at Wikipedia and lots of Lomax information at www.culturalequity.org.
- John Lomax III
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