By John Lomax III
John Avery Lomax, Jr., my father, was born at Seton Hospital in Austin, Texas, June 14, 1907, second child and first son of John Avery and Bess Bauman Brown Lomax. The family (older sister Shirley, younger brother Alan, and younger sister Bess) lived in a two-storey house on West 26th street, overlooking Shoal Creek, with a steep, wooded hillside just beyond the backyard. When John was three, his father, my grandfather, John A. Lomax, Sr., published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads and shortly thereafter he became one of the founders of the Texas branch of the American Folklore Society and was subsequently twice elected president of the American Folklore Society. He was widely sought after as a lecturer, and as children, my father and later Alan, sometimes accompanied him on lecture tours in different parts of the country. In 1917, the senior Lomax left his administrative job at the University of Texas and moved to Chicago, where he had taken a job as a bond salesman. Two years later, the family returned to Texas, when he began work at the Republic National Bank of Dallas.
My father's childhood was marred by illness, which weakened him but also made him determined to overcome his malady and pursue a physical fitness regime that became an integral part of his life. (Posture was a key part of this; I can still hear him telling me, "Head up, shoulders back!") He built himself up in much the way promised by Charles Atlas, whose ads in the back pages of comic books promised to turn a "weakling into a He-Man," growing to a hirsute six-foot one inches and weighing in at a muscular 180 - 190 pounds throughout his life.
He had demonstrated early business acumen by age eight by winning the grand prize in a contest selling subscriptions to the Saturday Evening Post, an endeavor that involved the entire family. This achievement attracted national publicity, as there had been some 50,000 entrants, mostly from larger cities. The prize was a thousand dollars in gold pieces (plus the $200 in sales commissions). He continued his subscription-selling business even after the Lomax family moved to Chicago. On their return to the Lone Star State, John launched a new venture selling “canned Texas sunshine” paper-shell pecans, enlisting other family members to pitch in, as they had during the magazine contest.
John Jr. graduated West High School at 12th & Rio Grande (Dallas) in 1924 and in 1928 earned an A.B. degree with cum laude distinction from University of Texas. He was accepted and began postgraduate work at Harvard Business School later that year, only to see the Depression put an end to his academic pursuits. He found a job at a bank in Corpus Christi, but this too evaporated when the bank failed. In 1931, his beloved mother, Bess Brown, died suddenly at age fifty, adding to a series of reverses for the family. John moved back to the family home (by then in Dallas, at 8170 San Benito Way, called the “house in the woods” due to its dense foliage) to console his father, who had collapsed in depression over the death of his wife and had lost his own job as well.
To raise his father's spirits, John Jr. urged him to embark on a new folksong collecting trip with a view to writing a second and more comprehensive folk song anthology, something the older man (then in his mid-60s) had long planned on doing. Taking over tasks formerly handled by his late mother, the young man organized the tour, handled the driving and helped in the marketing and sales (so to speak). He arranged for his father to speak with publishers and helped him negotiate with various archives about which would ultimately house the resultant recordings (they settled on the Library of Congress, although Harvard and the University of Texas were considered).
Thus, John, Jr. filled jobs that today would be described as those of booking agent, road manager, and merchandiser. The duo later picked up Alan in New York on a journey that eventually covered 25,000 miles. The travelers spent many nights in makeshift roadside camps, to save money. (Further details on John Jr.’s key roles in convincing his dad to undertake the trip and the journey itself can be found in Nolan Porterfield's Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996), a biography of John Sr.)
In 1932, John Jr. accepted a job as an auditor with the Federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation in Washington D.C. He spent his time examining banks during this most turbulent period, traveling throughout the country by train. It was on a train bound for Texas that father met my mother, Margaret "Mimi" Marable. A graduate of the Texas State College for Women (T.S.C.W.), now Texas Women's University, she was working at the time for the Servel Gas Company. It would be a gross understatement to say few women were engaged in traveling sales over seventy years ago. My mother's independence and feistiness of spirit doubtless attracted my dad. A friend described their meeting this way:
John was on his way home by train and his coach was all but empty. There was one pretty girl looking out of the window and, as there was a choice of seats, he chose one near her. They got to talking, and it turned out that she too was from Texas although now living in New York where she worked for the Servel Company. At that time, the Servel Company was a French firm which manufactured gas appliances of excellent quality. Although it was not her title, she was pretty much in charge of their advertising. Very creative, she wrote copy for their ads and had a hand in selecting where they would appear and, of course, followed up all the loose ends involved in production of an ad. All of the company executives were French and even she had a rather French-sounding name. John told her he was a Bank Examiner (which didn�t make much of an impression), and remarked that he was on his way home to Austin. She responded that the only positive thing she knew about Austin was that her father always said that there was only one man at the University of Texas worth his salt: John Avery Lomax. Her attitude suggested that this young man had probably never even heard of such a person. John drew himself up proudly and said, "My name is John Avery Lomax, Jr." The young lady's name was Margaret Marable, called Mimi by her family and friends. - Berry Horne, in the Cotton Patch Rag (newsletter of the Houston Folklore Society, Memorial Edition dedicated to John A. Lomax, Jr.), Vol. 10, Number 2 (February, 1975)
They were married on May 10, 1941, in a gala ceremony in the bride's hometown of Clarksville (the county seat of Red River County, Texas), population about 4,000, 130 miles northwest of Dallas. The Marables lived in a big, one-story wooden home at 800 West Main Street. Divided into a duplex, it had a wraparound porch in front and a concrete drainage culvert at the end of the back yard. Margaret's father, Ben Franklin Marable, of Scottish descent, was a grocer who worked for many years at the Piggly Wiggly just down the street. His wife, Agnes, who was confined to a wheelchair due to a broken hip, was an accomplished pianist and taught music from home. So it is not only from my father but from the maternal side of my family, as well, that that I believe I've inherited at least some of my musical bent.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, John enlisted in the U.S. Navy. At 34, he was regarded as too old for combat duty and was assigned to train recruits in fitness techniques, rising (somewhat unusually for an enlisted man) to the rank of Lieutenant, J.G. He served at Norfolk, Virginia, and at Sampson Navy Base, in Geneva, New York, where I was born, on August 20, 1944. At the time, he and Margaret used to spend a lot of their free time with friends south in Lodi, on the shores of Lake Seneca. Soon afterward he was transferred to a naval base in southern California and the family moved to Lodi, California, where they lived until his postwar honorable discharge.
After a brief stay at the "house in the woods" in Dallas, John and Margaret moved to Houston where they bought a house on a double lot at 6428 Vanderbilt, in a new postwar community called West University Place. A tiny "city-within-a-city," West University provided residents with water, fire and police services, and had its own elementary school. It was zoned almost exclusively residential - this in a city that had no zoning regulations and has few to this day.
John managed a bowling alley on Main Street for awhile - I think it was in what they now call Midtown near where the Delman Theater stood for so long, now roughly the location of the Continental Club. It was a time of big changes in the bowling alley world, when human pin spotters were being replaced by the mechanical system in use ever since. That part of Houston looked very different back in the 1940s before the Southwest Freeway was completed in 1961 or 62. I am not sure what happened to his bowling alley management career, but I also recall my dad being engaged in the stone business, importing Tennessee flagstone and other such items and selling it to builders and landscapers. He put a lovely circular flagstone patio in our backyard, which lasted until we sold the house in 1987.
Joseph Franklin Lomax, my brother, was born February 19, 1949, six weeks premature, our mother being nearly forty at the time and having suffered several miscarriages. Joe spent his first days in an incubator and many weeks in the hospital before he was strong enough to come home.
The house on Vanderbilt had a white picket fence out front and a big sweetgum tree in the front yard. The side yard was devoted to an all-purpose ball field with first base next to an even bigger gum tree. We had a good sand pile behind the breakfast room and there was even a one-room tree house my dad fashioned for us out of (I think) the piano's packing crate. On the wall of the garage in the side yard was a basketball hoop; behind that, in the 1940s, the family used to have a chicken coop. Further back was an old shed, which later became converted into the "Black Widow Clubhouse" - no girls allowed.
My father, an accomplished golfer, created a nine-hole course in that side yard to encourage me and the neighbor kids to try the game. Our greens were made by ripping out the St. Augustine grass and patting down the dirt; the holes were no. 10 cans, sunk into the ground. Alas, I never developed a lasting interest in playing golf. All these attractions, however - and my parents' love of kids - made our yard the main neighborhood playground; we had the only baseball field, and Mimi would often bring out a round of cold lemonade for the whole gang.
My father got me to playing baseball when I was eight, and I wound up playing in organized leagues every summer for the next ten years. He encouraged me to be a pitcher and I developed into a pretty good one, thanks to spending hours throwing to him in our yard, a practice that continued until I was sixteen. He coached my Little League team and was one of the founders of the West University Little League, now one of the biggest such programs in America. Mimi always came to the games and I can still hear her yelling at me to "Stay with 'em, Johnny, stay with ’em!" or him telling me to "Bow your neck!" He concocted some odd mixture of alcohol and wintergreen that he'd apply to my arm after the game. It smelled wonderful to me and I doubt if my arm has ever again felt that good!
He was an assistant coach when I moved up to the Pony League (13- and 14-year olds) but he didn't coach beyond that. He and Mimi came to all the games though, and in the summer of 1960, when our all-star team wound up going to the National Championships for the Colt league (15 and 16-year olds) in San Bernadino, California, they were among the parents that accompanied the team. We flew to L.A., stopping to refuel in El Paso.
One of my father's favorite activities was taking the neighborhood boys hiking in the woods on Sundays. My longtime friend, Nick Boone (later to become an F.B.I. agent like his dad before him) termed him "the unofficial neighborhood scoutmaster." Nick refreshed my memory about Pops' skill in telling ghost stories. He vividly recalled one about a grave robber who was pulling a ring off a corpse's finger when the ring fell off. When the robber jumped into the grave to retrieve the ring, he was somehow buried alive. There were also retellings of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and The Pendulum" and "A Cask of Amontillado." Nick also remembered Pops' way with card tricks: how he claimed he could "feel the pips" by rubbing the back of a card and could tell what card it was by smelling it.
Pops was always one for games: he taught us "Red Rover" and "Capture the Flag" (aka "Steal the Bacon"). I particularly remember a two-person game involving three piles of coins (or sticks or marbles). Each player could take as few or as many as he or she wanted - but only from one pile. The goal was to make the opponent take the last one. He was unbeatable - finally he told me the winning combinations, which when memorized made a player invincible unless up against someone else who knew the trick! He also taught us "pounce," a frenzied sort of multiple-solitaire involving a deck of cards per player, with everyone allowed to play on the stacks made when an ace was uncovered. The more players, the more cards and possibilities and more yells of "pounce!"
For the hiking expeditions, we'd pile into our turquoise blue Chevy station wagon, and drive to the trails in Memorial Park; or we'd go to some place my father had discovered while riding about town. A favorite place was just up the road: the woods bordered by Holcombe and Bellaire Blvd., on the north; Kirby Drive to the east; Buffalo Speedway to the west; and Brays Bayou, which was a big concrete drainage ditch, really, but it had a big pipe you could walk - or crawl - across and a bayou side trail, ran for several miles, following the path South Braeswood takes today. Normally a small and sluggish stream, Brays Bayou could become a raging torrent after one of Houston's Gulf of Mexico gully washers. The surrounding woods were thick on both sides and we'd often stumble across wildlife, giving everyone a thrill when we'd flush a rabbit or a fox or a possum or coon. My father showed us how to catch coral snakes with a forked stick and a sack. We'd take our prize to the Houston Zoo's herpetarium.
Our next-door neighbor, Jack Lyndon Thomas (who later published two books about his experiences serving in Vietnam) recalls one such expedition, highlighted by a pasture encounter:
I've had an experience with a mad cow, well, actually a bull. Mr. Lomax was leading a group of us boys on one of our classic Sunday afternoon hikes. We were in the country, somewhere outside of Houston, and his son, Johnny and I climbed a fence to run with the cows, so to speak. A bull rumbled past and Johnny shot him in the rump with a suction-cup dart. Apparently the intrusion was not to the bull's liking. He turned and gave chase. Johnny and I hightailed it to the fence line where, sufficiently motivated, neither of us experienced difficulty in hurdling the barrier.
I vividly remember one expedition in the, a hiking trip to explore the buildings in Houston's new and growing Medical Center. At one point we ducked into Baylor Medical School, I think it was, to get refreshments via their water cooler and coke machines. As we prepared to depart, my dad started talking about zombies and people rising from the dead - there were a number of horror movies out at the time such as The Creatures with the Atom Brains - and steered us into a classroom, empty, as was the building, it being Sunday. Somehow, he talked one of the boys into sliding back the steel covering of what appeared to be a big storage cabinet against the far wall. All us kids eagerly crowded round to see what was inside. Of course it was a corpse, covered with a sheet, all except the head. We scattered like flushed quail from the brush!
Family members also got to taste the thrills, chills and adventures my father would organize. His niece Susan Mansell Mihalik (Aunt Shirley's younger daughter) writes that:
As early as I can remember my Uncle Umpty, as we called him, inducted us into his 'Explorer's Club.' When we visited with family at his house or at my grandfather's 'house in the woods' in Dallas, the club would meet, usually going on various hikes to explore the many interesting environs in the area. [The home was in a then undeveloped area with dense woods behind it]. Once, on a hike in the woods, he stopped our brisk walk to caution us to tread very carefully, because, as fate would have it, a famous Indian chief was buried in this sacrificial ground, and he was buried with his right forefinger pointing up through the ground. He did this to let the Great Spirit know he wanted to go up to heaven when he died. "Now," my uncle would say, "the finger bones are still here, pointing up from the ground, and you don't be wanting to step on them and break them." I'll bet you never saw children walk more carefully and lightly in your life!
He was also our getaway car driver in 1958, when we kids decided we would build the "biggest Christmas tree fort ever." Our neighbors used to put out their used trees for the garbage men to pick up (not much environmental awareness back then). We kids would pick them up and drag them back to the fort we were building in our back yard. It soon became apparent that there must be a quicker way to gather the building materials for our fort. A neighborhood scouting expedition revealed another large tree fort just a couple of blocks away. Naturally, we had to have it and take it we did, in a late night blitzkrieg that netted over twenty trees and filled the faithful turquoise station wagon to capacity. Soon, we accumulated over a hundred trees and built a four-room tree fort, complete with electricity from a long extension cord. When all the needles began falling off Pops decided we should build a fire and cook some hot dogs and then celebrate by stacking the trees atop the embers to create a bonfire. And what a sight that was! The dry trees ignited quickly, darn near spontaneously. In an instant the crackling pyre was so hot no one could approach closer than thirty feet, and flames slashed forty feet into the air, sparks shooting even higher. Pops stood by with our garden hose.
The fire department soon arrived, summoned by a neighbor who must have thought the whole block was ablaze. After they extinguished the inferno they confronted my father, and he told them, "Shoot, the kids and I were just having a little weenie roast." I don't recall any of the other dads doing anything like this, in fact, I can't recall any of the other dads doing anything with kids besides their own.
My dad's frugality was legendary. Growing up, Joe and I got all our haircuts at the Barber College downtown, and I often recall him saying things about us "going to the poorhouse" if we did not cut back. I think Mimi sort of believed him, and when she took over the family finances after he became ill she was surprised learn that in reality we were quite well off - thanks to that frugality, as well as to his business sense.
Susan Mansell Mihalik describes one of his trademark practices:
Another fond remembrance I have of Uncle Umpty are the occasions he would take all of us to eat at Luby's Cafeteria. Being taken out to a restaurant was a rare and exciting thing in those tight money days. We were allowed to pick out any reasonable assortment of food, and the choices seemed grand to us. However, as we slid our trays toward the drinks, he would warn us to not choose a drink but to "Just take one of those glasses of ice water that are free and grab a few pieces of lemon they have for the tea. They put sugar on every table and you can make your own nice, fresh lemonade, and it won't cost even a dime!"
John's first foray in land development was with his relative Hart Brown. They did some projects in the south part of Houston, off South Main, in flat, totally barren spots; one was called Pamela Heights. It was a good time to be in the land development business in Houston, as the city was growing steadily, even explosively, the population doubling between 1950 and 1970. John met builder Earl Gilbert, who had fallen on hard times after his previous partner had mismanaged their funds. It was a good match: Gilbert knew the building side while John had experience in the financial area. They began developing on the north side as the J and E Building Company, starting Galco Utilities to supply water to the houses in the newly created subdivision named Melrose Park. The pair then created a subdivision up past Greens Rd. on I-45 in the extreme north, which they dubbed, "Southbrook." It was a standing family joke that the name meant "south of Dallas," since it was further north than anything in Houston at that time, which was years before Intercontinental (now George W. Bush) Airport was built.
Their business plan was simple and provided excellent returns. They built modest, but well constructed two- and three-bedroom houses with attached garages, rented them out for four to six years, wrote off the depreciation, and then sold them at a price that had appreciated nicely during the interim. The buyers financed the purchase with F.H.A. and G.I. loans - the price to buy back then (early- mid-1960s), was in the $20-$25,000 range. Southbrook grew to become a good-sized development of about a hundred homes, with its own utility company. John and Earl later built International Plaza, a three-story office building overlooking I-45 at the entrance to the Southbrook subdivision.
Earl Gilbert's son Chris, who worked summers for J&E, later gained football stardom at the University of Texas in the mid-'60s, earning All-Conference honors three years running and gaining consensus All America kudos in 1968, the same year as O. J. Simpson.
Later, John created a development called West Little York Place, intended to give mainly poor blacks, who at the time lived mostly in housing projects or apartments, the opportunity to own their own homes - small but tidy brick houses with a tiny back yard, in a nice neighborhood. The houses were smaller than those at Southbrook but still well built and, being small and in a somewhat rougher general area (on West Little York St.), were quite affordable, I think, in the six-to eight thousand dollar range. The problem with West Little York lay not with renting or selling the houses, but in collecting the funds. Few of the occupants had checking accounts, so weekly payments were made in cash. The money was collected by an armed representative, but even so, at least one was shot to death making rounds. Collections were then taken at a building behind bulletproof glass and with additional security measures. John was unhappy with the results at West Little York Place. He had hoped the residents would rise to the opportunity and build a nice community, and that this would inspire other builders to create similar developments. But that did not happen: residents would routinely fall behind on payments and leave just before they were physically evicted, generally stripping the residence of anything of value, including faucets, light fixtures, even the copper wiring.
Those who knew John only through his building activities or his music may not have known he also continued to excel in athletics: I recall him competing in open ocean swims off Galveston beach in the early 1950s. Well into his fifties, he played handball, a sport he loved and which today is all but gone. Handball resembles its more popular cousins, squash and racquetball, and is played on the same size court, but players use small, flexible leather gloves on their hands instead of a racket. The ball is a hollow black rubber sphere, sized midway between a tennis and golf ball. Players compete in either singles or doubles matches. John won many handball trophies playing mostly in singles competition. It’s a fast, tough game, hard on the hands, knees and elbows - you can use either hand to swat the sphere but you have to hit it on the fly or first bounce. Two sidewalls and a back wall create confounding caroms. Additionally, by being in the right place at precisely the wrong time, players routinely take hard hits to the body or head from the fast traveling ball. John suffered a detached retina from a handball to the eye but regained his sight following surgery and played the game again, much to Mimi's chagrin. He was also active in developing the sport and was one of those who helped Houston and the Y host the national championships. This was a big deal at the time and was probably one of the factors leading up to Houston's status as a leading center in the sport of team handball today. He played at the downtown YMCA, at 1600 Louisiana. I'd go with him from time to time, shooting baskets in the gym or swimming in the pool below. At that time most patrons swam nude, since it was the YMCA and no women were allowed. The pool had lovely tile patterns and a low dive but no high (three-meter) board.
John's chosen avocation, though, was not handball but music. He enjoyed performing his own versions of folk songs he had learned from his father, his own travels, and Alan's collecting. In 1952, with some like-minded folks: Ed Badeaux, Harold V. Belikoff, Howie Porper, Pete Rose, and Chester Bower, he founded the Houston Folklore Group. Initially, meetings took place either at our house or in covered pavilions over in Hermann Park and at what is now Braeswood Michelle Shocked, a talented musician still active today, also recalls early meetings also at the downtown YMCA).
I recall these meetings as short on business and long on music. There were strict rules about passing the guitar so that everyone who wanted to got their chance to sing. My dad's reports as treasurer sounded something like this, "Folks, we got $48.27 in the kitty, we don't owe a nickel and dues are payable on the first. We're more than halfway to our goal of buying a new reel-to-reel tape recorder." Once around the block on old and new business (rare to have any old). "New”"might mean an announcement of a touring artist performance of interest, and then out would come the guitars and the songs. Attendees brought their own beverages, as I recall, and Mimi served soft drinks. After one such gathering she was quite upset to find a guest sleeping in the front flowerbed when she went to fetch the morning paper. She was not a drinker at all, and the most I ever saw my dad drink was a beer now and then. I recall one story about the time Carl Sandburg came to visit us (we later also went to his house in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, on a family vacation). Sandburg had been a friend of John Lomax, Sr. during the family’s sojourn in Chicago. So he came over, and family legend has it that he and John, Jr. sat up very late that night, singing songs and keeping their throats damp with copious cans of beer. Mimi referred to Sandburg for a long time afterwards as "that old drunk."
The Houston Folklore Group later became the Houston Folklore Society and enjoyed growing membership throughout the '50s and up to the early '60s, eventually staging concerts in good-sized halls in the Jewish Community Center and at Cullen Auditorium at the University of Houston. Lightning Hopkins headlined several such events. Performers who also appeared at other, smaller venues around town included Frank (Davis) and Kay (Kay T. Oslin), Guy Clark, Mance Lipscomb and Lu (Lucinda) Williams. The scene at one of these, The Jester, a folk club out on Westheimer, was commemorated by an LP issued in 1964 entitled Hey, It's Us, produced by Scott Holzman, with liner notes by John Lomax, Jr.
In July of 1968, during the Smithsonian Institution's American Folklife Festival in Washington, D. C., the four siblings: John, Alan, Bess, and Shirley had the opportunity to perform together before a national audience, singing folk songs that their father had collected. It was perhaps their only public appearance together.
My dad, however, would break into song for an audience of any size. Two of our elderly relatives (cousins from the Pedigo branch of my grandfather's father's family), fondly recall how when they'd spot John riding his bicycle on their street, a couple of miles from his house on Vanderbilt, they'd wave and he'd pull over, park the bike, and after greetings, present an impromptu concert on their porch for them and any neighbors within earshot.
John made one solo recording: John A. Lomax Sings American Folksongs, Folkways, FG 3508, in 1956. He also performed with a group of Houston Folk Song Society members calling themselves The Tex-i-an Boys (Ed Badeaux, John A Lomax, Jr., Jim McConnell, Howard Porper, and Jim Rose) on an LP entitled [LINK] Songs of Texas, Folkways FH 5328 (1961), liner notes by Mack McCormick and song notes by John Lomax (both albums are now available on CD from Smithsonian-Folkways and have accompanying link to a pdf of the original liner notes). Additionally, John participated in a project called Unexpurgated Folk Songs Of Men, a Mack McCormick recording, fueled, one guesses, by substantial alcohol, and featuring renditions of songs considered risqué some fifty years ago. This little treasure, a perennial source of embarrassment to Mimi, was sold without identification of any of the participants, whose voices, however, were easily recognizable to those who knew them. It's raggedly charming and a nice document of song that today would be considered tame for mixed company - although not for children, since the set features a performance by Lightning Hopkins of a classic example of "the dozens" that is certainly not fit for the youngsters' ears. It's clear from listening that the performers were having a very, very good time! The final track is the celebrated speech, "Change the Name of Arkansas, Hell No!" exuberantly recited by John (this version was covered by Michelle Shocked on her Arkansas Traveler CD). Though the historical authenticity of this speech - supposedly delivered by an irate legislator protesting a proposed name change to his cherished state - has been debunked (some attribute the speech and incident to Mark Twain) - it's still great listening. I'm not aware of any commercial source for The Unexpurgated Songs Of Men, though the LP can be found on eBay.
I'm not exactly sure how long my dad acted as Lightning Hopkins's manager; I think it was about ten years, beginning in the mid-to-late 1950s. (Alan Govenar's upcoming Hopkins biography promises to shed considerable light on their relationship). John would book the dates for Hopkins, then go out with him to some of the shows, serving as manager/minder/MC and opening act, all in one tidy package. He'd make a few remarks and open the evening by singing some of the folk songs he loved, giving each a bit of an introduction about the historic milieu of the song, the circumstances portrayed, or its origins. If it was a work song, he’d describe the type of work being done while the song was sung.
In addition to his work with Hopkins, John was also a conduit to the larger world for blues artists Mance Lipscomb and Cajun singer and accordionist Clifton Chenier, the self-proclaimed "King of Zydeco." He helped link up Chris Strachwitz with Mance, and that relationship led to numerous albums on Arhoolie as well as many touring opportunities for Lipscomb, who had spent the bulk of his life in virtual slavery on Tom Moore's farm in Navasota, Texas.
In 1969, John introduced Hopkins to filmmaker Les Blank and helped produce Blank's seminal film, The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins. Blank returned the next year to make A Well Spent Life, about Mance Lipscomb, with John again acting as liaison. Blank's next film, Spend it All, featured Clifton Chenier and his milieu amidst the indigenous South Louisiana Cajuns. These are all available from Les Blank's Flower Films. In addition to helping to finance these films, John was also generous in helping his brother Alan through the latter's occasional rough financial patches.
As a performer, John always sang unaccompanied - he just stood there and belted it out in a big, passionate voice that made up for what it lacked in technical skill by the deep conviction and feeling he poured into his delivery. The power of his voice, his imposing presence, his sincerity, and clear dedication to the songs commanded attention and respect from his audiences. Members of the Houston Folklore Society, however, were not at first uniformly convinced of the merits of a cappella singing. There was a considerable controversy over the issue until my dad staked out his position as follows:
THE CASE OF THE UNACCOMPANIED FOLK SINGER
By John A. Lomax, Jr.
This article is neither an apology for nor in defense of unaccompanied singing, which is my style, but more of an explanation of it. I estimate some 95 percent of real folksongs were made up as unaccompanied songs, and a large proportion were later collected as such. Certainly this is true of the work song category; the working cowboy's hands were fully occupied as he guarded the herds, likewise the sailor had no place for accompaniment during his line heaving; the penitentiary work gangs, with or without a song leader, improvised songs only with oral rhythm. For my part, I feel that these are among the best folksongs, the meat and potatoes so to speak, and they can be re-sung truer and better if done unaccompanied.
Accepting the premise that the song came first, is it not important that it be kept foremost? To me every word of a song is essential to assure the full impact on the audience. The emotional theme of a mood song and powerful narrative of a ballad are sufficient for my taste, and I wish them fully to reach my listeners. Most of the great folksingers, such as Lead Belly, Burl [Ives], Mance [Lipscomb], Lightnin' [Hopkins], Pete [Seeger], and many others use accompaniment but artfully and usually subdued. On the other hand, I heartily agree with the thought I recently heard on the radio: "If the words of a song are not understandable, the singer would have been better to have stayed in bed." In retrospect, I recall countless times, it seems, when I have unsuccessfully strained to catch the words of a good song but, due to the volume of the accompaniment, could not. And, Lord, that interminable tuning! It tests the patience of even the best audience. An unaccompanied singer would be going way down the road during the "tuning gap."
A final point concerns numerous songs with unique melodies that defy accompaniment. Often the accompanied singer will distort the melody, to the song’s detriment, in order to present the song. As an example, accompaniment to a field holler is a burden, and I wish to be untrammeled when I sing one. My sister, a trained, musician, learned, as I did, “All the Chickens in the Garden” from the oral rendition of our father; however, when she attempted to capture the melody in written notes for use in her guitar classes, she found that she was unable to do so. Houston Folklore Society Bulletin, April 1967.
I recall one show at the Jewish Community Center at which John sang "Take This Hammer," a Leadbelly favorite and one of my dad’s as well. On this particular show he felt he needed a couple of props. He briefly explained that this was an example of a work song and to illustrate this, he brought a large single-bladed ax and a big hunk of wood, a log actually, probably weighing 30-40 pounds. He dropped the log down in front of him with a loud thud, shouldered the ax and began to sing:
Take this hammer - WHOCK! [came the sound of the ax biting into the hardwood log]
Carry it to the Captain - WHOCK!
Tell him I'm gone, boys - WHOCK!
Tell him I'm gone - WHOCK!
By now, chunks of wood the size of golf balls would be flying into the front few rows. With each "WHOCK!" audience members were covering their faces to fend off the flying fragments and sliding down in their seats, holding their programs in front of their faces. I can't recall him ever halting a show, though I'm sure Mimi must have cringed every time he sang this number. (See Guy Clark's description of one such performance in Lomax on Lomax, grandson John Nova Lomax's blog in the Houston Press.)
My father did his part to honor the family literary heritage by penning the introduction for his father’s final manuscript, Cow Camps and Cattle Herds. Written shortly before John Sr.'s death in 1948, and originally planned as a chapter in a projected larger work, the manuscript had been misfiled and languished until my dad found it. It was published in 1967 in a limited, signed edition by the Encino Press, founded by William D. Wittliff, who also provided the illustrations (Wittliff later fashioned a very successful screenwriting career, ongoing today).
My dad's exuberant lack of inhibition manifested itself in various ways, in the bizarrely wonderful mixed colors and patterns of his everyday wear, for example (I'm not sure I can recall ever seeing him in a suit and tie, though he must have worn one to the funerals of his and Mimi's parents). An incident my brother Joe and I laughed about for years occurred in Florida in 1957, during a long family car trip, which was to be capped off with a Caribbean cruise including a stop in Havana (this was only weeks before the eruption of the Cuban revolution, so it was a very exciting time). Somewhere between an overnight stop in Defuniak Springs and the embarkation point in Miami, Joe and I convinced our parents that we had to stop at an alligator farm. We were taken, along with a dozen or so others, on a guided tour, and we were soon staring down into a concrete pit where about six alligators lay basking in the sun, still as rocks, as gators are wont to do. The pit was large, perhaps forty feet in diameter and about fifteen feet deep. We stared at the massive beasts, some up to twelve feet long as our guide babbled on about their feeding habits and how alligators dated back hundreds of millions of years, when suddenly from off to our left we heard my dad loudly clear his sinus passages and then "PTUI," he spat a large gob out and down into the pit, landing with a plop perhaps fifteen feet from the nearest 'gator. The guide stopped his spiel: "Sir, the alligator quarters are hygienically cleaned every day for the creature'’ safety," and he proceeded to upbraid Pops, who took the criticism stoically. Joe and I meanwhile were in hysterics at the thought of human spittle bringing down one of these monster reptiles. My dad never again spoke of the incident, nor did Mimi.
My father taught me to love yard work. Our yard was about half an acre (less the house, garage and driveway). For many years he mowed it with a push mower - a real push mower, that is, not one with a motor like today's "self-propelled" push mowers. Our St. Augustine grass grew so thickly, you could't just walk along mowing merrily; you had to stop, back up and then push again over and over to get it all. He'd perform this activity wearing just a pair of light tan trunks; I can only imagine what the sight of him did to the neighborhood ladies. Can't remember when he finally got a powered mower.
His last years were not happy ones. He suffered a massive heart attack in 1971 while at the Y. He was rushed to the Emergency Room where cardiac and critical care specialists worked over him. But he died. They restarted his heart by electric shock but he died again. Two more death and re-birth cycles followed, until he was stabilized and out of immediate danger. Though my father survived, his short-term memory did not. Oxygen loss during the times when he was gone had led to a loss of this key brain function. Though Pops could still remember songs and some events from his distant past, he could not recall anything that happened in the present. He made a complete physical recovery but never regained his full mental capacities.
A few months later, Mimi was diagnosed with lung cancer and began a vigorous program of chemo and radiation treatments. My brother Joe was out of the country, in Algeria, fulfilling his military obligation doing alternative service due to his status as a conscientious objector. We hired Tony Ullrich to be John's full-time minder and companion, and Tony proved a wonderful help to us all. He loved to play banjo and sing with John and enjoyed going around with him, taking him to various activities. Tony escorted John on several out-of-town trips, including one memorable rafting trip down the Rio Grande into Santa Elena Canyon. Margaret "Mimi" Lomax died in June 1973, in the bedroom of her home. She was 65.
Tony continued to help out, and then John went up north to visit with his sisters, Shirley and Bess, and brother Alan, who had rented a spacious house on Long Island so that he could tend him and sing to him and tell him stories to lift his spirits while their sisters, Bess and Shirley, visited. A few weeks later, in October 1974, while John was walking in the local town, he was hit by a truck and knocked over forty feet. Miraculously he escaped with no serious injury. After mending up, he and Tony returned to Houston. He had a stroke and died instantly at the breakfast table at the Vanderbilt house on December 12, 1974, aged 67.
The funeral was as joyous as such an event can be. There was lots of music and many testimonials to John’s achievements in business, sports, music, and as a family man. The ceremony was held in Autry House on Main Street, a non-denominational building near Rice University. This suited us all, as John had not been the churchgoing sort. Family friend Ben Ramey conducted the service. The wake was held at the Lomax house on Vanderbilt Street. Longtime family friend, Sharon Lynn remembers:
I had never been to a wake before. My Jewish upbringing had exposed me only to sad and austere funerals. So it was a great surprise at John's death to see the house begin to fill with family and friends who came from near and far away to celebrate John's life. I remember that singers Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee came, so it is probable that Sam 'Lightnin' ' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb were there, too. Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records came and Les Blank of Flower Films. John had helped Chris to record Lightnin' and Mance, and had helped Les with the 1969 film The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins. Alan Lomax arrived and his daughter Anna, who was close to her first cousin Joe. John's sisters Bess and Shirley arrived. In the kitchen a big pot of gumbo simmered, and other food arrived for several days as people came to pay their respects. One of the black musicians thought the gumbo wasn't hot enough and poured Tabasco Sauce in his bowl until it turned absolutely red. There was lots of bourbon drinking going on and lots of singing and people telling stories - otherwise known as "testifying" about John. It was a happy-sad time, and sharing John's life with others who loved him was a comfort. National Public Radio aired a special broadcast about John's life in the week after his death. John was sent off with lots of ceremony. Many people loved him.
And for good reason. In his time on earth, John Avery Lomax, Jr. achieved success in the worlds of business, sports and the arts, He forged a lasting marriage that endured over thirty years, until Mimi's death. And he raised two sons who extended the family musical legacy into a third generation. He died nearly thirty-five years ago; I mourn him still. - Nashville, Tennessee, August 20, 2009
John A. Lomax , Jr., was survived by two sons and two grandchildren.
Joseph Franklin Lomax
Talented printer, photographer, journalist, book publisher and singer, died of cancer January 9, 1988, aged just 38. He and family friend, Hally Wood, performed at numerous shows, singing the familiar folk songs.
John Marable Lomax
(aka John Lomax III), author of the foregoing memorial, has lived in Nashville since 1973, and has been active in the music business as a journalist, artist manager, international consultant, and exporter. He is married to Frances Melanie Wells, a nurse. He has a son, John Nova Lomax, born March 26, 1970, from an earlier marriage to Julia Plummer Taylor ("Bidy"), and a daughter, Amanda Margaret Lomax, born in Nashville, December 5, from a marriage to Jean Person Lomax.
John Nova Lomax
An award-winning journalist for the Houston Press. He has two children, John Henry Lomax (b. 1996) and Harriet Rose Lomax (b. 2004). He is married to Kelly Graml. Since 2007, John Nova Lomax has had a blog about his grandfather, John A. Lomax, Jr., in the Houston Press Online.
Amanda Margaret Lomax
Graduated cum laude from Boston University in 2002 and now works in sales and marketing for the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C.