Remembrances of Alan Lomax, October 2002

by Guy Carawan

I first met Alan Lomax in London in 1957, where he was living at the time. I was on the way to the World Youth Festival to be held in Moscow and my friend Bess Hawes, Alan’s sister, encouraged me to get in touch. In my few weeks stay with him there I met a few people important in the folksong world. I also recorded with Alan his “Texas Songs” LP with my guitar accompaniments. It was a very rich period for me because I met all the following people: Ewan McCall and A.L. Lloyd (Bert), Shirley Collins, Maude Karpeles, Peter Kennedy, and others at the English Folk Dance Society and Cecil Sharp House. At that time there was a major popular skiffle movement on starring Lonnie Donnegan. He was on the English hit parade with Leadbelly songs and other US folksongs.

I met Peggy Seeger again at that time and would go on to the World Youth Festival where approximately 200 American youth (under 30) gathered. (I had just turned 30.) While traveling in the Soviet Union the group did a lot of singing together with Peggy and I helping out on guitar and banjo and doing some song leading. Peggy and I later sang at the Bolshoi Theater invited by the Ministry of Culture. After the Festival, forty of us went on to China, against the wishes of the US State Department. We were told we could be tried under the “Trade with the Enemy Act.” Our two group leaders were Rev. Warren McKenna and writer and journalist Joanne Grant. When we returned to the US we had our passports invalidated.

Once Alan moved back to the US, 1959-60, I had many visits with him at his apartment in New York City. That same winter I moved South to volunteer at the Highlander Folk School and became a driver Septima Clark, the director of the Citizen School Program in the South Carolina Sea Islands. The literacy schools were on Johns Island, James Island, Wadmalaw Island, Edisto Island, and north Charleston. I was living at the J & P Café and Motel which was run by Esau Jenkins, an important Johns Island grassroots leader. Septima and Esau were my mentors and teachers, enabling me to participate in the Citizenship School Program.

Esau took me to the Christmas Watch at Moving Star Hall on Christmas Eve of 1959 and a week later to the New Years Watch meeting. The Moving Star Society was a tend-to-the-sick and burial society and the Hall was the place where people came to worship and celebrate and to express their deepest religious feelings.

I moved to Johns Island to live in 1963. My wife Candie and small son Evan came with me. We spent a period of time organizing some regional folk festivals throughout the Sea Islands. We were supported by the Newport Folk Foundation after Ralph Rinzler had visited us and seen what rich cultural traditions survived in the islands. Alan came down to our very first festival at the Progressive Club on Johns Island. It was 1963. Later he would visit again with his teen-aged daughter Anna. Alan had been supportive and interested in my work in the Sea Islands from the moment I got there. I was aware of the work he had done with Bessie Jones of the Georgia Sea Islands, encouraging her to become a spokesperson and singer of island traditions. Partly because of my understanding of Alan’s work, and his family’s contributions, I had purchased a good quality Ampex tape recorder and some good microphones before I moved to Johns Island. Eventually we produced two albums of sea island material for Folkways—“Been in the Storm So Long” and “Sea Island Folk Festival”—and helped some of the singers from Moving Star Hall perform at festivals around the country. Sometimes they would be at festivals with the Georgia Sea Island Singers with whom Alan had worked, and people would hear the differences in regional style and presentation. The two groups loved each other.

During the early 1960’s, Alan’s vision and understanding of folk culture had an impact in the Civil Rights Movement. Based in the South, and working with Highlander, we were in a position to organize conferences and workshops on the growing repertoire of freedom songs. Alan encouraged us to include an older layer of African American culture in these gatherings. They would be enriched by the participation of such people as Doc Reese, singer of Texas prison and work songs, Mississippi fife player Ed Young, Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, the Moving Star Hall Singers, and others. Alan came to some of these workshops and encouraged the young freedom fighters to recognize the valuable contributions that could be made by older people in the communities who were such strong carriers of tradition. Following a workshop at Highlander in 1956, Alan helped the participants write a kind of manifesto institutionalizing some of these concepts. It encouraged communities to host their own festivals, record their own culture, and include older traditions in the movement for desegregation and freedom.

I was recording songs and oral histories in many Southern Civil Rights communities in those days. Alan helped me edit and produce a powerful documentary on Albany, Georgia, in 1961, which included old “Dr. Watts” long meter hymn singing, freedom spirituals and gospels, a classic folk sermon, “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest” and a lot of moving testimony. Maynard Solomon at Vanguard Records produced the album for SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.)

As our own work moved into Appalachia, into communities organizing for social and economic justice, Alan continued to be supportive and helped make our work visible speaking publicly about its value. In a long career of working to document and give support to southern regional grassroots culture and its use in social movements, Candie and I always felt the love and understanding, the encouragement and support coming from Alan Lomax. We are grateful for it.

 

Used by permission of the author.

 

 

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