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Lomax uncovered
Challenging the Delta historian
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Vanderbilt University Press' Web site for Lost Delta Found:Rediscovering The Fisk University–Library Of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941–1942

Alan Lomax has long been a controversial figure among roots-music insiders. Lost Delta Found inflames that controversy with the publication of work by other researchers that Lomax used without proper attribution.

Certainly Lomax’s accomplishments remain incalculable. Under the aegis of the Library of Congress, he traveled the world for decades, collecting indigenous music from the mountains of Italy to the Georgia Sea Islands. Some of his most famous recordings were made in the Mississippi Delta, where he discovered Muddy Waters, Son House, and other influential bluesmen. Nothing in Lost Delta Found compromises the legacy of those recordings. But the book does show that Lomax appropriated research by others without proper attribution and used it to portray Delta citizens as being less sophisticated then they actually were in the early 1940s.

The contents of Lost Delta Found — papers and musical transcriptions by John W. Work, Lewis Wade Jones, and Samuel C. Adams Jr. — prove these men did a substantial amount of the research that Lomax used for The Land Where the Blues Began (Pantheon, 1993). Blues authority Robert Gordon discovered Work’s original manuscript several years ago in Lomax’s archives while researching his own Muddy Waters biography, Can’t Be Satisfied (Little, Brown). That led to the rediscovery of Adams’s report, and now, with the findings of Work, Jones, and Adams in print, a far different portrait of Delta life 65 years ago emerges.

The first revelation is that the project in Coahoma County, Mississippi, was instigated not by Lomax, as his readers were led to believe, but by Fisk professor Work, who believed that the disastrous 1940 fire in Natchez would be reflected in the folk music and art of the Delta’s African-American citizens. By taking stock of Delta life in 1941 and ’42, Work aimed to set a baseline against which future artistic developments could be measured.

Strapped Fisk University sought financial support from the Library of Congress, and Lomax maneuvered. When the study began, he, not Work, was in charge. The rest is distorted history. Lost Delta Found depicts a better-educated group of musicians than Lomax’s celebrated primitives, as well as an urban population around Clarksdale that included many black business and land owners. Work and his compatriots found an African-American culture more reflective of the country at large, divided by age and class in a time of sweeping, worldly change.

Adams wrote, "The change is definitely in the direction from illiterates to literates; from dependence upon rumor to newspapers and to other forms of printed matter, the popular magazine, and pamphlets, as well as to the moving picture; and from traditional folk songs, folk tales — animal tales and spontaneous group singing to popular songs and worldly stories. . . . The present facts concerning the plantation Negro in the Delta seem to indicate that they are ceasing to be a folk people."

And The Land Where the Blues Began? It cites Work in the preface and Adams and Work in the acknowledgments. Only Jones, who played a lesser role than the other two men, is portrayed as a participant in what reads like Lomax’s research.

The discovery of Work’s manuscript among Lomax’s effects is damning, as is the handwriting now clearly identifiable as Adams’s bleeding through a picture of a sharecropper’s cabin in The Land Where the Blues Began. Lomax also used other photos and drawings that it’s clear were provided by Adams. The publication of Lost Delta Found thus puts speculation about Lomax’s research, if not his motives, to rest.


Issue Date: October 28 - November 3, 2005
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