Alan Lomax and the Treorchy Dragons: Ethnographic Collecting in Wales

In this article from July 2014, Michael Lydon tells the amazing story of legendary ethnographic archivist Alan Lomax and his encounter with the singing miners of Treorchy.

LOMAXIn a recent article for Wales Arts Review this reviewer paid homage to the late, great Pete Seeger, by utilising the image of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’. In the article, it was remarked that an understanding of the grand narrative of twentieth-century American folk music can best be illustrated by adopting a table plan akin to that of Da Vinci’s iconic masterpiece. At the centre of this grand table of American folk music would be Woody Guthrie, with disciples of varying importance seated near – be they Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter, Cisco Huston, Josh White, Joan Baez, or Bob Dylan – and with a special place for the now sadly deceased Seeger. Yet in this table plan, a special place must also be made for the man who arguably set the table, the man who first recorded many of the defining figures in twentieth-century American music, Alan Lomax.

It was Lomax whose ethnographic ‘song-hunting’ brought to the grand table Leadbelly, Aunt Molly Jackson, Jelly Roll Morton, Vera Lee, Muddy Walters and Woody Guthrie to name but a few, after he recorded them for the American Library of Congress. Seeger once said of Lomax that he is ‘the most important single figure’, in the world of folk music. While biographer John Szwed writes of Lomax, in his brilliant book The Man Who Recorded the World, that, without his influence, there would have been no Lonnie Donegan, no Bob Dylan, no Rolling Stones, and no Beatles. Although this may be bit of a stretch, it is certain that, without Alan Lomax, the over-arching narrative of music in the second half of the twentieth-century would have been very different, and almost certainly greatly weakened. His is a place well earned at the grand table of American folk music, and, fortunately, thanks to extraordinary work by the Lomax-founded Association of Cultural Equity, today much of Lomax’s extensive and ground-breaking ethnographic fieldwork is available online through the Association’s homepage, including highly enjoyable recordings made in August and December 1953 with men of The Miners Club in Treorchy, Glamorganshire.

The story of how Lomax arrived in Treorchy begins with his boarding the SS Mauretania in New York in 1951 ‘with the folk music of the world my destination’, as he sought to undertake a hugely ambitious project of collecting music and ethnographic recordings from all the world’s major ‘culture areas’. Lomax’s vision was to ‘map the whole world of folk music’ and to release these recordings as part of a Columbia Records-commissioned series of long-playing records known as The World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. However, there is also a possibility that Lomax set sail for Europe as much to escape McCarthyism, as a consequence of his left wing political views, although this was something Lomax denied later in life. Yet, whatever the reason, Lomax went to Europe as possibly the world’s most celebrated ethnographic song-hunter, having recorded extensively in the US as well as the Caribbean. Lomax made London his home from 1951 to 1958, and undertook field recording trips during this period to Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Spain and other European countries, while also working for the BBC on a series of television and radio shows.

1953, the year Lomax recorded in Treorchy, would prove one of Lomax’s busiest for the BBC, as he worked on a wide variety of radio projects including Ballad and Blues in February – a programme exploring the similarities between British Folk songs and modern American Blues and Jazz – Folk Music of Yugoslavia in March – a BBC Third Programme – Song-Hunter: Alan Lomax in June – an eight-part BBC television series produced by a young David Attenborough – Folk Music of Spain in October – a radio series based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out by Lomax in 1952 – The Folk Music of the Orinoco Indian in December – again a BBC Radio Third Programme presented by Lomax – and finally the ground-breaking As I Roved Out! – a highly influential programme which was the brainchild of Lomax colleague Peter Kennedy, which ran from September 1953 to September 1958, with Lomax making frequent contributions. During this period Lomax worked alongside highly influential figures within the emerging British folk revival scene, including Kennedy, A.L. ‘Bert’ Lloyd, Hamish Henderson, Ewan MacColl, Margaret Barry, Séamus Ennis, and Shirley Collins. Moreover, it is his ethnographic and broadcasting work over this period, coupled with his influence on the 1950’s British skiffle music scene, that led academic Prof. David Gregory to remark on Lomax, in his essay ‘Lomax in London’, that Lomax helped shape the development of the folk-song revival in Britain, much as he had done in the American folk revival; thus altering the musical landscape of Britain and setting the stage for what was to follow, namely, Lonnie Donnegan, Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and, arguably, even the Beatles.

Given the extensive work undertaken by Lomax for the BBC during 1953, it is difficult to grasp how he managed to undertake much ethnographic fieldwork. However, he did. Firstly, teaming up with Kennedy, Lomax joined the American Folklorist Jean Richie and her husband George Pickow for a fieldtrip to Devon and Cornwall. Of note on this trip, there was evidently some discomfort at Lomax being present during the recording of a tradition known as Oss Dancing at the Padstow May Day ceremonies. As Ritchie recalls:

there was consternation at Alan’s being there, The Oss dancers wanted to pull out of the deal … the townspeople were saying, ‘that Lomax man will steal our song and get it on the hit parade like ‘‘Goodnight Irene’’, it won’t belong to us anymore.’

This wariness of Lomax was not an isolated occurrence, with some folk-bearing communities feeling that Lomax and other ethnographic song-hunters unethically profited from those they collected from. In Lomax’s case, there is also justified criticism forthcoming for his narration of folk-bearing communities, with Lomax often portraying himself as being on what Jeff Todd Titon refers to as a ‘heroic quest’ narrative to save the music of ‘primitive’ and idealised communities; a narrative that was easy to comprehend for consumerist audiences, as evidenced by the commercial release of the World Library of Folk and Primitive Music.

This ‘heroic quest’ narration of his own ethnographic fieldwork was also quite often the focus of Lomax’s work for the BBC, with the series Song-hunter of particular note, given that the title alone even denotes a hierarchical, even empirical, understanding of folk music. The obvious danger of this narration is that it often marginalised tradition-bearing communities, or even allowed for a romanticised misrepresentation of these communities by the discoverer; namely the song-hunter. However, a counter to this criticism is an argument that, without Lomax, and other song-hunters, the music and stories of many folk-bearing communities would be long forgot; therefore, their romancing of the folk is best understood as morally questionable, yet ethnographically fortunate.

This aside noted, when Lomax entered the The Miner’s Club Treorchy, Glamorganshire, on the 12th August, 1953, he was for the most part greeted warmly by the miners present, who shared songs and stories with the famous song-hunter – and fortunately so, as they make for entertaining listening even today, some sixty years later.

In his field-notes for his ethnographic work in Treorchy, Lomax made a note of a former miner he recorded, ‘Tom Thomas, 76, small, bald, rosy, grey-haired’, and it is interviews with ‘small, bald, rosy, grey-haired’ Thomas that form the bulk of Lomax’s collecting in Treorchy. The exact purpose of Lomax’s fieldwork in Treorchy is unclear, as it is possible his recordings that day where meant either for work he was undertaking for the English Folk Dance and Song Society, or for the Recorded Programs Library of the BBC, or perhaps even for use on a commercial LP to be distributed by Columbia – although this is unlikely given the majority of the recordings focus on collecting stories rather than songs.

Yet in developing a clearer picture of why Lomax was collecting in Treorchy , it is important to note that, during this period, he developed an interest in British ‘industrial songs’, and had worked closely with Bert Lloyd on this topic in quest of a greater understanding of this type of British urban work song; Lloyd was somewhat of an expert having in 1952 collected and transcribed ‘industrial songs’ for printed transcribed collections Coaldust Ballads and Come all Ye Bold Miners: Ballads and Songs of the Coalfields. In fact, Lomax would later praise Lloyd and Ewan MacColl in the 1966 ‘Compilers Postscript’ for the seminal work Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, a collection of popular and protest songs that was compiled by Lomax, in collaboration with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and even John Steinbeck who wrote the Foreword.

In reference to Lloyd and MacColl’s work, Lomax wrote: ‘A look at these collections shows the sharp, angry and self-conscience songs of protest have always formed a small but important part of the folk-song tradition of Great Britain’. Therefore, it is probable that Lomax went to Treorchy in search of ‘sharp, angry and self-conscience songs of protest’, or certainly an ethnographic narrative of hard times and protest.

Of further note is that, prior to collecting in Treorchy, Lomax went to Hetton-Le-Hole, Durham, where he recorded ballads and mining songs from Lewis Burt, Albert Colvill, Ernest Peachey and others, and interviewed the men about the collier’s life. Thus, it seems that Lomax’s ethnographic fieldwork in Hetton-Le-Hole and Treorchy served his own interest in developing a greater understanding of mining communities, their political engagements, and their ‘industrial songs’ and songs of protest, and were not undertaken to serve any commercial purpose.

This point is best illustrated when examining Lomax’s interview with Thomas and others in Treorchy, as much of his questions are concerned with the everyday life of a miner, with little interest shown in Thomas’ singing of religious hymns and popular ballads. Fortunately, however, Lomax did record some songs by Thomas that day, including ‘Yr Eneth Ga’dd Ei Gwrthod’, ‘The Little Golden Ring’, and ‘Daisy, Daisy’. In addition, Lomax recorded the Miner’s Club Chorus at the Miners Club that day, who sung what Thomas regarded as ‘typical old’  songs including hymns ‘Cartref’ (Home), and ‘Cwm Rhondda’ (Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah), as well as ballads, ‘Ton y botl’ (Tune In A Bottle), ‘Sospan fach’ (The Little Saucepan), and ‘Hogyn Amaethwr’ (The Farmer’s Boy). According to notes made by Lomax on the Reel to Reel can, the choir was made up of Tom Thomas, David John Davies, John Edwards, John S. Edwards, David Harris Jones, John Rowlands, Gomer Williams, and Verdon Wood. Although these recordings are worth a listen – particularly given the setting and accompanying drink-filled cheers – it is interviews with Thomas and other miners that are most interesting, as they reveal a fascinating insight into pre-twentieth century Welsh mining communities.

‘The theatre had taken us up, so Saturday night, the people’s night. Taking about heaven it was the kingdom of Heaven right enough’: this was Thomas’s recollection of his escape from the difficult life of a collier as he recalls his fond memories of Ted Ebley’s theatre. In his interview with Thomas, Lomax guided Thomas’ recollections by asking what the church thought about theatre going, as well as singing and dancing in the old days. Thomas responds:

Oh, hell it was! Hellfire! … I respect their memory (Church deacons), but they were dull. They stressed attendance at chapel every night and preached against folk songs and dances which were in the Devil’s country.

Yet, Thomas, who in 1953 was himself a senior deacon, also asserted that ‘We were drawing more out of life then than they’re drawing out today.’ Therefore, as with most nostalgic rememberings, Thomas’s rhetoric is saturated with the duality of ‘hard times’ and ‘drawing more out of life’, and much of Thomas’ interview with Lomax follows this nostalgia-driven pattern. Fortunately, however, Thomas’ humorous antidotes and natural ability as a storyteller make the nostalgia-drenched rememberings bearable, and certainly entertaining. An example of this is Thomas recalling the six-month miner’s strike of 1898 when hard-up for cash miners would go from village to village singing ballads for shillings, and discussions of his involvement in wage strikes before there was a union.

In this part of the recording, Lomax just lets Thomas speak freely so as not to inhibit his natural humour, which is evident when he recalls having to work as a farm labourer during the strike, and his hard negotiation with the farm owner, who sought to manipulate Thomas and his fellow miners financial need by offering low wages, which they reluctantly had to accept. As Thomas noted, ‘Half a loaf’s better than a tin.’

However, once employed in the position, Thomas recalled the inability of himself and others for the job, as they had worked in the mines for too long; as Thomas joked, they were cutting the grass with a sledgehammer.

In these recordings, alongside Thomas’s natural storytelling ability, Lomax’s skill as an ethnographer is also evident, as in Thomas’s case, as Lomax allowed the recordings to run smoothly with little interruption. But equally, in recording other miners that day – notably Gomer Williams and John Edwards – Lomax knew when to interject and guide the conversation; a not so easy task in the case of Williams, who seems somewhat intoxicated, with Lomax struggling to understand his thick Welsh accent. Yet in Edwards’ case, Lomax, and a second interviewer (possibly Lloyd), show great patience as a grumpy Edwards recalled his time in the mines, with a story of stallion fights in the mines for ‘devilment’ of some interest. Edwards, however, lacks the storytelling ability of Thomas, with his stories often disjointed, perhaps a consequence of his age, or maybe like Williams he also enjoyed what sounds like an abundance of alcohol available.

As a consequence, it is understandable much of the available recordings on the Association of Cultural Equality digital archive of Lomax’s Treorchy fieldwork is focused on Thomas; and this is very fortunate, as Thomas’ stories about mining conditions, Welsh ballads, broadsheet peddlers, pea soup and local mining legend Benny Baish, entertain and inform in equal measure. As noted, there is a certain nostalgia-driven narrative in the recordings, as much driven by those recorded as by Lomax’s heroic song-hunting, yet, as an entire collection, these recordings offer an intriguing and entertaining insight into pre-twentieth century Welsh mining communities.

To gain access to these fabulous Treorchy recordings, click on this link to The Association for Cultural Equity. While there, why not also listen to the countless hours of Lomax recordings made from 1946 to 1990, from Ireland to the Soviet Union, or the Newport Folk Festival to Mississippi prison recordings, all of which are free to listen to, and available under ‘Sound Recordings’. Or perhaps if you have time on your hands, check out some of Lomax’s photographs, video recordings, radio shows, or lectures; all of which are available on the Association’s homepage. A site that is a must for all folk music fans, and indeed all music fans.

Illustration by Dean Lewis