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Alan Lomax and the Search for the Origins of Music

Seventeen years after his death, can the anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, and folklorist who changed what America listened to overcome his original sin?

Geoffrey Clarfield
July 19, 2019
Photo: Antoinette Marchand. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress; courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.
Dominica, 1962.Photo: Antoinette Marchand. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress; courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.
Photo: Antoinette Marchand. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress; courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.
Dominica, 1962.Photo: Antoinette Marchand. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress; courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.

Ethnomusicology was initially the creation of a small number of men and women, mostly European and North American, who were trying to make sense of the growing number of recordings of music from non-Western cultures that were being made in the field, first on wax cylinders and then on shellac records at the dawn of the 20th century. Non-Western music and European folk song did not follow the conventions of Western classical music. Indigenous harmonies, when they were found in places like the Balkans and the Caucasus, did not work according to the then-accepted standards of European classical harmony. The vocal styles were opposed to what educated, middle-class Western Europeans at that time thought was “true, good, and beautiful.”

The immediate prehistory of ethnomusicology took place mostly in Germany and Central Europe. A disproportionate number of the pioneers of this field were German Jews, notably Otto Abraham, Erich von Hornbostel, Robert Lachmann, Curt Sachs, and Abraham Zvi Idelsohn.

These men (and their female colleagues) knew each other, studied with each other, and often collaborated on projects together: Sachs and Hornbostel gave their names to a system of musical instrument classification that with some modification is still used by ethnomusicologists today to classify and make sense of the diversity and geographical distribution of musical instruments around the world.

Many of these men (and women like Edith Gerson-Kiwi) had also had Jewish educations, had heard Jewish music, and could read Hebrew. They were aware that synagogue chant and Jewish folk songs were different in style from those of European peasants, and they did not exclude or devalue Jewish music from this growing new field. Unlike Wagner and his growing number of disciples, they saw Jewish music as a beautiful puzzle amidst the diversity of world music, something unique but demanding scholarly collection, analysis, and interpretation.

Groups of people dancing (Alan Lomax is seen making a film in one shot). Photos probably from the Georgia, Florida, and Bahamas expedition, 1935. (Alan Lomax Collection, Library of Congress)
Groups of people dancing (Alan Lomax is seen making a film in one shot). Photos probably from the Georgia, Florida, and Bahamas expedition, 1935. (Alan Lomax Collection, Library of Congress)

Europe and Germany could have remained the center of this new way of regarding music had it not been for the rise of the Nazi Party. As the Nazis fired Jewish professors, burnt their books, and inserted the absurdities of Nazi anthropology and racial and aesthetic theory into the world of German higher learning, scholars like Sachs and Hornbostel fled.

The comparative musicologists of Central Europe were mostly, but not exclusively, interested in the sounds of music and less so in its ethnographic context. They were interested in comparative ethnography. They then spun theories of the origins and diffusion of cultural traits, linked to a system called Kulturkreislehre, that characterized part of legitimate German anthropology at the time. In the United States these men met and became colleagues of a small group of men and women who had already been influenced by Franz Boas, another German Jewish émigré who came to the United States before WWI and who was the founder of American cultural anthropology. Boas emphasized the ethnographic context of music, highlighting field work, learning the local language and trying to understand social, cultural (and musical) phenomena from the point of view of the insider.

In his holistic field work among North America’s indigenous peoples, Boas had recorded and laboriously transcribed Eskimo and Indian songs. He provided that healthy antidote to an almost exclusive focus on sound, and his work became the second pillar of ethnomusicology, that is to say the anthropology of music.

Eventually, a small group of musicologists and anthropologists formed the Society of Ethnomusicology in 1953. Curt Sachs was one of its founders. Tantalized by the ethnomusicological holy grail, “the search for the origins of music,” in 1943 Sachs wrote:

The songs of Patagonians, Pygmies, and Bushmen bring home the singing of our own prehistoric ancestors, and primitive tribes all over the world still use types of instruments that the digger’s spade has excavated from the tombs of our Neolithic forefathers. The Orient has kept alive melodic styles that medieval Europe choked to death under the hold of harmony, and the Middle East still plays the instruments that it gave to the West a thousand years ago. … The primitive and Oriental branch of musicology has become the opening section in the history of our own music.

Today, one can easily say that a commanding majority of ethnomusicologists reject Sachs’ speculation that, for example, the Pygmy Bushman style is one of the oldest forms of music in the world and echoes the “singing of our own prehistoric ancestors.” They dismiss such ideas as unfounded theorizing with no supporting data.

Yet Curt Sachs taught a small number of curious American-born scholars who, as Americans, had been exposed to the surviving ballads and blues of their own Anglo-American ancestors and recently emancipated African American citizens, plus the hybrid version of these two traditions that emerged in jazz and popular music. They also, like their Central European teachers before them, set out to collect the vernacular music of their homeland, trying to build a holistic picture of the world’s music, its history, and prehistory by starting first in the New World and moving back in time.

One of these American students of émigré scholar Curt Sachs was a collector named Alan Lomax. As we will later see, he took Curt Sachs very seriously.


Alan Lomax was a musician. He performed American folk music for the Prince of Wales in the 1930s on an official visit to the United States at the request of FDR. He was also, before he died 17 years ago today, a folk song collector, a Harvard-trained academic, an anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, folklorist, museologist, archivist, scientist, journalist, broadcaster, filmmaker, soldier, civil rights activist, and prominent New Yorker. He changed the music Americans listened to and the way we listen to it.

Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina, 1938-1950 (Alan Lomax Collection, Library of Congress)
Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina, 1938-1950 (Alan Lomax Collection, Library of Congress)

Lomax was also a great reader of literature. One can draw an almost direct line from the material that Lomax collected and curated straight through to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for literature, as Lomax was perhaps the greatest advocate of American vernacular music and song (ballads and blues in particular), during the 20th century. He was declared a “Living Legend” by Congress and was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Ronald Reagan. His award-winning book and film, The Land Where the Blues Began, are literary and documentary masterpieces.

Lomax discovered and facilitated the careers of Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Muddy Waters, to name a few, and he was an early mentor of the young Bob Dylan. He also collected music in the British Isles, Ireland, Spain, Italy, and the Soviet Union (triggering the folk music revivals of Europe that followed the publication of his recordings there) as well as in the Caribbean, Appalachia, and other parts of the Deep South. He probably collected and listened to more and different kinds of folk, tribal, and non-Western music than any other person during the last century. Some of the obscure songs that he discovered and recorded later became global hits such as “House of the Rising Sun” (The Animals), “Rock Island Line” (Lonnie Donegan), and “The Sloop John B” (The Beach Boys).

Lomax inspired, and his example continues to inspire, hundreds of others interested in what is now called World Music, as either collectors, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, filmmakers or performers, who base their acts on a deep grounding in specific repertoires.

Had Lomax only done what is mentioned above he would have remained unconditionally honored and famous during the second part of his career. However, he also wanted to answer the basic question of comparative musicologists. Is there a universal structure and taxonomy of folk and tribal music and if so, what does it comprise? And finally, what is the oldest music?

And so was born Alan Lomax’s interdisciplinary, multischolared, decadeslong project, Performance Style and Culture (which includes the comparative study of dance) and which included the sub-project called Cantometrics, which has made Lomax suspect among most of the 20th century’s practicing ethnomusicologists. This was and remains Lomax’s “original sin” and one of the chief reasons why his comparative work is rejected by most ethnomusicologists today.


If there was a defining moment for the origin of Cantometrics, it happened in Italy or Spain in the mid-1950s. Lomax was based out of London after the war and spent most of his time collecting European folk music. He noticed that as one moved from the South of these two countries to the North that the tense, Arabic-sounding, vocal style of the South began to relax. Solo singing gave way to group harmonies. Lomax was aware that the latter complex was related to an honor-and-shame culture where premarital virginity was at a premium, whereas in the North, premarital relations were more common, and honor-and-shame culture was near to nonexistent.

Lomax began to correspond with New York-based psychiatrists and psychoanalysts to see if indeed tense vocal style correlated clinically among clients with sexual conflicts. They assured him that it did. He asked himself whether these individual “pathologies” may structurally inform the basic styles of public performance, thus musically reflecting and validating a group’s “personality and culture,” one of the emerging themes of American anthropology that made it unique at the time. Not surprisingly his friend, colleague and later advocate for the Performance Style and Culture project, Margaret Mead, was at the center of this academic trend.

Lomax’s daughter, Anna Lomax Wood, grew up as her father was developing the project, and as the president of Alan’s NGO, the Association for Cultural Equity, has managed to ably coordinate and develop the project since his passing. Anna spent part of her childhood in Italy and Spain. She holds a doctorate from Columbia in anthropology and has been knighted by the Italian government for her work on Italian folklore in the United States and Italy. This is how she describes her father’s eureka moment:

Once long-ago during my self-conscious preteen years, as we gazed at the approaching horizon of Greece from the bow of our ship, he broke into my thoughts with a bizarre performance. Exaggeratedly mouthing the words and squeezing his features around every vowel, he declaimed the first verses of “Barbara Allen.” “Don’t you see,” he continued excitedly. “This is how sung poetry conveys the emotions that are too strong for normal communication—I’ve just thought of this!” Oblivious to the passengers close by, he proceeded with a further vivid demonstration of how vowel sounds are accentuated, prolonged, and intoned in song, producing the effect of highly dramatized speech, while I longed to dive into the deep waters of the isthmus to escape this intolerable pantomime. But what I had witnessed was the birth of Phonotactics, a study of vowel preferences in song that dovetailed with Cantometrics, Choreometrics, and a further series of studies dealing with human intermittent communication in a transcultural framework.

Lomax now had his first tentative hypothesis, that an element or aspect of singing which was not only melody, harmony or rhythm, that is singing style, could be correlated with aspects of values and social structure in two related culture areas (Spain and Italy). He began to ask himself, and a growing number of specialists who would continually expand the ranks of his project, whether there were other kinds of correlations, and whether there might be a limited grid of singing features that would allow for the comparison of song and singing style around the world. One of his earliest collaborators in Cantometrics was a gifted, intense, talented (and still active) musicologist Victor Grauer, who together with Lomax and his colleagues developed the analytic grid that has been used for Cantometric analysis.

The beauty of the Cantometric grid or profile is that melody, harmony, and rhythm, as we commonly perceive them, are only part of the 36 original variables (later to be 37) of the grid. The 37 significant levels of analysis really are extensions of eight basic categories listed as follows:

1) The social organization of the vocal group
2) The social organization of the orchestra
3) The level of cohesiveness of both vocal group and orchestra
4) The level of explicitness—text and consonantal load
5) The rhythmic organization of vocal groups and orchestra
6) The order of melodic complexity
7) The degree or kind of embellishments used
8) The vocal stance

There is something scientifically tantalizing about these categories as they probably are the significant features that allow for the truly comparative musicology imagined by Sachs and Hornbostel more than a century ago. When analyzing musical samples from specific cultures, each of these variables is graded on a scale, and thus one can develop a Cantometric profile of a culture area. Here are the ones for the Pygmy Bushman style of the Kalahari and central African forest. They are almost identical, yet the two cultures are separated by thousands and thousands of miles, a key Cantometric paradox:

(Courtesy Anna Lomax Wood/Association for Cultural Equity)
(Courtesy Anna Lomax Wood/Association for Cultural Equity)

Lomax was assisted by Conrad Arensberg, a Columbia-based anthropologist at the cutting edge of a different stream within American anthropology that has been retroactively labelled “cultural ecology,” an approach recently made famous through Jared Diamond with such books as his award-winning Guns, Germs and Steel. Arensberg was in turn influenced by the genius of the Yale-based American anthropologist George Peter Murdock, who was developing a comparative database of world cultures from which emerged his Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, a vast range of ethnographic data that allows for the development and quantitative testing of anthropological hypotheses.

The results of this multidisciplined search were presented at a daylong conference by Lomax and 14 colleagues and then published under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1968, under the title Folk Song Style and Culture. A few years later in 1976, Lomax published another book with cassette tapes and training materials for those who would like to master Cantometric analysis.

Lomax expected to be heralded as a pioneer, the kind of man who creates a new research paradigm, for what later came to be called the “digital humanities.” But he failed to understand that the next generation of ethnomusicologists, baby boomers to a man and woman, were not interested in number crunching or universalist paradigms. They were far too busy developing an ethnographic particularism that began to focus on gender, race, identity, and, when done with some ethnomethodological discipline, subjectivity.


Lomax’s book, The Land Where the Blues Began, is a literary tour de force. In contrast, Folk Song Style and Culture is as dry and dense as a computer manual, because in many ways it is one. Here is a sample, from page 49:

Code this point when any one simple meter, duple, triple, “simple” or compound -runs through the whole song. Thus if the entire song is in 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, 9/8 or any other similar meter, it should be coded R-v. However, R-v should not be coded if the accents within the measure are unevenly distributed in a consistent manner throughout the song (e.g., 9/8 divided into 2/8, 2/8, 3/8).

One has to read Folk Song Style and Culture many times to distill what Lomax and his team came up with. But when that is done, the correlations are astonishing. They are mostly of five kinds: geographical, historical, social, cultural, and psychological. The world was divided up into a limited group of song styles each with its own geographic distribution, which in turn correlated with ethnic groups concentrated in specific geographic areas.

There was the African hunter-gatherer style found in the Congo and the Kalahari among Pygmy and Bushmen hunter-gatherers. Tropical gardeners corresponds with the slash-and-burn horticulturalists of largely Bantu sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Pacific. Then there is Malayo Polynesia, Proto Melanesia, Nuclear America, the Circum Pacific, Siberian, Western Europe, Central Asia, and Old High Culture styles.

Although Lomax categorized the world’s musical cultures as falling anywhere between two contrasting types, simply defined as “groupy” and “solo oriented,” he believed that each musical culture had historically—and more importantly, prehistorically—emerged or “evolved” from the one before it. Thus, and with some encouragement from his French colleague, ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget (who had spent much time among the Pygmies of Africa) he reached the conclusion that the Pygmy Bushman style was the Ur music that went out of Africa and which has given rise to the other styles of music as people migrated and adopted more complex technology and social organization.

Lomax, like most cultural ecologists, believed that as societies have differentiated they have become more complex. He believed that in some ways this was the case for the musical styles that have developed since the original Pygmy Bushman style of our African ancestors. There is no irony in the fact that as Lomax was one of the most outspoken civil rights activists of his day, he had no problem, like Darwin before him, with the assumption of biological evolution that we all came “out of Africa.” He argued that all our music goes back to the Pygmies in the central African rainforest and the Kalahari.

Lomax argued that as productive complexity rises, narrow intervals become more frequent. He also found that embellishment and free rhythm also relate to a high level of production. It is most developed among complex pastoralists and irrigationists, and in Old High cultures it is epitomized by the bard. These traits are related to the high degree of deference in social and interpersonal relations in this kind of hierarchically ordered society. Lomax also found that the number and types of instruments often correspond to the level of social stratification in a society, or, less elegantly, to the degree of political and economic inequality characterizing groups in a society, injecting new sociological meaning into his mentor Curt Sachs and Hornbostel’s classification of musical instruments.

Contrastingly, hunters and gatherers were seen to, on the whole, favor singing with large intervals, which implies a less confining approach to social and ecological space, i.e., they live in a society where access to key resources, food, and attention are equally open to all members. His team found that “contoids”—that is, consonant clusters—occurred less frequently among extractors and increased dramatically with the adoption of animal husbandry and plow agriculture. A high frequency of back consonants correlates with productive simplicity whereas, front and mid-consonants correlate with productive complexity.

Folk Song Style and Culture is full of these kinds of findings and hypotheses and Lomax hoped that other teams would go through the same tedious scientific process that he had. He was wrong.


Anna Lomax Wood in her recent review articles on the project outlines the reasons why Cantrometrics was received with less than the ecstasy that her father had hoped for. The first was that most ethnomusicologists rejected the attempt to quantify musical and cultural correlations. As the ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin told her in 2016:

The most worrisome aspect of the project, critics said, was that it brushed away the details of everyday human life. Some scholars inferred that Murdock was the principal theoretical influence upon Lomax and that both Murdock and Lomax theorized culture as a bounded entity with uniform traits tied to a single geographic location. The system was too categorical; its classifications were finite; and it did not reflect the reality of migration, diasporas, interpenetrations of cultures, and widely scattered peoples. The Jews, who spread out far over many centuries and adopted and created many musical languages, constitute perhaps the world’s most famous instance of such particularity.

Then there was the manner and style in which Lomax received these criticisms:

The broad swath of reviews came early, in 1970, after Folk Song Style and Culture was published. I remember coming to the office one day and finding Alan in the back room in a state of despair. His hypersensitivity to criticism was his nemesis. He was very thin-skinned, and it was hard for him to take even constructive criticism as anything but a devastating rejection.

Lomax and his team kept on working on the project until just before he was unable to work due to illness. They tried to answer the critics. They elaborated the methodology, refined the statistics, added samples from underrepresented cultures such as the Far East, and kept up a dialogue with those few scholars who were interested in cross-cultural work, a smaller and smaller number as we approached the beginning of the last millennium.

Cantometric Profile for African Hunters (Alan Lomax Collection, Manuscripts, The Homogeneity of African-New World Negro Musical Style, 1967, Library of Congress)
Cantometric Profile for African Hunters (Alan Lomax Collection, Manuscripts, The Homogeneity of African-New World Negro Musical Style, 1967, Library of Congress)

Then something odd happened. The data sets coming out of genetics, archaeology, and linguistics, particularly the work of Cavalli-Sforza and his students, which infused genetic evidence with prehistory, language development, and migration studies, with their Out of Africa and mitochondrial Eve hypotheses, was found to correlate with the data sets from Cantometrics. If one accepts Occam’s razor as a principle of reason, this suggests that Lomax and the team had indeed been on the right track. During the last few years geneticists have followed suit.

Cantometrics may demonstrate what the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould called “punctuated evolution.” In this case, a long-lasting gestalt is created, one that represents the feeling state of a group at its founding, alongside its immediate social organizational and cultural correlates. Social and cultural conditions can change but the Cantometric gestalt can stay the same. Then some crisis emerges, and a new profile can emerge from the old one. This roughly explains the possible origins of many of the hybrid Afro and Anglo repertoires that emerged in the New World from the clash of African and Western European musical traditions.

Five years ago, I went to the Central African Republic to spend some weeks among the Pygmies there, listening to their music as I was working on a documentary about their plight. They are being slowly pushed out of their ancestral forest homes and soon their traditional music may disappear. Sitting in the great cathedral of the African rain forest I heard their singing and recognized the typical Pygmy Bushman profile of their harmonic/rhythmic style that is so well described by Cantometrics and that has been so thoroughly explored by Lomax, Gilbert Rouget, Anna Lomax Wood, and their colleagues.

As I saw the sunlight burst through the high canopy and heard the many-parted harmonies of the Pygmies, it provided me with a just requiem for Alan Lomax and Curt Sachs whose spirits, no doubt, were hovering nearby.

Geoffrey Clarfield is a Toronto-based musician and anthropologist.

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