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Thursday 28 September 2023 Dublin: 13°C
# lomax in éirinn
Alan Lomax: The man who wanted to save Irish traditional music with his tape recorder
A new documentary looks at Lomax’s work in the US and here in Ireland.

Pol Pól Brennan of Clannad in the documentary

ALAN LOMAX WANTED to travel the world and preserve music. The son of a folklorist himself, he grew up to become a musician and ethnomusicologist, a man who went out into the field and recorded what was happening there.

Without him, we wouldn’t have had some of the incredible music we’ve enjoyed over the past 60 years.

During his lifetime (Lomax died aged 87 in 2002), he recorded blues, folk and traditional songs on tape, bringing musicians like Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Robert Johnson to ears across the world.

But he also came here to Ireland, and a new documentary – Lomax in Éirinn – looks at his 1951 trip as well as his work in the USA. The documentary uncovers the story behind that trip and shows how it resulted in the first LP of Irish music.

Lomax in Éirinn features performances from contemporary artists Steve Earle, Clannad, Slow Moving Clouds, The Tulla Ceilí Band and Nell Ní Chronáin, who all perform music that Lomax preserved.

Galway Film Fleadh / YouTube

When he arrived in Ireland in 1951, Lomax wrote:

The last notes of the old, high and beautiful Irish civilization are dying away. A civilization which produced an epic, lyrical and musical literature as noble as any in the world.

His recordings went on to help inspire the 1970s revival of Irish music by bands such as Planxty, The Bothy Band and Clannad. Pól Brennan of Clannad is the presenter who brings Lomax’s story to viewers of the documentary, as he travels to the Mississippi delta, New York and Washington before travelling through the places where Lomax recorded in Ireland.

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Contributors to Lomax in Éirinn include Iarla Ó Lionáird (The Gloaming), John Spillane, Brian Mullan, Ian Lee, Grace Toland, Danny Diamond, Nicholas Carolan and Deirdre Ní Chongaile.

Forgotten music

Director of the film Declan McGrath said that Lomax in Éirinn “is ultimately an exploration of the value of music to humanity”.

Alan Lomax gave up his life to record, preserve and promote the forgotten music of the margins. This programme asks what drove him to do that.

Pól Brennan of Clannad noted his personal connection to Lomax – one the singers he recorded in 1951 was Cití Ní Ghallchóir, a neighbour of his from Gweedore Co Donegal, and one of the songs that Alan recorded from Cití had been translated into Irish by Brennan’s grandfather Aodh Ó Dugain.

Microphone 1

McGrath explained to that Lomax “recorded people nobody else had heard of, people who were in the margins and ignored”.

“Then he brought that music into the mainstream and that would be the music the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, all listened to in the 1960s. In the late 1950s he was getting worried because of the way the mass media was developing, the way society was changing – that that kind of music was getting ignored and was in danger of disappearing,” said McGrath.

Lomax wanted to save all of the world’s traditional music from disappearing, and came to Ireland as part of that mission.

“When he set out on his world mission he was inspired by two new invention – the tape recorder had just been invented,” explained McGrath. “So he was able to go and record music. The LP had just been invented, so he was going to put the music on an LP and everyone on the planet would have access to it.”

Edges of society

Lomax went out to where the music was and helped bring it to new people. “One of the things I loved about it was it is all about the value of music,” said McGrath. “The thing about Lomax is he gave up his life, really, to recording music and preserving it.”

“He developed a philosophy about that. He started recording songs by black people in prisons. You can imagine these are people who are really only not on the edges of society, outside normal society, going in and recording their music and realising that their artforms, their means of expression are as valuable and powerful as other more recognisable forms of art.”

Alan Lomax Archive / YouTube

As for the Irish traditional music, McGrath said: “It’s just a great story of music and the value of music and it’s always interesting for us to see how we or our culture was viewed on the outside by someone like that, and why he thought not only was it very good but worth recording.”

When Lomax arrived in Ireland, McGrath said that there were no traditional musicians playing professionally – “he was recording farmers, housewives, fishermen”. For some, such music was only worth leaving in the past, but Lomax helped revive it.

“Often it takes someone like that to say this is something really valuable,” said McGrath. A traditional Irish music archive had been set up in Ireland a few years before Lomax’s visit, but McGrath said they didn’t have same technology. “They were actually some people that were very far-sighted but the injection of this American who came in and said ‘I am going to record all this and put it across the world’ – imagine someone like that.”

Lomax’s recordings were released on Columbia Records. “It would have been a very important recognition,” said McGrath. These tracks inspired the Irish trad revival 20 years later.

“It’s a great story to remember and celebrate,” said McGrath. It’s hoped the film will get wider cinema distribution, and TG4 will broadcast it in the autumn.

Lomax in Éirinn was produced and directed by Declan McGrath, shot by Colm Hogan, edited by Dermot Diskin, with sound by Bob Brennan. The writer was Felim Mac Dermott, The film was made by Aisling Productions for TG4 with the support of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and the Irish Language Broadcast Fund of NI Screen.

Members of Clannad and Iarla Ó Lionáird (The Gloaming) will appear at the premiere of new film, Lomax in Éirinn, at the Galway Film Fleadh at 8pm on Wednesday 11 July. Tickets are available here

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