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Thursday 17 January 2013

When Alan Lomax Met Calum Maclean

Some three months before the formal foundation of the School of Scottish Studies, at the University of Edinburgh, Alan Lomax (1915–2002) arrived from America in order to gather material for the World Albums of Folk and Primitive Music which Columbia Records were then sponsoring. Lomax is undoubtedly one of the most influential American ethnomusicologists of his generation and much of his work can be heard and seen on the extensive Cultural Equity website. Lomax has also been the subject of a recent biographical study entitled A Biography of Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (2010). He conducted interviews and made fieldwork recordings with the likes of American folk music luminaries such as Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Muddy Waters. Based in London between 1950 and 1958, Lomax turned his attention to the British folk music scene, and after being in Ireland, he then naturally turned his sights on Scotland. His first thoughts might have been to whom he could turn to in order to open up the riches of Scottish traditions and, in particular, of Gaelic song. By initially contacting Hamish Henderson, Lomax was introduced to Sorley and Calum Maclean, both of whom were more than happy to help the young American in his enterprise to record the Gaelic music of the Highlands and Islands.

On the 16th of July 1951, Maclean wrote in his diary that Lomax had made contact:
I began transcribing this morning and I today worked on the material I recorded from John MacDonald. I kept on transcribing all day today until about ten o’clock at night. I received word on the phone today from Alan Lomax, the American, who had made a great collection of songs. He said that he was in Edinburgh and that he was coming up to see me tomorrow. He’ll be welcome, if he gets here.
The very next day, Lomax arrived and was made more than welcome. Both collectors then went to record songs from a Moidart woman then living in Onich, Nether Lochaber:
It was very wet this morning. Before I left the house, I received word from Alan Lomax that he was down in Inveraray. He was coming up from Glasgow but something went wrong. He told me he would meet me in about four hours’ time. It was raining very heavily when I went to Mass in Roybridge. I saw John MacDonald and I told him that Alan Lomax was coming tonight. John said that he would come next Sunday and that he had six or seven other stories to tell. After I returned home, I began transcribing and I spent an hour or two at this work. About five o’clock in the  afternoon Alan Lomax, a big, heavyset man, arrived. He pleased me exceedingly. He told me that he had recorded songs from Calum Johnston and Flora MacNeil in Barra. I heard that there was a woman, Mrs MacKellaig, down in Onich and I decided that I’d go to visit her and see if she would give us songs. There was heavy rainfall when we got down there. A young, handsome lassie let us in and asked us to stay until her mother appeared. She was quite busy – according to what the lassie said. We didn’t need to wait terribly long before the housewife herself appeared. She was a small, beautiful woman. She belonged to Moidart. She had songs and she sang them well. She sang six or seven songs that she heard from the old folk in Moidart, especially those from her own mother. Alan Lomax was terribly pleased with these songs. At any rate, I was happy with that. It was about eleven o’clock at night when we returned home. We stayed a while in John MacDonell’s house.

On the 18th of July they then made their way from Speanbridge to go and do some further fieldwork collecting on the Isle of Skye and which also afforded Maclean the opportunity to go back home to visit his mother on the Isle of Raasay.

Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhir Nis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
Alan Lomax

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