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John Szwed’s biography of Alan Lomax

“Worse than thieves are ballad collectors, for when they capture and imprison in cold type a folk song, at the same time they kill it.”  John Lomax, from the introduction to American Ballads and Folk Songs

“One of the reasons that Alan has made enemies is that he has done most of his research on money he’s made himself out of the folk field.  That’s a fatal thing to do in this country.  He not only made money, but he’s won some fame and prestige and delighted other people.  That’s even worse.”  Margaret Mead.

He was “always singing peculiar songs of a Western and Negro type” and was “known to associate with a Negro by the name of ‘Lead Belly’ who was released from a southern penitentiary.”  From Alan Lomax’s FBI file.

“Alan did not regard folksong as something ‘on the side’; he viewed it as an integral part of the life of the community involved, and he enlisted wide reading and lively intellectual curiosity towards the exploring of all its various ramifications.  His ruthlessness and intolerance of anything smacking of humbug earned him enemies; he was frequently dubbed a predator and a jungle-cat egotist.  Others alleged that he was an oversized humbug himself, and an assiduous organizer of his own legend.  However my own feeling is that Alan is, in his own way, a man of genius.”  Hamish Henderson, who worked with Lomax in Scotland.

Carl Sandburg wrote Alan about whether he needed more college:  “I was going to say that you already carry a miniature university under your hat and what you need is a target rather than more javelins.”

Alan Lomax is an essential figure of 20th Century American music.   Beginning with his father and then very shortly on his own at a startlingly early age, he showed unerring instinct in finding and recording traditional musicians, first in the American South, and then in the Caribbean and Europe.  He worked with a fascinating group of musicians (was the first to record Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, and Fred McDowell, along with major recordings by Woody Guthrie, and many others).  His influence extended beyond folk circles—after Lomax made his field recordings in Spain, Gil Evans was given a copy of the album, and Evans and Miles Davis were struck by the beauty of the music, working two melodies into Davis’s album Sketches of Spain.

He was and remains controversial.  He and his father copyrighted Leadbelly’s “Good Night Irene,” and the royalties when that became a hit (whose role in “writing” the song was that he and his father collected it and put it in print) had a major part in financing Alan Lomax’s efforts in the Fifties.  Lomax believed that a collector should be paid—should get royalties—for the work of recording and documenting traditional material.  Writing about Leadbelly, Richard Wright called the prison recordings John and Alan Lomax made “one of the most amazing swindles in American history.”  With a few exceptions, Lomax was quite jealous about over-claiming credit from colleagues, to the point of virtually writing one (John Work) out of the story of a major research trip into the Delta in 1941.  He spent decades working on a universal theory of traditional song that as near as I can tell never quite jelled, although somewhere recently I saw a long quote from Brian Eno saying that one of the books Lomax wrote setting out the theories was one of the ten best books about music Eno had read.

John Szwed, who has earlier written biographies of Sun Ra and Miles Davis, has published a biography of Lomax, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded The World. Szwed was a friend of Lomax’s from the sixties, and his defensiveness of his friend comes through and weakens this biography as it moves into the second half of Lomax’s career.

Alan Lomax’s father John Lomax began collecting cowboy songs before WWI, and went to Harvard and studied under a student of ballad collector Francis James Childs.  Telling a short version of that story and Alan’s education and start as a song collector is the strongest part of this book—possibly because it builds on the solid work of others, like Nolan Porterfield’s biography of John Lomax—and it serves as an important history of the development of folk music in America before 1935.   If you want to understand the build-up to the folk revival, you have to read the first half of this book.

Describing the 1940s or thereabout, the book focuses much more exclusively on Alan Lomax and less on describing the overall context.  Sheer length may have dictated this, but the last half of the book is weaker from it.  There’s not the strong sense of how Lomax’s accomplishments fit in to the overall context of research into traditional music or the folk revival that you get in the first half of the book.

Even with the weaknesses noted, this is an excellent book.  It provides almost enough of the background information to judge for yourself where the author’s own views might color his conclusions.  If you’re going to try to understand the folk revival, or the efforts to document traditional music (American or world) in the 20th Century, you have to understand Alan Lomax’s contribution.

I’ll close with John and Alan Lomax recording in a prison in Nashville in 1932; one of the prisoners refused to sing secular songs until ordered to do so by the warden.   Even then, he started the recording by saying (here, I’m smoothing out some dialect transcription), “It’s hard times when a poor man, a member of the church, has to sing a sinful song.  But  oh, Lord, make it all right for me to sing this.”

This book is part of my book-a-week resolution.  I posted an earlier quote from the book and have a page devoted to a book a week.

Folks, let me know what you think about this book, and what you’re reading, in the thread below.

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