The Red-rumor blues
WHEN Alan Lomax died in July 2002 at age 87, his reputation as America’s preeminent advocate of traditional music seemed above reproach. “His importance in the daily work of our profession cannot be adequately eulogized,” folklorist Roger Abrahams wrote at the time. “Lomax was the person most responsible for the great explosion of interest in American folk song throughout the mid-twentieth century.” Other commentators chimed in with effusive praise for the man who helped discover or advance the careers of Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton and many other musicians who are now household names.
The range of Lomax’s activities was dazzling. He made his mark as an author, record producer, broadcaster, professor, archivist and public advocate, but above all as a field researcher, willing to travel the country, and eventually the globe, in pursuit of the music of the common people. But in the last four years, a more complex story has emerged. Last year Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov, in their book “Lost Delta Found,” charged Lomax with taking undue credit for the contributions of his African American collaborators during field work conducted in Mississippi in the early 1940s. In Gordon’s words, Lomax “erased” the efforts of John Work, a Fisk University professor who helped him.
Several scholars have come to Lomax’s defense, offering a strong rebuttal to these critics, but the widely publicized accusations have cast a pall over the reputation of a man who was once viewed as America’s most dedicated advocate of traditional black music.
Now the release of previously classified FBI materials on Lomax adds another twist to the evolving biography. These documents, which came into my possession after I filed a request with the FBI as part of my research for a book on the Delta blues, reveal that the bureau repeatedly investigated the late folk-song collector over a period of 40 years.
The materials track the extraordinary degree of intrusion by the government into the life of a man whose energies were devoted almost exclusively to the insular world of folk songs.
The files, amounting to several hundred pages, show that Lomax was questioned by federal agents at least twice, in 1942 and 1979. In the 1940s, the bureau may have tried to have Lomax disciplined while he was an employee of the Library of Congress. In the 1950s, the FBI redoubled its efforts and advised the attorney general’s office on the possible prosecution of Lomax for providing false information to federal agents -- the same statute that recently sent Martha Stewart to prison. As late as 1979, the bureau was still pursuing leads, focusing on a bizarre charge that Lomax had impersonated an FBI agent during a visit to New Hampshire.
Over the years, agents interviewed people who knew Lomax at Harvard, the University of Texas, Columbia University, the Library of Congress, CBS and at his publisher (Macmillan). They also talked to his friends, neighbors and casual acquaintances, checked his credit record, uncovered his traffic violations, noted his hygiene and social habits and even talked to the clerk at his local liquor store to learn about his drinking preferences.
An overheard remark
A casual comment made at a wedding reception in the 1930s may have triggered the initial investigation. An anonymous informant sent a letter to the St. Louis branch of the FBI in 1941 relating that Lomax’s father, the esteemed song collector John Lomax, was heard telling guests that his son had boasted to him of his Communist sympathies, asserting, “I am just as much a Communist as I ever was -- if not a stronger one, but don’t say anything about it for you will only get me in trouble.” Despite finding insufficient evidence to support prosecution, the probe was periodically renewed, although the charges under consideration varied over the years.
Many of the FBI’s early efforts focused on Lomax’s activities while he was a freshman at Harvard. Lomax had been arrested as part of a demonstration demanding the release of Edith Berkman, viewed by the FBI as a “Communist agitator” who was facing deportation. Lomax was charged with disturbing the peace and fined $25.
In 1942, the FBI dispatched an agent to Lomax’s former freshman dormitory at Harvard to investigate further -- an odd move given that a decade had elapsed since the event and the current residents were unlikely to have information about an obscure incident that took place when they were in second grade. But the bureau continued to investigate the matter, trying to show that Lomax had either distributed Communist literature or made public speeches in support of the party. Lomax must have felt it necessary to address the suspicions. He gave a sworn statement to an FBI agent on April 3, 1942, denying both of these charges. He also explained his arrest while at Harvard as the result of police overreaction. He was, he claimed, 15 at the time -- he was actually 17 and a college student -- and he said he had intended to participate in a peaceful demonstration.
Lomax said he and his colleagues agreed to stop their protest when police asked them to but that he was grabbed by a couple of policemen as he was walking away. “That is pretty much the story there except that it distressed my father very, very much,” Lomax told the FBI. “I had to defend my righteous position, and he couldn’t understand me and I couldn’t understand him. It has made a lot of unhappiness for the two of us because he loved Harvard and wanted me to be a great success there.” Lomax transferred to the University of Texas the following year.
In June 1942, the FBI apparently sent a dossier on Lomax to Archibald MacLeish, then the librarian of Congress. At the time, Lomax was preparing for a follow-up field trip to the Mississippi Delta on behalf of the library where, in a few weeks, he would make landmark recordings of Muddy Waters, Son House and David “Honeyboy” Edwards, among others.
On July 2, MacLeish wrote to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover defending Lomax. “I have studied the findings of these reports carefully,” MacLeish wrote. “I do not find positive evidence that Mr. Lomax has been engaged in subversive activities or is other than a loyal American citizen, and I am therefore taking no disciplinary action toward him.”
The FBI redoubled its efforts in response to this rebuff, but further investigations gathered nothing of substance. Yet what the probe failed to find in terms of prosecutable evidence, it made up for in speculation about his character. An FBI report dated July 23, 1943, describes Lomax as possessing “an erratic, artistic temperament” and a “bohemian attitude.”
It says: “He has a tendency to neglect his work over a period of time and then just before a deadline he produces excellent results.... He has no sense of money values, handling his own and Government property in a neglectful manner. Neighborhood investigation shows him to be a peculiar individual in that he is only interested in folk lore music, being very temperamental and ornery.”
The file quotes one informant who said that “Lomax was a very peculiar individual, that he seemed to be very absent-minded and that he paid practically no attention to his personal appearance.” This same source adds that he suspected Lomax’s peculiarity and poor grooming habits came from associating with the hillbillies who provided him with folk tunes.
Coming up empty
IN 1956, the FBI launched a new investigation, preparing a detailed memorandum on Lomax. Hoover sent a copy of this 68-page report, which drew on dozens of sources, to the director of the CIA and the attorney general’s office. William Tompkins, assistant attorney general, wrote to Hoover in December 1956 that the investigation “fails to disclose sufficient evidence” to warrant prosecution for providing false or misleading information to federal agents or false statements in a passport application.
The files conclude with a strange report from July 1979 that suggests that Lomax had recently impersonated an FBI agent. The report states that “an individual was observed conducting some type of surveillance, and when questioned, this individual displayed a card described as similar to an index card with his name on it. There were no initials FBI, however, this individual allegedly told the person who stopped him that he was with the FBI.”
The author of the report found it worth noting that the suspect, later identified as “Allen Lomax,” was found in the vicinity of the office of the National Tax Limitation Committee, a “special interest group for lobbyists” in New Hampshire.
Many of the facts provided in the report suggest a case of mistaken identity. The person who reported the incident to the FBI said that the man in question was around 43, about 5 feet 9 inches and 190 pounds. The FBI file notes that Lomax stood 6 feet tall, weighed 240 pounds and was 64 at the time.
Elsewhere in the files, Lomax seems to have been confused with other individuals with similar names.
Lomax resisted the FBI’s attempts to interview him about the impersonation charges, but he finally met with agents at his home in November 1979. He denied that he’d been involved in the matter but did note that he’d been in New Hampshire in July 1979, visiting a film editor about a documentary. The FBI’s report concluded that “Lomax made no secret of the fact that he disliked the FBI and disliked being interviewed by the FBI. Lomax was extremely nervous throughout the interview.”
The FBI ended its investigation the next year, shortly after Lomax’s 65th birthday, apparently concluding the bureau’s long-standing interest in the activities of the country’s foremost collector of folk songs.
Gioia wrote “The History of Jazz.”