Book review: 'Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World' by John Szwed

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Alan Lomax

The Man Who Recorded the World

John Szwed

Viking: 438 pp., $29.95

Alan Lomax was a titanic figure whose ambitions were even greater than his formidable energies. Beginning his career as a folklorist in the 1930s with field recordings of African American music in the rural South, he aspired by the 1960s to nothing less than the analysis and classification of folk songs from around the world. Yet even as he accumulated statistics and countless reels of tape for high-level, cross-cultural comparisons, Lomax held fast to his vision of folk music as a window into the experiences of the poor and dispossessed. Folklore was not a dusty academic discipline, he insisted, but "one of the great well springs of the democratic attitudes that have in the past two centuries begun to make for a more equitable life for all mankind."

Grand statements like that were common currency for Lomax, who moved through the world "with an absolute assuredness of who he was and where he was," in the assessment of biographer John Szwed. A professor of music and jazz studies at Columbia University who knew Lomax in his later years, Szwed does not aim to critically evaluate his subject's sometimes cloudy ideas but rather to present them sympathetically. (Szwed's previous biographies of two other American originals, Miles Davis and Sun Ra, took a similar approach.)

The author has little interest in Lomax's personal life. Two marriages and multiple affairs are mentioned mostly in passing, as is his conflicted relationship with his father, John, a noted collector of cowboy ballads who introduced Alan to folklore but disliked the political conclusions his son drew from it. The psychological roots of Lomax's driven personality merit more analysis than they receive here, but it's hard to argue with Szwed's decision to focus on the crucial role he played in preserving and championing traditional music and the communities that produced it.

Making his first field trip with his father through their native Texas in 1933, 18-year-old Alan was galvanized by the passion of the people he was recording. "They felt they had communicated their problem to the big world," he wrote. "That's why they were singing for us … I saw what I had to do. My job was to try and get as much of these views, these feelings, this unheard majority onto the center of the stage." When he gave a lecture later that summer at the Library of Congress, Lomax took the radical step of playing the recordings, so that scholars who studied folk songs as historical artifacts could hear the voices of humans participating in a living culture.

Dealing with living human beings could be complicated, as witnessed in the Lomaxes' relationship with the fiery blues guitarist Leadbelly, doing time in Louisiana's Angola prison when they first recorded him. After he was paroled, Leadbelly served as driver on some Lomax field trips, performed during their lectures and was the subject of a book by John Lomax. The financial arrangements for these projects gave rise to charges of exploitation, charges Alan would again hear when grappling with the thorny issue of copyrights for printed anthologies of folk songs, or for field recordings that were later issued for sale. Szwed makes a reasonably convincing case that Alan tried to be fair (though noting that many disagreed with his contention that collectors deserved payment too) and reminds us that "no one had yet come up with a way to determine who was the creator of a folk song."

In Lomax's view, folk music was the creation of a collective culture, more vital and important than anything fashioned by individuals. His recordings made that previously ignored culture accessible to younger generations, though he wasn't always happy with the uses they made of it. He harshly judged the folk revival of the late '50s as "a careerist machine … folk songs stripped of their social roots [and] turned into fodder for pop artists." He was surprisingly receptive to rock 'n' roll: "A stampeding herd of youngsters [who] set America singing, dancing, rocking to its own rhythms." Yet he remained wary of the mass media, which he feared were wiping out centuries-old folkways, encouraging people to passively consume commercial culture instead of making their own.

To the end of his life in 2002, Lomax was an old-fashioned populist, happiest out in the field immersing himself in the music and memories of the common people. He appreciated the genius of artists such as Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie (both first recorded by Lomax), but he was more interested in the context of their music, the world they came from and the communal experiences they voiced. Ironically, his flamboyant, theatrical, outsized personality meant that he didn't fit comfortably in any group; he was always an outsider asking questions. A quintessential bohemian (complete with beard and sideburns), he served as fierce advocate for traditional ways that were never his. In this dense, rich biography, Szwed captures Lomax with all his contradictions intact, refusing to tidy him up.

Smith, a contributing editor for the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for The Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.

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