Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World
Review of new biography on noted folklorist and musicologist
At first glance, Sun Ra biographer John Szwed might seem an unusual choice to chronicle the life of Alan Lomax (1915-2002), arguably the twentieth century’s most important scholar of folk music. But Szwed’s Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World presents a man who may have started out capturing songs like a lepidopterist trapping butterflies, but who eventually came to see music as a progressive continuum, binding people across oceans and generations.
Lomax’s career as a folklorist began almost as a lark, when he decided to spend a summer on the road gathering music with his father John, himself a prominent folk-song collector. The life that ensued took Lomax from the yards of Parchman Farm to the concert stage at Carnegie Hall. Not too shabby for a man with an ambivalent-at-best formal education whose financial situation could usually be charitably characterized as precarious.
Szwed provides a colorful account of Lomax’s travels, along with deft thumbnail biographies of the musicians Lomax helped to popularize. He nicely sketches Lomax’s association with blues legend Lead Belly, with whom Lomax, in classic white-liberal fashion, sought a personal connection. Woody Guthrie, whom Lomax recorded in the late 1930s, is portrayed as a “southwestern Walt Whitman” who could “play the hillbilly to perfection when it suited him”. Szwed also lays out Lomax’s early critical attitudes about jazz (he once called the music “my worst enemy”) and how he came to understand its place in the folk-music continuum after his interview with Jelly Roll Morton.
Szwed doesn’t shy away from the rougher aspects of Lomax’s life, in many ways as fraught as that of the artists he brought to the world. A progressive racial thinker and advocate for the poor, a “pied piper of the Other America”, Lomax was victim to myriad persecutions, from the criticisms of fellow liberals who saw his promotion of black artists as opportunistic to the HUAC witch hunters who drove Lomax into an eight-year European exile as a suspected Communist. The aforementioned financial troubles, coupled with problematic relationships with women, are all underscored by Lomax’s head-butting with the academic intelligentsia, who often resisted the findings of a man who, studious though he was, was not “one of them”.
It’s a jam-packed life, but Szwed’s book manages to cover it all with minimal difficulties. The chronology of events can sometimes become muddled, and Szwed is admittedly stronger on Lomax’s career than on his private life. The book also becomes somewhat dry in its final chapters, when Lomax moves into the laboratory to develop a theory of “cantometrics”, linking vocal style, body movement, even throat-muscle tension into a “general theory” of folk music style. This is clearly Lomax’s attempt to give his work academic legitimacy, but it’s less interesting reading than tales of getting arrested in southern juke joints and hosting Village jam sessions with Bob Dylan in attendance. Nevertheless, Szwed’s book is an engaging biography of a man who, as much as any twentieth-century figure, has shaped our contemporary understanding of music.