Songs of Ourselves

Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World BY John Szwed. Viking Adult. Hardcover, 448 pages. $29.

The cover of Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World

“For a collector . . . ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to things,” wrote Walter Benjamin in “Unpacking My Library.” “Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” Benjamin’s distinction is illuminating in the context of debates over twentieth-century folklorist Alan Lomax. Lomax, who died in 2002, has a permanent place in the pantheon of American music—and yet the legacy of the Ivy League–educated white ethnomusicologist is complicated by his role as a collector of folk songs by poor, uneducated artists, many of them black. Lomax traversed the American South in the 1930s and ’40s, gathering thousands of ballads, spirituals, and blues and work songs with a portable recording device. Some of the performances were exceptional, and many of the musicians had never been heard outside their home counties. Lomax’s recordings changed that—a good thing—but he inevitably took a share of the recognition, via copyrights or royalties. Allegations that he exploited the talent have dogged his reputation ever since.

Those who view Lomax as a swindler and a cultural imperialist often point to his seemingly arrogant air of ownership regarding the music of other people—and to his fondness for the first-person pronoun: “There is an impulsive and romantic streak in my nature that I find difficult to control when I go song hunting” is how Lomax opens The Land Where the Blues Began (1993), his engaging memoir of a 1940s recording trip through the Mississippi Delta. But through jazz historian John Szwed’s new biography, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, we see the passion and intimacy that fueled Lomax’s life. Lomax did not merely see himself as an agent for such music; he occupied folk songs as his own emotional and intellectual habitat.

Szwed, a friend of Lomax, retains his personal sympathies as his biographer. He shies away from the harshest criticisms and seeks to rebut controversies, notably those surrounding ownership. The very idea of copyrighting folk songs remains contentious, but Szwed shows that Lomax’s aims were as a rule benevolent. His hand-to-mouth existence was all in the service of his “vision of turning folklore into national art”—which included a steady stream of books and commercial releases of his field recordings, together with later projects for radio and film, concerts, and festivals (he was an organizer of the renowned Newport Folk Festival).

Alan Lomax (left) on a recording expedition in the Bahamas, 1935.
Alan Lomax (left) on a recording expedition in the Bahamas, 1935.

His corpus grew to include songs gathered over nearly a decade in Europe, and he continued to assert an enormous influence in subsequent decades, in helping spark not only the American and British folk revivals but also the eventual vogues for skiffle and rock ’n’ roll. (Szwed could have done the reader of his excessively detailed biography a service in providing a list of suggested reading and listening.)

Szwed’s portrait of Lomax as a popularizer clashes with the predominant perception of him as a musical purist, field recorder, and archivist. He was those things, and his output remains a primary text for old-time music. But he also understood that in order for folk music to have the same effect on other people as it did on him, they needed to experience it in person, in the voice and body of the performer. In Chronicles, Bob Dylan describes visits to Lomax’s small West Village apartment in the ’60s: “Lomax used to have parties twice a month where he’d bring in folksingers to play. . . . You might see Roscoe Holcomb or Clarence Ashley or Dock Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Pete Williams or even Don Stover and The Lilly Brothers. . . . I can’t say I’d seen any performances that were like spiritual experiences until I went to Lomax’s loft.”

Lomax’s father, John, was rooted in an older folklorist tradition preoccupied almost exclusively with the provenance and authenticity of song lyrics. As Szwed documents, anxieties of paternal influence carried from Lomax’s Texas youth over into adulthood—“time is always the shadow of old man John A.,” he wrote in midlife, “to rise and confound any impression I might have that I am doing well something on my own.” But these psychic conflicts were central to Lomax’s determination to claim his own patch of folklore soil, on his own terms. During his abortive one-year tour at Harvard, he drank deeply of dorm-room Marxism—an experience that prompted him to merge the folklorist’s vocation with political commitments that clashed with his father’s gentlemanly detachment.

Nonetheless, the Lomaxes were collaborators for decades hence, beginning with road trips together that laid bare for them the tense racial order of the Jim Crow South. Among the most memorable such tours were their visits to prisons in Mississippi and Louisiana in search of voices and songs untainted by the radio waves. The younger Lomax was profoundly affected by the oppression and suffering of these forgotten men; as Szwed recounts, he heard “something altogether different. These songs were approached at a deeply personal level, the singers enacting them, inhabiting them, assuming the song’s persona through the ever-present ‘I.’” That first-person perspective—of both the singer and the listener—signified the possibility that such music “was as close as twentieth-century people were going to come to the sound of slavery. . . . It would be a reference point for the world’s music for the rest of his life.” At Louisiana’s Angola prison, John and Alan heard a rendition of “The Midnight Special” by a man named Lead Belly. The song’s lyrics—“Go down, old Hannah / Don’t you rise no more / If you rise in the mornin’ / Set the world on fire”—began to sound less like cultural artifacts meant to be filed away for study and more like urgent words of protest: testaments from a deeply wronged and otherwise voiceless culture. It would become Lomax’s aim to share such testaments with his countrymen, in hopes that they could inspire social change, not to mention appreciation for America’s truest national art form. “So I had found my folks,” he wrote in one of the many letters quoted by Szwed. “I had found the people that I wanted to represent.”

It was also on these roadtrips that Lomax started interviewing musicians about their lives, communities, and personal travails; he would later ghostwrite for Lead Belly a brief autobiography based on such sessions, and his encouragement of Jelly Roll Morton resulted in a monthlong recitation of the jazz pioneer’s life story. Lomax embraced a romantic notion of selfhood—not just his own but that of the performers, too—and began to appreciate how “singers draw on their own experiences, use their bodies and their faces to register meaning and sincerity,” writes Szwed. Himself a college dropout, Lomax nonetheless felt closely associated with the intellectual trends of his era. Between the wars, Americans were in the midst of discovering their own national selfhood and beginning “to think seriously about the culture they had developed, and about where they stood among the nations of the world.” The new generation of anthropologists, including Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, who sought to meet this challenge by collapsing the distinction between high and low culture, helped propel Lomax’s emerging vision of a folk-based national identity. As Szwed writes: “The country was hungry for a vision of itself in song.”

Possessed with an incredible energy, Lomax had by his late twenties become the country’s best-known folklorist, making regular visits to Washington, DC (where he was assistant in charge of the Smithsonian’s folk-music archive), and New York (where he helped book performances by musicians he’d met in the field). Soon he had the voices he needed to tell America its own signature story—or stories—of itself. Lomax embarked on perhaps the most populist phase of his career, by promoting folk music as a social and political force with the likes of Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger. By the 1940s, he was organizing concerts (sometimes with famed Columbia Records A&R man John Hammond) at New York’s Town Hall and Carnegie Hall, as well as producing radio shows for CBS (and later, in Europe, for the BBC). Still, Lomax’s unquenchable enthusiasm for all music brought out his greatest attributes and, ultimately, his greatest failing—an omnivorous intellect. “I wish I had the virtue of the single-track mind,” he wrote in 1937, “but I am interested in everything I hear.”

In the southern hinterlands, Lomax’s voracious cultural appetites worked in his favor. But as his horizon expanded, and as he synthesized more of the world’s music, growing attuned even to pop sounds on the radio, such appetites became an affliction. Pushed to the sidelines by the young “city billys” on his return to New York after nearly a decade abroad, Lomax during the ’60s edged toward the shelter of the academy, thanks to his friend Margaret Mead, who invited him to lecture at the American Anthropological Association. For the remainder of his career, he pursued a science of song, but this new approach was increasingly disconnected from tangible goals such as finding and sharing new music. “I have hit upon three ways of describing with a considerable degree of scientific control what goes on whenever a group of people come together to sing in any culture,” he wrote in 1961. His influence waned, and in response to criticisms he retreated—as a result, Szwed is forced to give strikingly cursory treatment to Lomax’s career from the ’70s on.

Still, generations of would-be scholars, building on the model of Lomax, looked to the music of old, weird America for a countercultural alternative. Today Lomax bashing is a tempest in a boxed set, and part of a broader tendency to fixate on immaculately assembled, glorious reissues. Connoisseurs are endemic to any art form, and America’s indigenous music is no exception. But the reason Lomax remains profound is because his accumulations were only ever a means to an end. Taken as a whole, he helped America learn to listen to itself, and to hear great charm and originality.

Kolby Yarnell is managing editor of Bookforum.