How Alan Lomax Changed the Way We Hear American Music


Viking Adult

In 70 years of collecting and popularizing folk music, Alan Lomax changed the way people heard American music. John Szwed's new book, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, is the first biography of the world's most renowned folklorist: a musicologist, author, producer, archivist, filmmaker, DJ, TV host, producer and political activist who discovered Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters, recorded 5,000 hours of music and folklore recorded for the Library of Congress, and was trailed by the FBI and MI5.

Jelly Roll Morton, Zora Neal Hurston, Margaret Mead, Carl Sandburg, Eleanor Roosevelt and Bob Dylan (on whom Lomax is unfairly blamed for pulling the plug at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival) are but a few of characters that people this entertaining, informative, warts-and-all account of one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th century. Szwed, a Columbia professor, Yale emeritus, and author of biographies of Miles Davis and Sun Ra, spoke to The Atlantic from his home in New Jersey.

Was Alan Lomax the first musicologist to collect and record folk songs on a nearly global scale? And with globalization and the disappearance of traditional cultures, could he also be the last?

I'd say he is the last. When Lomax got into this, he had gone to a conference in Indiana where the where the world's academic musicologists were gathered, and he tried to pitch the idea that they could all together work and create a library of materials that would last forever, and they would each be the experts on their own areas and so forth. These records, he said, would each be the length of an academic monograph if you printed them out, and it would be a perfectly legitimate way to go with this. And of the whole crowd he got only Charles Seeger [father of Pete Seeger] saying it was a good idea. He went away angry about this, knowing that the academics weren't going to do the job.

At the same time, there were a few countries, the French and the Germans and some others, that had started out putting out recordings of their own country to see if they could do this—not even on a world scale—and all of them, for lack of money or support, stopped. Other than that, no one has really tried to do this, and no one has tried to do it since.

Before that there were Germans who thought globally, and he studied with two of them, Sachs and Herzog, but neither of those men had done this kind of collecting. They were exposed to archives in Germany, better than American archives, but by no means were they on the scale [that Lomax would reach]. So he had to put together an archive first of music, and then of dance and work practices, that would be better than any of the world. And they still are the best.

With his father, John Lomax, Alan Lomax was largely responsible for popularizing American folk music. They also legitimized folk music among academics and guardians of high culture—was that something new?

Collecting in these days sounds like a very odd thing to do, going anywhere or collecting anything: music, buttons, signs, whatever. But there is something behind this that is quite old. It goes back at least to the late 1700s and the rise or romanticism in Europe. The parallels between those early collectors and both their drive to collect and to authenticate their work was striking to me. Of course they had no recordings, so that was out. But if the text was really old and they could show by some philological means that it was old than that was good enough for them. All the first collectors, for about 40 to 50 years, going into the 1800s, were doing some kind of—fakery is too strong of a word—they were making up the rest of the songs that they didn't have, putting them into a languages older than what was warranted. But it didn't matter, except to a few—the people ate it up. Beethoven turned some of the earliest material, the Scots songs, into lieder using English; Coleridge quoted Scottish folk songs in his poetry.

In the case of the Scots on the English border [collectors] were dealing with border bandits and the ballads of those people, which had to do with incest and murder and cattle thievery and what have you, and the Lomaxes were down on the Texas border with Mexico and had parallel kind of situation. This was not at all artsy. This was, like, jeez, they've been out there with these thieves and reivers and cutthroats. They've gone into prisons.

Lomax felt African-American music was our greatest cultural tradition. While most people associate Lomax with folk music, is he also behind our acceptance of jazz and the blues as American art forms?

Some of the things Lomax did are signal moments [in African-American music], particularly the Jelly Roll Morton interviews. Picking this guy up who was hustler, living by his wits as a boxing manager, an organizer of all-black car-racing events, and bringing him into the Library of Congress—then the stodgiest of places, with people wearing celluloid collars—and recording him in the Coolidge Auditorium, built explicitly to present string quartets, set with busts of Beethoven and Chopin, was a sort of revolutionary act. But then to convince people that this was the right thing to do, and to present it in such a way that allowed the performer [Morton] to spell out his own life with a month's worth of description of the city of New Orleans, was an act as big as Joyce's Ulysses or Schliemann's discovery of Troy.

This registered with a lot of people. But other people said, "God, this guy can talk!" And that's what struck Lomax: you don't expect musicians to be that verbal, much less in the classy way in which Morton presented himself.

Lomax was holding to a set of standards and trying to make a case for this city, New Orleans, and these people. But he did this again and again. With Gypsies in England; with Scots, pointing out their very old and powerful culture—that they were apparently more literate, broadly than the British were; that Americans had far more of a cultural base than the Brits ever allowed.

He was finding these moments and ways to punch holes in received wisdom, I think quite remarkably. The problem is that once you've done this and succeeded at it, my perception is that the next generation says, So what? Who didn't know that? They see that how you did it as old-hat and gauche, if not crypto-racist, because you had to do it so bluntly. You had to overstate it.

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Douglas Gorney is a writer living in San Francisco.

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