Library of Congress
In the first phase of Alan's career he and his father were very much a team. Yet given John's accomplishments and the force of his character, Alan felt he had to prove himself against his father. How did that shape Alan's career?
John Lomax had presented himself to the academic world—in fact the whole world—as a cowboy. Which in a sense he was, although they didn't have enough cattle and horses in the family to fully qualify. He had heard that stuff, so he had some claim to it. And Alan didn't.
He was, I think, kind of amazed at what his father had done in the face of academic snobbery. Lomax saw his father as a cultural populist, even if he wasn't a political populist.
I think after Alan dropped out of school to take his first trip with his father, he started to get a sense of how he could put these two things together, and that's when they started to argue about things. His father accused him of romanticism when he talked about the life of poor, and his father accused Alan of becoming annoyed when he found out that some black farmers actually owned their farms. He admired what his father had done and the crap he had taken from the academics to get there, because he had been fired and rehired at several points—and yet he couldn't abide his father's political stance. So it was a constant sore spot.
He never disavowed his father publicly, and respected him publicly in a number of ways, and always thought of himself as not being able to present himself publicly the way that his father could. And yet privately, he thought about beating his father, surpassing him.
Alan Lomax was clearly a man of boundless, inexhaustible intellectual energies. Might that have been behind the strains and breaks that characterized many of his personal and professional relationships?
He was curiosity was enormous! It was daunting, I think. If you're in the right spirit, the right frame of mind and things are okay you can go along for that. If you're not, it's a crashing bore or a distraction in some way or another.
He moved from culture to culture and from class to class constantly sucking this stuff up. I had some experiences with him in the West Indies and elsewhere, and saw how fast he picked things up. Others have experienced being with him, say, in Louisiana, where he'd be driving along the road and say, "Now tell me about these people." He'd want to know about the food, what they wore. "Do they have outhouses or bathrooms? Do they use toilet paper or do they use something else?" And he wasn't writing anything down. But somehow he got this picture of it, which was astonishing.
In the last years of his life Lomax was working out a "general theory," a synthesis of his life's work. What was he driving at? How far did he get with it?
[Lomax's friend] Margaret Mead had been doing some work on this in anthropology with how children learn to be cultural, in the way they're told to sit, stand, laugh, cry, or whatever. How they were encouraged or discouraged. But it's very hard to get from there to say, how do you get focused in on music. Music seemed to provide some sort of connection between the cognitive, the physical, the verbal, the non-verbal, rhythm and non-rhythm and yet, music—and I'm not sure if this is the right word for it—is the most non-iconic of all the arts. It's the hardest of all the arts to talk about. No one has ever succeeded in saying what was going on in music—what emotions are driving music? Why do humans have to have music?
That's what obsessed Lomax. Why were humans of all times doing this stuff? And why do music and dance occur on the most important occasions in society—going to war, death, marriage and so on down the line?
So that was the framework and he was trying to pull everything he could find, typically from psychiatrists and the linguists, who had their own angle on this kind of thing, into a way of talking about the way in which styles of music emerge. And then to see if every society had a different style. It turns out that yes, they did, but they still formed families of styles. And this was sort of classic anthropology: yeah, there were all kinds of kinship systems, but there aren't that many in the world. They all fall into groups, large families, and you can predict them after you know a little bit about some of these things. So that's the way he was going, and he also figured these things were very old, because they changed slower than other things in society.
This is the basis of his General Theory, which he then extended to think that all art may have come from these very physical and yet very social phenomena, and that, if I can reduce it to the words he used, "song was sung speech, and dance was danced speech."
There is a vast collection of materials in the Alan Lomax Collection at the Library of Congress, much of which we've heard via his radio shows and documentaries or Folkways records. But a great deal of it has not been heard or seen by the public.
Yes, we're talking about 5,000 hours of this and that. Haiti alone, 1,500 hours of recordings. [Some of] those Haitian recordings that were completely unknown to Americans were just released in a boxed set. When they were taken down to Haiti during the aftermath of the earthquake it reawakened cultural interest—people were singing along when these things were being played as the reclamation was going on.
But it's also the case that virtually nobody has seen most of the films or the dance materials, which is still the most fabulous collection of such things around. Fortunately, the Association of Cultural Equity—the outfit run by his daughter, Anna Lomax Wood—is not only bringing these things out, but the extra materials added to these are double and triple the original. So if you get, for instance, The Land Where the Blues Began, you find it's three or four times as long as it was in the original. We still haven't heard the long, autobiographical sessions that Woody Guthrie did for the Library of Congress. We're waiting for somebody to hear it in some proper setting.