How Alan Lomax Changed the Way We Hear American Music

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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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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.

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Douglas Gorney is a writer living in San Francisco.

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