The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #134821 Message #3071859
Posted By: Desert Dancer
11-Jan-11 - 12:22 AM
Thread Name: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
Biographer John Szwed produces 'Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World', review by Michael Heaton, The Plain Dealer, Jan 6 2011
Alan Lomax, this country's pre-eminent folklorist and ethnomusicologist, was also a radio, television, film and concert producer. He brings to mind the old saw about the man who was so busy that he couldn't get anything done.
Lomax is best remembered for his countless trips by car into the deep South to record the folk and blues songs and singers living in remote rural poverty. With his primitive recording equipment, he labored along dirt roads through the Great Depression and the 1940s.
Field work, for Lomax, was both exhilarating and exhausting. He was the kind of ideological and musical zealot who could stay up for 36 hours, pass out for an hour and a half and begin the drill again, refreshed.
John Szwed, a Columbia University professor with books about jazz giants Miles Davis and Sun Ra, has written an exhaustive new biography, "Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World." He unspools a mural of a man bursting with energy, enthusiasm and notions of what folk songs tell us about the cultures that produce them.
Lomax's life had a decidedly Sisyphean nature. He began recording obscure folk artists in the footsteps of his father, John Lomax, a renowned Texas scholar. The two clashed. John was a social conservative; Alan, an avowed lefty. They did important, groundbreaking work, yet they were financially dependent on government and academic grants.
These amounts were usually so minimal that Alan Lomax seemed always on the verge of poverty himself.
Still, he discovered Huddie Ledbetter, aka Lead Belly, and Jelly Roll Morton, the New Orleans jazz legend. He worked alongside pioneering black novelist Zora Neale Hurston recording the folk music of Haiti. Selflessly, Lomax promoted the talent he encountered, including Woody Guthrie, Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
Almost continuously, the FBI shadowed and investigated the musicologist, deeming his leftist convictions suspicious. Lomax persevered, often sleeping in fields, parks, parking lots. An academic who never finished college and a social scientist without training, Lomax had an impressive output, but he never hit upon a way to be compensated fairly.
Lomax's personal life was similarly improvised. Whenever at loose ends, he hit the road with his equipment. Wives and lovers were quickly converted into unpaid research assistants. Divorces and breakups ensued.
A staunch guardian of American folk traditions, Lomax became upset when that music morphed from old-time union protest tunes into the socio-sexual-political revolution of rock 'n' roll of the 1960s and '70s.
Late in his career, younger researchers dismissed him as a blowhard and a posturing old fool. Toward the end, a National Book Critics Circle award and a National Medal of Arts arrived, but when Lomax died in 2002, he still had a long list of unfinished projects. He was 87.
Szwed's book is as ambitious, but the prose is flat. We learn that a $6,000 grant from the American Council of Learned Societies required Lomax to work for nine months "at refinement of hypotheses . . . about the importance of vocal style and the behavioral traits to the analysis and classification of folk songs." The slog sets in early.
Alan Lomax may have ranged across the planet capturing the world's folk music, but have you ever heard one of these recordings?
This is perhaps the saddest aspect of his life.