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New Alan Lomax biography reviewed

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Desert Dancer 07 Jan 11 - 05:00 PM
TopcatBanjo 07 Jan 11 - 05:51 PM
BlueJay 07 Jan 11 - 10:42 PM
Vic Smith 08 Jan 11 - 10:16 AM
Fred McCormick 08 Jan 11 - 12:21 PM
tritoneman 08 Jan 11 - 12:55 PM
Old Vermin 08 Jan 11 - 01:44 PM
Les in Chorlton 08 Jan 11 - 01:48 PM
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Subject: New Alan Lomax biography
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 07 Jan 11 - 05:00 PM

There is a new biography of Alan Lomax out: Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, by John Szwed, a professor of Music and Jazz Studies at Columbia University (link is to

Here are some announcements/reviews:

The Independent (UK)

Cleveland Plain Dealer

New Statesman

There's been an interview with the author on WNYC, by Leonard Lopate.

On NPR's "Fresh Air", they have re-run a 1990 interview with Lomax by Terry Gross: Folklorist Alan Lomax: Everyone Has A Story

I'm looking forward to reading it.

~ Becky in Long Beach

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography
From: TopcatBanjo
Date: 07 Jan 11 - 05:51 PM

Thanks for the links, just listened to the NPR programme with the 1990 interview, fascinating stuff!

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography
From: BlueJay
Date: 07 Jan 11 - 10:42 PM

Yeah, I heard the interview on Fresh Air earlier today, great stuff. looking forward to reading the book. Thanks, BlueJay

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Subject: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Vic Smith
Date: 08 Jan 11 - 10:16 AM

Tina has just pointed out to me that the "Book Of The Week" in the Review section of The Guardian today is a glowing account of "The Man Who Recorded the World: A Biography of Alan Lomax" by John Szwed. It is online at . Shirley Collins' book, America Over The Water also gets a favourable mention.

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Fred McCormick
Date: 08 Jan 11 - 12:21 PM

A very fine review, and one that makes me doubly determined to buy the book, just as soon as the financial excesses of Christmas have worked their way through the system.

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: tritoneman
Date: 08 Jan 11 - 12:55 PM

Have just read the review and will be ordering a copy this week. Alan Lomax's song collections and superb albums were a big part of why I got seriously interested in folk music decades ago.

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Old Vermin
Date: 08 Jan 11 - 01:44 PM

Guardian today also has long Sandy Denny article, a folk gig review and yesterday had something on Swiss-based Cajuns.

We're not in danger of being, er, fashionable or even modish are we?

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Les in Chorlton
Date: 08 Jan 11 - 01:48 PM

I feel sure you areMs / Mr Vermin

L in C#

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Old Vermin
Date: 08 Jan 11 - 02:06 PM

L in C#

Scratching my beard while I try to understand that one.

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Joe Offer
Date: 08 Jan 11 - 03:20 PM

I think Les thought you were being cynical, Old Vermin. Yes, it is nice that folk music is getting some press - even in the U.S. this time.
I'm going to copy-paste some of the articles cited above. It's ironic that people post non-music articles here in such wild profusion, but they seem to be reluctant to post articles about music.


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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 08 Jan 11 - 03:38 PM

Post away, Joe, I hadn't read them all in detail in order to choose the most useful, was just making a start on the story...

~ Becky in Long Beach

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Old Vermin
Date: 09 Jan 11 - 08:48 AM

Ah, Joe, my puzzle was about Old Vermin maybe being a Ms". Didn't seem terribly likely.

As for fashionable - if fashion goes in cycles, staying the same allows fashion to catch up.

Cynical? Moi? Not cynical so much as progressively losing my illusions.

It's rather pleasant to find the fashion-seeking young discovering stuff and reminding us about it. That Sandy Denny article - and I'd done no more than hear recordings first time round - gave more background than I could remember.

The Swiss-Cajun-Zydeco piece is great fun.

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 11 Jan 11 - 12:20 AM

Master of the mix-tape, a review by Yo Zushi - 06 January 2011, New Statesman

The Nebraskan novelist Willa Cather once wrote that "the great fact" of America was "the land itself . . . The land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength; its peculiar, savage kind of beauty." This savagery, strength and desire to be "let alone" have informed the American character since the founding of the nation, with many of the chief expressions of its culture - from James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales to Orson Welles's film noir Touch of Evil - playing on the borderline between "sivilisation" and the frontier, as Huck Finn might have put it. Like Huck, writers engaged in the project of staking out a uniquely American corpus of art and myth have lit out for this territory, and few more literally than the folklorist Alan Lomax.

If the outcast or outsider figure is the archetypal American hero, Lomax may, at first, seem an unlikely candidate for the role. He was born in Austin, Texas, in 1915 to John and Bess Lomax and, as a 14-year-old, was sent by his lecturer father to the Choate school in Connecticut (a few years later, John F Kennedy would begin his studies there). An excellent, if often sickly student, Lomax then enrolled at Harvard as a philosophy major. Soon, however, the parochialism of university life started to wear thin and Jack London-like fantasies of a wilder life began to preoccupy him. In a letter to his father, he complained that conventional academic study would "only serve to repress all that is animal and frank in me . . . I satisfy none of man's primary needs: physical labour, strong drinks, food and women."

This longing was soon met. As the Great Depression turned fertile soil into a curtain of black dust that blew from Oklahoma City to the Arizona line, the bottom fell out for the now widowed John Lomax. Like everyone else in the country, he was hit hard by the crisis and the family was steadily running out of money. To raise funds, John - once a prominent speaker on traditional music - went on the road to collect folk songs, ostensibly for publication in a book whose rights had been sold in advance to Macmillan. Alan leapt at the chance to join his father and to drop out.

Thus began his fabled nomadic existence as a chronicler of the nation's margins. In The Man Who Recorded the World, John Szwed, professor emeritus of anthropology at Yale and professor of music at Columbia, describes Lomax Jr's life as "encyclopaedic". It is hard to think of a more apt description. In the decades that followed, Lomax would cross America in a car that was converted into a makeshift recording studio, dragging equipment "up hills, across fields and creeks" to capture the communal music of the people before it was obliterated by radio and pop. He would play back recordings using a stylus of cactus needles or thorns; he would share songs with E A McIlhenny, the creator of Tabasco sauce, who claimed to know the songs of the Eskimos; he would have a car stolen (and returned) on his behalf in Chicago, desperate to continue his work.

His achievements were rewarded with an invitation to play at the White House and international fame as a radio personality but, above all, Lomax was unwavering in his belief in the importance of his project. In 1946, he wrote:

"Folklore may prove to be not a romantic and colourful ragbag of the discarded and outworn ideas of humanity but one of the great wellsprings of the democratic attitudes that have, in the past two centuries, begun to make for a more equitable life for all mankind upon this planet."

The blues, in particular, were proof of a vibrant American culture that had matured independently of European tradition. Though often drawing on Scots and Irish balladry, much American folk song was enriched by the polyglot, multiracial heritage of the United States; it served as a space in which social boundaries could be negotiated or even crossed. As Szwed writes: "Whatever the barriers that kept the black community separated from the white, music was a ticket in for the outsider and people of colour were hardly surprised that whites would be drawn to their arts."

Visiting Angola Prison Farm, a former slave plantation, John and Alan Lomax met the blues singer Lead Belly, then serving a sentence for attempted murder. Huddie Ledbetter had earned his stage name from "a life of toughness, from his strength, his badness and a bullet in his stomach" and was later mythologised as the criminal who sang his way to freedom by impressing prison governors. This apocryphal story was so potent in its symbolism that it turned up again and again in poems, films, newsreels and even a play by Tennessee Williams (Orpheus Descending, 1957). At the time, the Brooklyn Eagle called him "a virtuoso of knife and guitar", Time hailed him as a "murderous minstrel" and the Herald Tribune declared: "Sweet singer of the swamplands here to do a few tunes between homicides".

Lead Belly eventually joined the Lomaxes on their early travels, working closely with father and son to produce books of songs and perform at lectures. In March 1935, John took their show to Harvard for an evening talk and concert presided over by his one-time mentor George Lyman Kittredge. After a fiery set by Lead Belly, the assembled crowd of 600 white academics was ecstatic. Kittredge leaned over to John and whispered: "He's a demon, Lomax!"

This troubling tendency to exoticise black culture as an authenticating force has a long history - the assumption that the stereotyped otherness of a people who had been imported into America as slaves could be co-opted to confer hipness and offer excitement to a white majority. (A Lou Reed song from 1978 ironically riffs on the theme: "I wanna be black, have natural rhythm/Shoot 20 foot of jism . . .") Though Alan Lomax, too, idealised the unvarnished singing of black prisoners and workmen as a direct channel into the American spirit, his mission was far grander than just a white man's predilection for racial tourism.

In his 1947 book Folk Song USA, Lomax controversially decided not to separate the songs of white performers from those he had gathered from black singers. His was an inclusive spirit that recalls Walt Whitman's orgiastic claims to all that lived and breathed on America's shores, regardless of race or class. In the introduction to the songbook, he wrote: "Folk song, like any serious art, deals with realities - with poor boys a long way from home, with workers killed on the job, with bloody-handed murderers, with children dancing and fighting in the backyards."

Asked by Nasa to compile the "ultimate mix-tape" - a compilation of 90 minutes of the world's music, to be sent into space on the Voyager missions of 1978 - he chose Blind Willie Johnson, Louis Armstrong and Chuck Berry to represent the US. His love for Johnson's music "wasn't a matter of folklore. It was the way I felt." Szwed's biography is a worthy testament to Lomax's passions and ideals, which gifted the world some of the most important American recordings ever made.

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 11 Jan 11 - 12:22 AM

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.

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 11 Jan 11 - 12:25 AM

Reviewed by Liz Thomson, The Independent (UK)

In 1950, the Weavers, a quartet which included Pete Seeger, took "Goodnight, Irene" to the top of the American "hit parade". With strings and background vocals arranged by Gordon Jenkins, it was a long way from the song as originally recorded – captured on field equipment by the father-and-son team of John and Alan Lomax at the Central Convict Sugar Plantation, Louisiana. The singer was Huddie Ledbetter, nicknamed Lead Belly on account of his toughness – and the bullet lodged in his stomach.

That sweltering day in July 1933, on the banks of the Mississippi, the Lomaxes recorded 11 sides with Lead Belly, among them three versions of the song now known as "Goodnight Irene". Across the Atlantic, Lonnie Donegan would shortly enjoy a string of hits, including "Rock Island Line", introducing the song with Lead Belly's own words – and claiming to have written it.

It's surprising but laudable that, in 2011, a 400-page study of Alan Lomax has emerged from a mainstream British publisher. For without his work – and those who followed him, including Paul Oliver, the brilliant, under-sung Brit - there would have been no Lonnie Donegan and no Bob Dylan, who described Lomax as "a missionary", and no Rolling Stones. Keith and Mick bonded over Muddy Waters, whom Lomax had recorded at Stovall, Mississippi in 1941. It was Lomax who brought the blues out of the prisons and plantations and juke joints of the "Negro" south, preserving it in the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, ripe for discovery by white college kids.

And not just the blues, but also ballads, reels, hymns, work songs, field calls. Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton performed and reminisced for Lomax; so too Woody Guthrie, who also guested on Lomax's American School of the Air radio show. The "Hoe-Down" in Copland's ballet Rodeo was taken from a field recording of Kentucky fiddler William M Stepp's "Bonaparte's Retreat". Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain adapted melodies collected for the Spanish volume of Columbia's World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. And it's a Lomax recording of Mississippi prisoner James Carter singing "Po' Lazarus" that's heard over the opening credits of the Coen Brothers' O Brother Where Art Though?

Szwed, Professor of Music, African-American Studies and Anthropology at Yale, worked with Lomax as a young graduate student of ethnomusicology. Their first encounter was in November 1961; his impression was of a man "well-dressed enough to be a Bible salesman in Alabama, but missing the mark of a successful academic". Lomax was then in his mid-forties, and had returned to New York from London, where he worked with such folklorists as Peter Kennedy and formed a Skiffle group with Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger and Shirley Collins. He also wrote Big Rock Candy Mountain, "a new American folk musical", which Joan Littlewood (Littleton in the book) staged at Stratford East.

The second of four children and a sickly child, Lomax was born in Austin, Texas. His father John was an autodidact, a collector of cowboy songs and other folk music who was determined his boy would have a proper education. Which Alan did, up to a point – private school and then a year at Harvard until money troubles and his mother's sudden death forced him home.

It was the Depression, and he persuaded his father to return to song collecting and lecturing. The two travelled together, camping to save money. They set out in a Model A Ford in summer 1933, stopping off in Dallas to collect a wind-up Ediphone recording machine. Pausing 20 miles south of the city to try it out, they captured a black washerwoman singing as she worked – a defining moment for 17-year-old Alan.

While not unapproachable, Szwed's study is not for the faint-hearted and the author is, rightly, an advocate for Lomax and his work. But he should have engaged with his critics, among them Dave Marsh, who objected to Lomax's self-importance, his "stupid 'folklorist' purism that ruined the folk music revival". Szwed does devote a few paragraphs to arguments between the Lomaxes and Lead Belly over money and copyrights. The bluesman doesn't come out well, and John was frightened by the ex-con.

But were the Lomaxes responsible for his dying in poverty? It doesn't appear they got rich on their work. Like Lomax himself in The Land Where the Blues Began, he gives insufficient credit to Shirley Collins, who accompanied Alan on his 1959 southern field trip, as chronicled in her memoir, America Over the Water. Nevertheless, Lomax was a singular figure without whose "one world" vision (multiculturalism to us) the history of popular music would have been very different.

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 11 Jan 11 - 12:32 AM

Review by Sean O'Hagan, Guardian/The Observer

Alan Lomax brought stars such as Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie to the world's attention. But was he really the selfless pioneer that this biography claims?


In 1955, "Rock Island Line" was a chart hit in Britain and America for Lonnie Donegan, the biggest star of the short-lived skiffle boom. Donegan was a huge influence on the young John Lennon, who formed his own skiffle group, the Quarrymen, in 1956. On 6 July that same year, the 15-year-old Paul McCartney, another Donegan fan, attended a church fete in Woolton village to hear the Quarrymen play. The rest, as they say, is history.

Both Lennon and McCartney would have assumed that "Rock Island Line" was a Lonnie Donegan original, not least because it was credited to him on the record label and the song's sheet music. Donegan had assumed ownership of the song by simply claiming the British copyright, which was unregistered and considered to be in the public domain. It was written, though, by a black blues singer, Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly.

Back in the 1930s, the American song collectors John Lomax and his son, Alan, had recorded Lead Belly singing the song in Angola prison, Louisiana, where the blues musician was serving time for attempted murder. (Lead Belly sang several other originals for the Lomaxes, including "Goodnight, Irene", which subsequently became a huge hit for the folk group the Weavers.) Many of the songs collected by the Lomaxes were published in book compilations like Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936) and Folk Songs: USA (1946), which become primers for British skiffle and trad-folk groups, among others.

On a visit to Britain in the late 50s, Alan Lomax discovered that Donegan, as John Szwed puts it, "was copying Lead Belly's songs, along with his performance style and introductory remarks, profiting from both his performances of these songs and his claim to being their composer". He also found out that the publishing rights to "Goodnight, Irene" had been copyrighted "under the name of a British affiliate".

This is the moment, though, when the story of Lead Belly's songs and their appropriation becomes truly tangled. Szwed notes that "a dismayed Alan was persuaded that it would be better to work with the same musical publishing company than against it". Soon afterwards, too, Lomax wrote an essay on the copyrighting of songs that began, as Szwed puts it, "by reminding readers that folk song collecting took place within a 'free enterprise system'" and that, alongside the songwriter, several others, including "the collector, who located the folksinger, recorded the song, sometimes arranged or re-edited it…" could deservedly make a claim on copyright.

Therein lies the root of the problem that some music scholars have with Alan Lomax, perhaps the greatest, and most obsessive, collector of folk and blues songs of the last century. When Lomax died, aged 87, in 2002, the New York Times described him as a "legendary collector of folk music who was the first to record towering figures like Lead Belly, Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie". But the combative American music critic Dave Marsh was having none of it; he described Lomax as "a dubious figure" who "believed folk culture needed guidance from superior beings like himself".

Marsh also claimed that when representatives of the Ledbetter family approached Lomax regarding the formal copyrighting of "Goodnight, Irene", "he adamantly refused to take his name off the song, or surrender income from it, even though Lead Belly's family was impoverished in the wake of his death two years earlier". More damning still is the more recent discovery that Lomax appropriated research done by the likes of the black scholar John W Work, who was his conduit to pioneering blues artists like Muddy Waters and Son House. "Sometime soon," Marsh concluded, "we need to figure out why it is that, when it comes to cultures like those of Mississippi black people, we celebrate the milkman more than the milk."

The Man Who Recorded the World, as its extravagant title suggests, is a book that unashamedly celebrates the milkman. Its strength lies in its painstaking reconstruction of Lomax's life as a kind of obsessive musical missionary who delved deep into overlooked cultures, from Appalachia to Connemara.

Born in Austin, Texas in 1915, Lomax attended Harvard but dropped out after a year. He obtained a degree in philosophy at the University of Texas in 1936, by which time he was already a seasoned song collector, frequently travelling with his father across the American south, often working under difficult conditions in deeply segregated towns and rural areas. The Lomaxes recorded Cajun fiddlers, gospel choirs, blues singers and hillbilly balladeers. Alan also accompanied the writer Zora Neale Hurston while she collected songs and voodoo rituals in Haiti.

After a visit to the notorious Parchman Farm, a Mississippi prison built on the site of a slave plantation, Lomax wrote in his notebook: "The people who sang for us were in stripes and there were guards there with shotguns. They were singing under the red hot sun of Texas, people obviously in enormous trouble. But, when they opened their mouths, out came this flame of beauty. This sound which matched anything I'd heard from Beethoven, Brahms, or Dvorák." He had, as he noted a few lines later, "found my folks… the people that I wanted to represent… that I wanted to be with".

That mixture of identification and patronisation seems to have been characteristic, but for all that, Lomax was a tireless chronicler of songs and oral testimony that would have otherwise gone unrecorded. The estimated 3,000 songs he and his father contributed to the Library of Congress recordings archive have influenced several generations of songwriters, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, who described Lead Belly's music as "the Rosetta stone for much of what was to follow".

In 1960, Lomax compiled The Folk Songs of North America, which helped fuel the burgeoning folk revival, and also earned him a place on the organising committee of the Newport folk festival. It was there, in 1965, that he helped try to sabotage Bob Dylan's sound system, and had his semi-legendary altercation with Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman. According to March, this was further proof that Lomax "hated rock'n'roll because it had no need of mediation by experts like himself".

Like many pioneers, Lomax was, at heart, a purist, someone who believed in the unquestionable importance of his calling, and whose self-belief was unleavened by either tact or self-doubt. For all that, he was an important figure, a catalyst not just for the 1960s folk and blues revivals that posthumously acknowledged the importance of pioneers like of Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie and Son House, but for contemporary American roots music and for what is now known as world music. Szwed's exhaustive biography illustrates in some detail the reasons for Lomax's importance while sometimes sidestepping the problematic nature of his great undertaking, and the often-compromising ways in which he pursued it.

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Amos
Date: 30 Jan 11 - 02:26 PM

New York Times chimes in.


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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 30 Jan 11 - 02:55 PM

Singing the Perfectionist-Folkie Blues
The New York Times, January 30, 2011

In 1961, as a young graduate student at an ethnomusicologists' meeting, John Szwed caught the eye of the master: Alan Lomax, the man whose tremendous body of work allowed previously unheard folk recordings to become universally well known. Seemingly apropos of nothing, Lomax remarked "Pygmies are a baseline culture." Then he went on his way.

Years later, when they had gotten to know each other, Mr. Szwed accompanied Mr. Lomax to the Village Gate to hear Professor Longhair. The set began with "Jambalaya." Lomax vanished. And then, as Mr. Szwed writes in his keenly appreciative, enormously detailed new Lomax biography, "I felt something brush by my leg, and when I looked down there was Alan crawling on the floor toward the bandstand so as to stay out of people's vision." Lomax reached the edge of the stage, knelt worshipfully until the set was over and then pronounced Longhair the greatest folk musician in the Western world.

Alan Lomax had astounding energy and enthusiasm. He was both an exhaustive and exhausting force in American music for almost 70 years. When he died in 2002, he left behind at least the following, which Mr. Szwed has dauntlessly tackled as source material: 5,000 hours of sound recordings; 400,000 feet of film; 2,450 videotapes; 2,000 books and journals; numerous prints, documents and databases; and more than 120 linear feet of paperwork. It's not hard to see why detractors called Lomax "The People's Republic of Me."

On the evidence of "Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World" his enemies and admirers were equally well armed. Lomax may not have courted controversy, but his work and methods made argument inevitable.

When he started collecting musical artifacts, he was ahead of his time — almost. His father, the more culturally conservative John Lomax, was such a celebrated folklorist that Alan inevitably played hanger-on. Together, bearing the burdens of financial, ideological and father-son tensions, they roamed the country for the Library of Congress during the Depression with recording equipment, trying to talk strangers into sharing their songs.

Father and son shared an academic bent. But Alan saw a greater, more adventurous calling for himself, Mr. Szwed writes: "He was also to be a messenger for the masses." This required Alan to decipher the songs' larger meanings, find out about the cultures that produced them and witness the culture clashes that erupted as the music became more widely known.

When rural black musicians (with whom Alan was much more simpatico than his father was) were exposed to big-city audiences, as the ex-convict Lead Belly was when the Lomaxes brought him to New York in 1934, the press used epithets like "Murderous Minstrel," "Sweet Singer of the Swamplands" and "a virtuoso of Knife and Guitar." The world was not yet ready for what Alan Lomax planned to deliver.

But under the New Deal "folklore as an activity, as a subject, as a calling rather than an academic study," began rising in stature. And by the time of the 1939 World's Fair Alan was its chief avatar. He issued advice about the fair's folk exhibits with his trademark mixture of eagerness, excitement and pedantry. "Each table should be provided with a set of songs that will be sung in the course of the entertainment, and the audience naturally will be encouraged to join in the chorus," he proposed, adding that this could "make the World's Fair the simple and merry people's festival that it was in the Middle Ages."

Even to Pete Seeger, who did a stint as Lomax's assistant, "Alan had a way of making proclamations and value judgments that could ring down the years." Woody Guthrie's "lumpenproletariat act is too much!" Lomax once complained to him; Lomax regarded Guthrie as "a self-made intellectual."

Yet behind Lomax's air of superiority were awful self-doubts. And he wrote about his inadequacies no less relentlessly than he did everything else. "What do I like? What do I think about? What do I want? Why am I born?" he wrote on one such occasion. "I know the kind of intellectual, moral and emotional structure that can be made out of folklore. It is a lack of personal conviction that is my problem."

Mr. Szwed is an ideal match for his fretful, protean subject. He is thorough enough to document the Lomax earaches, colds and carbuncles, not to mention the many women who fleetingly assisted Lomax on his travels but then drifted away. This book's lists of destinations (Haiti, Sicily, Spain, Scotland) and cultures (Gullah, Creole, Cajun, lumberjack) are made to sound almost like business as usual: after all, for Lomax, that's what they were. In one remarkable and perhaps record-breaking paragraph, Mr. Szwed ticks off Lomax's pie-in-the-sky plans for 75 new albums, including two reissues, three square-dance records with calls and two anthologies.

(Under these circumstances the glaring omission from "Alan Lomax" is a discography. And although this book deserved to be beautifully illustrated, it includes only one lousy picture.)

Mr. Szwed also ignores the enormous, ancillary opportunity to write about Lomax's effects on the many, many musicians who reflect his influence. He stays within Lomax's perspective. So there's much more about Lomax in Bob Dylan's "Chronicles: Volume One" than there is about Mr. Dylan here: "Alan would say that Dylan wanted to create a folk music for the urban middle class, which wasn't a bad idea, but just seemed boring to him," Mr. Szwed remarks. As for the folk boom of the 1960s, Lomax said, "New York had gone to sleep around the Peter Seeger banjo picking folknik image, and I was shocked to find that the kids here thought that folk music pretty much began and ended in Washington Square."

Mr. Szwed's own interests are as picky and academic as Lomax's, and as ingratiatingly peculiar. When he brings up skiffle, the 1950s musical precursor to the British Invasion, he is primarily interested in how Lonnie Donegan's skiffle version of "Rock Island Line" appropriated Lead Belly's. ("Outright knavery," Lomax complained.) And he takes care to point out not only the skiffle origins of assorted Beatles, Rolling Stones, Hollies, Yardbirds and so on, but also points out something extra: Spinal Tap was once a skiffle band, too (though its members called it "scuffle").

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Charley Noble
Date: 30 Jan 11 - 08:11 PM

Well, warts and all, it seems I'll have to buy this one and read it.

Charley Noble

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 31 Jan 11 - 09:09 AM

Via Facebook, The American Folklife Center says,

It's Alan Lomax's birthday today. Born in 1915, the former "Assistant in Charge" of the Archive of American Folk Song was an internationally known folklorist, author, radio broadcaster, filmmaker, concert and record producer, and TV host. Lomax amassed one of the most important collections of ethnographic material in the world now archived at the AFC. For more information see:

Happy birthday, Alan!

~ Becky in Tucson

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: GUEST,Shimrod
Date: 31 Jan 11 - 10:42 AM

Thanks for posting these reviews, DD. They make fascinating reading. Now I'll have to read the book!

I'm struck by how at least one reviewer describes Lomax as a "purist" - and, as usual, this word has negative connotations. But, surely, if hadn't been a purist he wouldn't have accomplished what he accomplished (?) In my experience, in a folk music context, the word 'purist' usually means, "not interested in Rock Music"!

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: GUEST,M Allen
Date: 31 Jan 11 - 11:56 AM

Ms Maslin: "Mr. Szwed ticks off Lomax's pie-in-the-sky plans for 75 new albums, including two reissues, three square-dance records with calls and two anthologies."

"Pie-in-the-sky?" In the late 90s and early naughts Rounder Records issued over 100 new CDs of Lomax's recordings, much of it previously unreleased material. The re-mastered reissue of Jelly Roll Morton's extended interviews and recordings won several Grammy Awards, including one for Mr. Szwed. Many more were in the works when Rounder went out of the CD business. In 2010 Harte Records issued 10 more CDs of previously unreleased Hatian material and film clips that have been nominated for a Grammy.

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 31 Jan 11 - 12:06 PM

Hi, GUEST,M Allen:

Ms. Maslin is a reviewer for the NY Times whose review is reproduced here. I don't think she reads Mudcat. You can click on the link to go to the review at the Times and post your comments for her to see -- although we always appreciate seeing further information like this here, too.

~ Becky in Tucson

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 31 Jan 11 - 12:10 PM

sorry, I realize now you may just have been quoting, not addressing, Janet Maslin. :-)

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: GUEST,M. Allen
Date: 31 Jan 11 - 12:17 PM

Yes, Desert Dancer, I was quoting. I don't think the NYT would publish a letter from me. I guess they just don't like folk music, for whatever reason, and furthermore I don't think Ms. Maslin really did more than cursorily glance at the book. I have, and it's really great and full of surprises. I like Mr. Szwed's other books, too. He's just about the best.

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: Fred McCormick
Date: 02 Feb 11 - 08:22 AM

My copy has just arrived from Amazon. The book is very substantial and, flicking through it while I was eating my lunch, appears extremely comprehensive and thoroughly well researched. What's more, at only £12-50 h/b, it's quite a bargain.

I shall look forward to a first class cover to cover read.

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Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
From: BrooklynJay
Date: 02 Feb 11 - 10:38 AM

My local public library system currently has several copies on order for its various branches. I think I'll wait until one is available for loan before I read this book - purely a matter of current finances rather than any indecision about the subject matter. If I like the book, then I just may add it to my personal library.

As a matter of fact, I am currently about halfway through Lomax's "The Land Where the Blues Began" (also a library loan) and the reviews of this new bio have definitely piqued my interest.

Forcing myself to be patient...


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