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Thursday, June 19th, 2003


 

Alan Lomax: Selected Writings 1934-1997 with CDROM

by

Authenticity Blues

A review by David Hajdu

The Grammy Awards, which endure as one of American popular culture's more shameless celebrations of artifice, infantilism, and evanescence, will occasionally make a grand gesture in the name of authenticity, adulthood, or posterity by honoring an esteemed old-timer who hasn't sold any records since anyone can remember. In 1997, Pete Seeger, age seventy-seven, won this semi-annual Compensation and Distraction Award for what was then his most recent CD, titled Pete — a collection of plaintive moral and political parables much like the dozens and dozens of albums that he had been recording for more than fifty years. I was in the press horde at the Grammys that year, and I spent some time with Seeger backstage at Madison Square Garden as he waited for his allocated time on stage. For nearly an hour, he stood straight-backed, looking disarmingly natty in a tuxedo, greeting well-wishers and watching the event on a closed-circuit TV monitor. There were performances by Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, and the Smashing Pumpkins. After hearing them all, Seeger said: "I wonder what the music experts of the 1930s would have thought if you had told them that the greatest influence on the popular music of this century would be some unknown black prisoners and field workers."

Six decades earlier, American popular music was certainly different from the earthy, rough-edged, blues-based sounds of rock-era artists such as Clapton and his contemporaries. In the age of Tin Pan Alley, most popular music was jazzy and sounded urban, and it endeavored to project an aura of sophistication. It was music created by professionals to reflect and to exploit the social aspirations of a people striving to recover from (or at least to forget) the Depression. Being jazz-oriented, much of the music of the time was to a large degree black music, or a white imitation thereof — more specifically, a citified black music drawn from the urban experience of African Americans who had moved north in the Great Migration. Many of the artists whose songs made the Hit Parade in 1937 — the vocalists Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell, the songwriters Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer — may have come from working-class immigrant stock (Crosby) and may have been Midwesterners (Boswell, Porter) or Southerners (Mercer), but owing to the lithe swing of the tunes, the singers' nonchalant crooning, and the sleek orchestral arrangements, everyone sounded like an urbane Manhattanite.

The contemporaneous music of Negroes laboring in prison or incarcerated in fieldwork — the blues of artists such as Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter, who had been an inmate at Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana) and Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield, who had been a farm laborer in Mississippi) — was not wholly unknown in the 1930s. It had innumerable practitioners and admirers within the culture of poor, rural, Southern blacks. Owing to its provenance, however, this music was largely unheard or unrecognized within the white musical establishment of the time. By the end of the 1950s, the blues would emerge as a permeating influence on American popular music. One generation after another, American young people raised in prosperity would turn to rock 'n' roll and its various incarnations (folk-rock, country-rock, punk, grunge, alt-rock, and the rest), all elementally indebted to the blues and to its aesthetic of raw, unaffected veracity. In the rock era, singers and songwriters (most artists now taking on both roles, as blues musicians always tended to do) may be from England (Clapton) or a middle-class neighborhood in Missouri (Crow), but they all seem to want to sound like old black prisoners and fieldworkers.

American popular music not only changed styles, it jumped traditions, abandoning the formal and the schooled for the informal and the vernacular. It became more like non-literate music — like folk music. How or through whom? A creditable school of thought attributes much of this transformation to the folklorist, author, performer, and entrepreneur Alan Lomax, the man who "discovered" and first recorded Leadbelly and Muddy Waters. Seeger, writing in 1958, said that "he is more responsible than any other single individual for the whole revival of interest in American folk music." Brian Eno, the English art-rock composer, has gone further, writing (in 1993, in a blurb for Lomax's book The Land Where the Blues Began) that "without Lomax, it's possible that there would have been no blues explosion, no R&B movement, no Beatles and no Stones and no Velvet Underground." Newsweek has instructed its readers that "if not for Lomax, few people would have heard 'Tom Dooley' or 'Goodnight Irene,' and Bob Zimmerman might be singing 'Feelings' at Holiday Inns around Hibbing, Minnesota."

Lomax, who was otherwise disposed against popular opinion, would surely have agreed. He was a fearsome advocate of artists in whom he believed, and he himself needed no other champion. He wrote and edited nine major books (three with his father and mentor, the early-twentieth-century folklorist John A. Lomax) during his eighty-seven years, and most of them are about Alan Lomax. The Land Where the Blues Began begins where everything seemed to begin for Lomax — with Lomax. The opening paragraph alone contains thirteen references to the author, who aligns himself with his subjects as a noble, homespun victim of bias and elitism. ("Even after being snubbed, lectured, arrested, and once or twice shot at, I still persist in plunging straight for the bottom where the songs live.") His songbooks have aggrandizing accounts of Lomax's Homeric song searches, followed by lyrics and music inevitably "arranged and adapted" by Lomax (with his father, in many cases). And now, a year after his death, a new Lomax miscellany, Alan Lomax: Selected Writings, 1934-1997, edited and well annotated by the respected folk-music historian Ronald D. Cohen, fits neatly in the literature of Alan Lomax vainglory.

In an autobiographical section of the book, "Saga of a Folksong Hunter," Lomax muses that future scholars may see the twentieth century as "the age of the golden ear, when, for a time, a passionate aural curiosity overshadowed the ability to create music." In other words, those who merely composed and performed music were less important than appreciative listeners such as Lomax. If so, then what was the reason for such passionate curiosity? Prospectors, after a few big strikes, used to suffer the same delusion: that the gold was in them rather than in the stones.

Lomax was born into folklore. He was only eighteen when he made his first field recordings of rural folksingers, accompanying his father, a folksong scholar then sixty-five years old, in the summer of 1933. The first piece of Lomax's in this volume is his account of that trip, "Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro." It is a boyish narrative, infused with the thrill of discovery, blithely arrogant, ignorant of the exoticism tainting its enthusiasms, adolescent in its obsession with the salacious — and so demeaning to its subjects, many of whom considered themselves above the bawdy material that Lomax prodded them to sing. They expressed their offense to him, but futilely. "We is all 'ligious men an' don' sing anything but sperchils, except maybe a few hollers now an' den when we got 'bout forty rods o' de devil in us," one singer told Lomax, who pressed to hear those "hollers" another time. Undaunted, Lomax soon located a more promising subject, Henry Truvillion, but found him "most disappointing" in his reticence to sing the unsavory tunes Lomax wanted. "We thought that if we could carry Henry off some Saturday night to a place where he could sit and talk out of sight of his wife or her callers, we should be able to get a marvelous store of songs and stories from him. This spring we intend to do just that."

Over the years, Lomax would always see folklore as "pure adventure" and something heroic. As he said at the Midcentury International Folklore Conference at Indiana University in 1950, in an address transcribed in Selected Writings, folklorists "rescue materials from oblivion" and "are making a better present and preparing for some sort of juster future for all people." By 1937, when Lomax was scarcely twenty-one, he was serving as director of the Archive of American Folk-Song at the Library of Congress. American culture was rising in prominence, elevating with it an interest in our native identity. As Lomax remarks in an interview edited into an article for this book, "The developing concern about what our own American culture was actually like, about who we were as people, peaked at this time. And the search for American folk roots was part of this."

Lomax saw the music of the rural underclass as the unfiltered essence of the American ideal — "an expression of its democratic, interracial, international character ... a function of its inchoate and turbulent many-sided development," he wrote in 1941. Already a zealous archeologist of America's living folk culture, Lomax became its omnipresent spokesman and promoter, hosting radio programs, staging concerts, publishing songbooks, and producing records. Under Lomax, the Library of Congress amassed an archive of some twenty thousand pieces of American folk music, and the books of songs that Lomax collected (with his father and on his own) became fixtures on parlor spinets, in grade-school music classes, and in summer camps everywhere. Lomax remains best known and most esteemed for his work assembling and disseminating American folk music, which occupied him from the late 1930s until the 1950s (when he moved to London, expanding his research into the folk music of other societies).

Lomax was so close to the roots of our musical culture that he saw nothing higher. "Of all ... creations, which culture is the most valuable?" Lomax asked. "And by this I do not mean culture with a capital 'C' — that body of art which critics have selected out of the literate traditions of Western Europe — but rather the total accumulation of man's fantasy and wisdom ... that still persist in full vitality in the folk and primitive places of our planet." More bluntly, he stated outright elsewhere that "folklore has a staying power unrivaled by even the greatest of cultivated art." However spirited his talk about "democratic and equalitarian beliefs," Lomax had no interest in challenging the idea of a hierarchy within the arts; he wanted only to alter the rankings, with his own preferences at the top.

Lomax's patronage was exclusionary. He reveled in his position as the Maecenas of rural America — "The role of the folklorist is that of the advocate of the folk," he said, and he defended his constituency with fervor. Seeing a kind of Rousseauian purity in the ascetic lives of the impoverished country folk whom he encountered in his field research, Lomax (who grew up in Texas, where his father was teaching college) characterized their lore as intrinsically virtuous, as an expression of "the beautiful and the good." "In folklore ... you get a general ethical tone," he observed, "a kind of rudimentary humanistic approach to life ... a very deep sense of values." Even in the South, where the folk culture of rural whites was steeped in racism, Lomax argued, "Jim Crow prejudice has been inoperative in folklore."

By extension, Lomax tended to demonize what he perceived as forces in opposition to those of his favored rural South: the North, the city, technology, business, "sophistication" — and jazz, being a sophisticated music associated with Northern cities. Lomax did write a biography of Jelly Roll Morton, who considered himself the inventor of jazz, but he dismissed most jazz as a corruption of folk music. In his preface to the 1993 edition of that book, moreover, Lomax added a bizarre rant against Harlem and its reputation as a black cultural center — "New York's Harlem, which so often has taken all the credit for black cultural innovations.... [And] where the carriers of the great tradition were few, where big bands with horn sections were replacing the lacy counterpoint of New Orleans." Why did his sympathies for the disenfranchised preclude the urban underclass? In Lomax's account, the Mason-Dixon line is a moral and aesthetic barrier, and folk poetry could never come from the city street.

Wheeling his sound-recording gear around Negro quarters of the segregated South, Lomax never realized how far he was from familiar ground. His writings show that his understanding of black culture was critically flawed, and that his attitudes toward African Americans were discomforting, no matter how virtuous he may have held his motives to be. His descriptions of his hosts and their environments are tainted with an air of superior bemusement ("A billowing Negro matron in a beautiful red turban and her husband, a toothless cotton-headed old fellow with a mouthful of snuff"), and his manner of re-creating dialogue is straight out of an Uncle Remus story: "I'll sing dat song right easy foh you, ef you want me!" and "Dat's a sho'-God song!"

Lomax seemed to think that he was extending compliments when he was oozing noble-savage condescension, praising Leadbelly's musical skill as "natural" and describing black faith as a "primitive" Christianity. In his songbook American Ballads, Lomax wrote that "modern education prove[d] disastrous to the Negro's folk singing, destroying much of the quaint, innate beauty of the songs." When a Negro inmate at Tennessee State Prison expressed a hope that the recording he made would help him gain his freedom, Lomax said he found the prisoner's dream "pathetic beyond tears."

His conception of the African American musical tradition was no more enlightened. In preparing the words and the music that he collected for publication in songbooks, Lomax was frustrated to find the verses to some songs he recorded Negroes singing to be "jumbled" and "disconnected." Storylines changed in the middle of songs, characters appeared and disappeared without explanation, the point of view shifted. The songs were not linear narratives, adhering to familiar story patterns. They were more like mixed-up puzzle pieces or collages of imagery that played off one another in unexpected ways. Lomax's response was to edit and to re-organize the lyrics, taking one verse from one singer's version of a song and one from another's, fashioning a composite that was conventionally lucid, all in the name of "coherence." In the process, he stripped off a layer of the songs' black identity — their way of provoking feeling through juxtaposition and mystery, an African American tradition — and replaced it with a sleek white gloss.

Lomax made some contributions of great merit; he was not all bad. He took blues seriously at a time when few whites in the cultural establishment gave it much thought. Through his field research and his advocacy of the music, exposure and opportunity came to blues and folk artists (such as Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Sun House, and Aunt Molly Jackson) who had enjoyed limited regional recognition or none at all. Would they have surfaced without Lomax? Perhaps. Isn't the blues something that cannot be denied? Absolutely. But so is the historical record. However things might have gone hypothetically, the way they happened was that Lomax introduced the world at large to several of the most original and influential blues and folk musicians in American history.

Though his Library of Congress recordings and his songbooks, Lomax imparted institutional legitimacy upon a minority music and helped to bring it to a broader public. One could argue that the formal documentation of any folk materials kills them: by definition, a folk song is supposed to be orally transmitted and unfixed — there should be no "correct," official version. If so, one could counter, the traduction — no, the violence — that Lomax committed was justifiable. Not long ago James Taylor gave a nationally televised concert from a theater in New York, and he sang a powerful traditional tune called "Wasn't That a Mighty Flood," mentioning on the air that he had learned it from a performance by the veteran blues singer Eric von Schmidt. I asked von Schmidt where he had learned it, and he said he discovered it in the late 1940s, when he and a friend had driven from his native Connecticut to the Library of Congress in a pilgrimage to hear the Lomax recordings. There they found the song, sung a cappella "as a prison kind of spiritual" by a singer whom von Schmidt recalls as Sin-Killer Griffin.

As an early proponent of ethnomusicology, moreover, Lomax was forward-minded in his interest in the relationship between music, gender, and sexual mores. (Although Lomax was engaged in aspects of musicology and ethnomusicology, at points deeply, he kept his distance from academia, declining numerous offers of university posts.) Ultimately, though, Lomax's self-interest and sense of proprietorship poisoned his legacy. While he thought of the last century as his era ("the age of the golden ear"), he was really a nineteenth-century figure — a domestic colonialist who mistook "discovery" for creation and advocacy for ownership.

The details of Lomax's association with Leadbelly are a case study in exploitative paternalism. Lomax first encountered Huddie Ledbetter in 1933, during one of his song-collecting ventures with his father. As the younger Lomax recalled in Selected Writings, "Leadbelly called himself 'de king of de twelve-string guitar players ob de world.' He wasn't modest, but he was right. From him we got our richest store of folk songs, over a hundred new songs that Leadbelly had heard since his childhood in Morningsport, Louisiana, and had varied to fit his own singing and playing style." Leadbelly, incarcerated at the time, "begged us to help him get out of prison," Lomax wrote. In their benevolence, the Lomaxes assented. When the newly freed musician heard that his benefactors were heading to New York, he "begged to accompany us," Lomax continued.

Working with his father and later on his own, Alan Lomax oversaw Leadbelly's career, setting up concerts, nightclub engagements, and recording sessions. Lomax also had that rich store of Leadbelly's songs published, with his own name (and in many cases his father's name, too) listed as a co-composer on more than three dozen of the works, ensuring that Lomax (and his heirs) would earn as much in royalties as the musician who brought him the songs. These swindled compositions included "Rock Island Line" and "Goodnight, Irene," the latter of which, in its recording by the Weavers in 1950, was the number-one hit single on the pop-music charts for thirteen weeks and sold two million copies. Lomax liked this classic show-business grift of "cutting in" on song royalties, an old favorite of powerful business managers (such as Irving Mills, who put his name on the credits of dozens of early Duke Ellington works) and singers (including Elvis Presley, acting under the direction of his overseer Colonel Tom Parker). He liked it so much that his name appears next to those of Leadbelly, Memphis Slim, Vera Hall, and others on the copyrights of nearly one hundred compositions, including "Tom Dooley" and "This Train."

In this, the so-called "Year of the Blues," Lomax endures as an influence of multiple dimensions. The earthy, unadorned music that he loved pervades our society. (How would American industry sell its cars, its snacks, and its drinks without the electric guitar music in its commercials?) Yet variations on the Lomax model of cultural imperialism continue — indeed, they have gone global, with American record producers and music promoters (and musicians such as Paul Simon, David Byrne, and Ry Cooder) scouring the world for worthy musical discoveries whose "authenticity" might also happen to save their own careers. Alan Lomax deserves recognition, even gratitude; but so does my paperboy, and that doesn't make him the author of the stuff.


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