Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World
by John Szwed
Reviewed by Curt Schleier
Most people who know American music probably have heard of Alan Lomax. He's the guy who visited rural areas of the country around the time of the Great Depression, recording -- and thereby preserving -- American folk music (including jazz, the blues, prison songs, etc.). Now, thanks to John Szwed's comprehensive biography, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, we learn that he achieved much more.
Lomax's efforts were not limited to the U.S. He recorded the folk music of several European and Caribbean countries as well. More than just recording music, he taped singers' oral histories. Equally important, he tried to place the songs in a sociological context of the economic, social and political times in which they were created. Lomax (1915-2002) helped create in America the academic discipline of ethnomusicology.
And that is just a partial list of his accomplishments. Lomax was an early leader in efforts to protect the rights of folk singer/ creators; he wrote extensively on the subject, both books and articles. He wrote and produced radio and television shows, produced numerous records and was a filmmaker, too. He was an early civil-rights activist and worked extensively in the African-American community to save and give worth to black music.
The book is replete with the names of famous artists he helped bring to prominence, including Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Lead Belly, for the bullet lodged in his stomach), Jelly Roll Morton, Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives, among others.
Szwed, a professor of music and jazz studies at Columbia University, has done an impressive amount of research and laid it all out in chronological order. Missing is perspective and a sense of Lomax's personality.
Yes, Lomax accomplished a great deal. But he was not alone in musicology.
He was introduced to the field by his father, John, who recorded cowboy, black and worker songs and spread "the message of folklore." A number of others -- Carl Sandburg, Charles Seeger and Seeger's son Pete -- also collected folk music. From the book, it's not clear if their work differed from Alan's, and if so, how.
Moreover, Lomax's efforts required considerable sacrifice. He frequently lived an almost hobolike existence in his travels and was away from family for lengthy periods. Particularly in early visits to the South, he put himself in danger. He was once arrested for putting a foot on a black woman's porch.
Why this passion? Just a love of music? A strong sense of social justice? This is not fully explored.
And while he apparently had an excellent relationship with his first wife and their daughter, he had numerous affairs during and after his marriages. What does his womanizing say about him? If nothing, why mention all the women, some of whom come and go in only a paragraph?
The book is also marred by occasionally awkward writing:
"Maxwell was one of those New Yorkers who seemed to come out of nowhere or the midwest ... " Huh?
Finally, Lomax offered seemingly off-kilter theories that tied folk music to Freud, and he tried to create metrics with which songs could be coded. This, too, is an area Szwed might have explored (and explained) in greater depth.
Despite its faults, Alan Lomax is an important and valuable biography and also an interesting slice of American history. Even those who assumed they knew Lomax and his work will no doubt be surprised by what they learn here.
This review was originally published by The Seattle Times.