The Man Who Recorded the World: a Biography of Alan Lomax by John Szwed
Reviewed by Des Cowley
John Szwed’s previous books were on jazz icons Miles Davis and Sun Ra. So it comes as something of a surprise to discover that, for his latest outing, he has delved into the life and times of legendary folklorist Alan Lomax. Szwed first met Lomax back in 1961, at a meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, and later worked for him on occasion. He recalls, at that first meeting, being struck by Lomax’s Texan accent and that he was ‘well dressed enough to be a bible salesman in Alabama‘.
Alan Lomax would be familiar to many readers as the man who first recorded bluesman Leadbelly, and later Woody Guthrie, and the young Muddy Waters, who he tracked down at Stovall’s plantation in Mississippi in 1941. Stories of Alan driving through the American south with his father, at age 18, their car loaded with primitive recording equipment, in pursuit of authentic folk songs, are the stuff of legend. Many of these stories were recounted in Lomax’s own book – The Land Where Blues Began – and in countless other books on the blues. But until I read Szwed’s wide-ranging account of Lomax’s life as a folklorist and musicologist, I have to admit to having had no idea as to the extent and far-reaching impact of Lomax’s musical mission.
Alan Lomax first began recording songs in the field with his father, John, in the wake of the Great Depression, in part at the instigation of the then recently instituted Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. The Library provided recording equipment and, in return, John, with Alan in tow, travelled the country making field recordings, which were then deposited in the Archive. They concentrated their activities, in particular, on prisons in the southern states, where they hoped to find black American folk singers and songs, untouched by the modernity of ‘jazz and the radio’. At the Angola Prison Farm, in 1933, they first recorded Huddie Ledbetter, or Leadbelly, thus beginning a complex relationship that has haunted the Lomax legend to this day.
Later critics have pointed to the fact that the John and Alan Lomax often helped themselves to songwriting credits, regularly adding their names as arrangers to the songs they recorded. When the Weavers had a massive hit in 1950 with Leadbelly’s ‘Goodnight Irene’, a year after the singer’s death, Lomax was in line to benefit from the royalties. However, in Lomax’s defence, Szwed argues that any funds he earned in this way were ploughed straight back into further song-collecting projects. Even in a good year, he rarely earned a half-way decent salary, yet his work was instrumental in salvaging many thousands of songs from oblivion.
Szwed’s book recounts the many field trips Lomax carried out: the recordings he made in Haiti in the late 1930s, his several trips through the American south, and his later travels to Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Italy, Morocco, Rumania, always in search of folk songs and singers. The extent of his field recordings is overwhelming: the Library of Congress today holds some 5,000 hours of sound recordings made by Lomax from all around the world, along with some 400,000 feet of motion picture film, and over 2,000 videotapes . He also produced countless radio programs, made films, wrote books, produced concerts, gave lectures and performances. There were times I felt exhausted just reading about the man’s activities.
While Lomax was meticulous about arranging and caring for his music archive, such skills were in short supply when it came to his personal life. His several marriages foundered, and Szwed alludes to a string of affairs engaged in while on field trips. At times, Lomax comes across as a slightly ornery character, arrogant and opinionated. His politics were left-leaning, and he was regularly on the FBI’s radar. Rarely satisfied, his later life was spent concocting ever-more ambitious projects, much to the despair of his financial backers. Driven by self-belief, he was sometimes incapable of seeing the wood for the trees. In his quest for authentic folk songs, for example, he often failed to register that the the singer could be more important than the song. For while individual folk songs may be passed down through generations, hindsight dictates that the appearance of a Robert Johnson or Louis Armstrong happens just once.
Such a revelation came via his meeting with jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton in Washington in 1938. Lomax had intended to record only a few sides by Morton, but soon came to the realization that he’d come face to face with a ‘Creole Benvenuto Cellini’. Out of this recording session came a performance that lasted over a month, a ‘recitation of Homeric proportions’, as Morton sang and talked about his life. It was the longest recording session anyone had ever attempted, the first real oral history, and the recordings, till this day, remain a key source on the birth of jazz in New Orleans.
In the early 1940s, Lomax also came to recognise the important role commercial record companies had played in the survival of folk music, via their various ‘race’ labels and hillbilly recordings. He trawled the vaults of Decca, Vocalion, Paramount and others, tracking down obscure sides – many later destroyed by these same companies – and recorded them for the Library of Congress. He later begrudgingly acknowledged: ‘the commercial recording companies have done a broader and more interesting job of recording American folk music than the folklorists’.
But in reality it was Lomax more than anyone who single-handedly preserved and promoted this music. In the early 1950s, he edited the 18 volume Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, the first such compilation of world music ever issued. Even today, the Library of Congress, in conjunction with recording companies, continues to issue the vast storehouse of Lomax’s recordings held in its care. There can be little doubt that Lomax’s tireless and resolute work helped prefigure the boom in folk and world music from the 1960s onwards.
There are a surprising number of disparate musicians, filmakers, writers, academics, who have a walk-on part in Szwed’s book, attesting to the wide-ranging and maverick life Lomax led: Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Alistair Cooke, Zora Neale Hurston, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Elia Kazan, Margaret Meade, Nicholas Ray. If I had any complaints, it’s that Szwed’s attention to detail is such that later parts of the book read more like an exhaustive catalogue of Lomax’s activities, rather than the outlines of a life. Faced with the vast archive of letters, journals and writings Lomax left behind, Szwed has been lured by temptation to get ‘everything’ in the book.
In 1978, Carl Sagan asked Lomax to advise on the ninety minutes of music, to be contained on a gold-plated copper record, that would be carried into space aboard Voyager I and II. Aside from Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, there was music from the Solomon Islands, the Navajo, Peru, India, Java, along with Blind Willie Johnson and Louis Armstrong. Though Lomax died in 2002, the Voyager space craft will continue on its travels in space for thousands of years: a fitting legacy, if ever there was one, for a man who, in Szwed’s words, ‘recorded the world’.