Alan Lomax: Voices from the past

A painstaking new biography chronicles the life and work of folk music¿s most famous collector.

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Upon his death in 2002 at the age of 87, Alan Lomax left behind an extraordinary legacy. According to The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, it amounted to "5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of motion-picture film, 2,450 videotapes, 2,000 scholarly books and journals, hundreds of photographic prints and negatives, several databases and more than 120 linear feet of manuscript materials". This archive, the product of a life's work, established its curator as the most assiduous and influential collector of vernacular culture the world has ever known.

Lomax was born in Austin, Texas in 1915, the third of four children, to his father, John, and mother, Bess. A sickly, bookish boy, he was educated at home, then sent to Connecticut's prestigious Choate School where he excelled and, by all accounts, appeared destined for the Ivy League.

These might seem less than ideal beginnings for a champion of rough-hewn music from the margins of society. Yet according to John Szwed's impressive new biography - remarkably, the first about Lomax - this young man's path was laid down from birth. As in his previous books about Miles Davis and Sun Ra, Szwed largely ignores his subject's personal life, but he does make clear his most important relationship.

John was a gifted but frequently thwarted literary academic and an avid collector of American cowboy ballads. He was the most enduring of Lomax's influences, and it didn't take long for the son to follow in his father's footsteps. When Lomax went to Austin's University of Texas in 1930, his studies had to compete with a burgeoning extra-curricular interest in the blues. By day he visited record stores, buying up gospel recordings and the popular songs of contemporary stars such as Blind Willie Johnson. By night he wandered through the city's black neighbourhoods, soaking up the vibrant atmosphere of their unlicensed bars. He wrote eloquently about his encounters, framing them as little more than rites of passage made by many young white people in search of authentic and, at the time, transgressive musical pleasures. Yet extensive quotations from his personal correspondence paint him as an attentive observer rather than a thrill-seeker.

In visiting Ruby's place, of course, I was risking expulsion, but in that I was no different to a whole generation of southerners who have gone across the tracks for adventure and for friendly contact with the race they do not wish at all to shun… I used to try to get Ruby to talk, to tell me how she felt about the town and her life there. She could only throw back her head and laugh long, long, and show her mouthful of gold teeth and tell me, "Lissen, boy, you wants to know too much. You like the man who had the finest Jersey cow, give him more milk than even been heard of. Then he get the idea that he want to send that cow to college."

The bar owner's remark proved prescient. Lomax fulfilled his family's hopes and made it to Harvard, majoring in philosophy. Yet he never quite fitted in. A loud, proud son of the Lone Star State, shambolic in appearance and prone to formidable bursts of energy, he dropped out after just a year, dissatisfied with the fusty elitism of academic life. The death of his mother also contributed to his decision to return to Austin. By the early 1930s, the Great Depression gripped America and the newly widowed John fell upon hard times. As a money-making scheme, Lomax persuaded him to embark on a journey in search of American folk songs; the end goal a published book.

So began an apprenticeship that would set the blueprint for the rest of Lomax's life. The two men traversed the Southern states, talking to those they met along the way, capturing the music they heard for posterity. Lomax began to formulate his approach to documentation. Over the coming decades it would see him dragging recording equipment, cameras and notepads everywhere from Mississippi to Morocco.

It was on one such trip that the Lomaxes met Huddie Ledbetter, then serving a sentence for attempted murder at Louisiana's Angola State Prison. A fearsome figure, Ledbetter would find fame as the blues performer Leadbelly. If mainstream audiences were not quite ready to be entertained by a man billed as a "virtuoso of the knife and guitar", his discovery still marked a turning point for Lomax. A 1935 concert at Harvard met with rapturous applause. It set the wheels in motion for Lomax to bring musicians such as Son House, Muddy Waters and Jelly Roll Morton to a wider public.

While John Lomax was a political conservative, Alan was anything but. As Szwed - a professor emeritus of anthropology at Yale and professor of music at Columbia University - explains, he saw the blues as the most recent iteration of a folk culture melding black and white traditions. As he wrote in a 1946 application for funding to the Guggenheim Foundation: "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."

In 1936, Lomax travelled to Haiti with the writer Zora Neale Hurston. There he experienced the island's fusions and witnessed seldom-seen vodou rituals. This formative expedition would be followed by fieldwork in Spain, Romania, the Caribbean and beyond. "I have to learn diplomacy," he wrote, "how to collect, how to handle a servant, how to beat a tambour, how to dance, how to bargain, how to lie, how to run the new recorder, how to take notes, how to budget and keep accounts, all on top of my personal problems, which have formerly kept me occupied. And God, this world is beautiful, beautiful and strange."

What may seem stranger now is the fact that, even at the height of his renown, Lomax struggled to find the academic funding to continue his work. He was, however, a popular broadcaster and released many commercial collections of music. Lomax's relationship with the mass media has led a number of contemporary critics to question his ethics, and especially his occasional claims of authorial credit for the works he collected. (The best-known case is that of Leadbelly's Good Night Irene, which caused an acrimonious battle between Lomax and the Ledbetter family). This practice may seem unscrupulous now, but it is perhaps less egregious in the chaotic legal context of the early recording industry.

Lomax's mainstream profile also brought great benefits. He became an international radio star, whose shows and records allowed his discoveries to influence a generation of popular musicians, including Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. As such, Lomax remains a peerless figure in the grand tradition of American social documentary. Like the Depression-era photography of Walker Evans or the oral histories of Studs Terkel, his work reflects a passionate commitment to the lives and stories of ordinary people. In its painstaking detail and exhaustive research, The Man Who Recorded the World offers a fitting tribute; one that does much to expand our understanding of Lomax's methods and motivations, not to mention his vital role in shaping the sound of the present.

Still, the best way to truly appreciate the significance of his work will always be by listening to it. From his earliest trips to the rundown saloons of Austin, Lomax found in music pride, dignity, communion and a sense of the sublime. Play back any of his recordings - the rugged harmonies of chain-gang prisoners in the Deep South, or the rousing sea shanties of coastal England - and even now it is impossible not to hear those very same things.

Dave Stelfox's work has been published in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and The Village Voice.