Mudcat Café message #3085390 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #134821   Message #3085390
Posted By: Desert Dancer
30-Jan-11 - 02:55 PM
Thread Name: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
Subject: RE: New Alan Lomax biography reviewed
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").