Monday, January 24, 2011

Alan Lomax - American Folklorist

One of my favourite people from the past is Alan Lomax, who traveled around rural America recording traditional folk and blues artists, often for the only time in their lives. He understood that theirs was an underground narrative in history, part of what Frank O'Connor, the short story critic referred to in Trisha's post below as writers speaking out of and through a 'submerged population.' A new book is just out about Alan Lomax and the battles he faced getting traditional artists recorded and heard and the tremendous legacy that left of a time whose historical storytelling would otherwise be left to politicians and historians often cast by politicians.

Lomax is usually given the beautiful designation of Folklorist. I especially like the quote from Alan Lomax that his vision was to 'Bring 'em back alive, all the voices.'

This review of the new book about Lomax comes from the Wall Street Journal, (by reviewer Eddie Dean. You can read the entire review here.

Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World
By John Szwed
Viking, 309 pages, $29.95

In his barrage of strategies in which folk music could be used to inspire a united fighting force, Lomax paused to take a jealous swipe at a hit record that had won over a nation primed for patriotic fervor: "I need not overstress my opinion that 'God Bless America' and Kate Smith are both extremely dull and mediocre," he wrote. "They have both been elevated to an artificially astronomical position by the power of mass advertising and the star system." 

Smith's operatic bombast had little to do with what Lomax called "real American music." For him, real American music was performed by rural people such as Texas Gladden, a mother of nine who Lomax recorded a year later in her southwest Virginia home, in a capella, bare-bones renditions of "Gypsy Davey" and traditional songs handed down for generations. "Texas sings her antique ballads in the fashion of ballad singers from time immemorial," Lomax said. "The emotions are held in reserve: the singer does not color the story with heavy vocal underscoring; she allows the story to tell itself." 

Capturing such performances and the stories they told was a lifelong obsession for Lomax, who wandered America and the globe in search of the sounds of traditional music endangered by the very technology he used to record them for posterity. His travels took him from his native American South to remote outposts of the Caribbean and across the ocean to the British Isles and the fishing villages of Italy and the mountains of Spanish Basque country. His work spanned six decades, from the Depression all the way to the 1990s. (Lomax died in 2002.) He began his career gathering songs with a 300-pound disc-cutter in the back of a Model A and ended it using hand-held video cameras for backwoods documentaries. No matter what the gear, Lomax never wavered from his mission—to find evidence that the world's poorest places offered some of the richest cultural treasures.

An illustration of a reel-to-reel tape machine graces the cover of "Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World," the first biography of the renegade folklorist who, says John Szwed, "changed not only how everyone listened to music but even how they viewed America." The drawing shows the type of portable, hi-fi recorder that made possible Lomax's most influential fieldwork, like the 1959 recording of a Mississippi prison work gang that later appeared on the soundtrack for the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000).

"Po Lazarus"—rendered by black convicts chopping wood and singing in unison—is vintage Lomax in its utter fidelity (sonic and otherwise) to a world where the grace of artistic expression can rise from the depths of misery. The song is part of the vast Lomax archives. They include more than 5,000 hours of sound recordings, which have been mined by artists from Aaron Copland and Miles Davis to Bob Dylan and Moby, a fitting legacy for a visionary outlaw who believed, says Mr. Szwed, that "folk culture could become pop culture."

The staggering output came with a heavy cost, dooming Lomax's first marriage and other relationships as he followed his collecting compulsion, often working himself to the point of physical collapse. A charmer and a bully, an antiacademic who depended on educational funding, a man equally at home in a straw hut in Haiti and at a White House reception, Lomax was a controversial figure, often accused of exploitation and grandstanding. He made enemies well beyond the field of folklore, not least the FBI agents who trailed him for years on account of his radical politics. An early file report depicts "a very peculiar individual in that he is only interested in folklore music, being very temperamental and ornery. . . . He has no sense of money values, handling his own and Government property in a neglectful manner." Even so, Lomax had fiercely loyal supporters in high places, ranging from Margaret Mead to filmmaker Nicholas Ray, and he has been a revered mentor to several generations of historians, including Mr. Szwed.

As a biographer of Miles Davis and Sun Ra, two notoriously difficult and singular characters, Mr. Szwed is in thorny but familiar territory. He is a reliable if at times overeager guide along the Lomax trail, one that is littered with miles of tape and mountains of paper. Mr. Szwed is especially helpful in establishing the explosive dynamic between Alan Lomax and his father, John, who set the often wayward son on his life's journey.

The author of a landmark 1910 anthology of cowboy ballads, Texas-born-and-bred John Lomax was a towering force in American folklore circles by the time a teenage Alan began accompanying his father on song-collecting trips in 1933. The material they sought for the Archive of American Folk Song broke from the norm. Instead of merely transcribing song-texts, in the tradition of European scholars, they made recordings of performances, mostly those of rural Southern blacks from the work fields and prisons, whose culture was deemed lowlife and unworthy of collecting, much less studying.

If Lomax shared his father's love of this music and an appreciation of its enduring worth, he had his own epiphanies that went beyond aesthetics to ideals of social justice. He wanted to break free of the prejudices of his conservative, Southern-patrician father, with his Stetson hat and cigar and superior manner toward the folk he recorded. The father-and-son road trips featured a lot of quarreling, culminating in a blow-up over John's patronizing treatment of Lead Belly, the black songster and ex-convict whom the Lomaxes had recorded in prison and helped gain parole and fleeting fame back East. The elder Lomax also engaged Lead Belly in an ill-fated business arrangement that included Lead Belly performing duties as John's chauffeur.

The Lomax Legacy
The colossal scope of Alan Lomax's recorded legacy, housed in climate-controlled stacks at the Library of Congress's John Adams Building and widely available in a steady torrent of releases, can humble even the most adventurous listeners. Here are three of the best, from an introductory compilation to an eight-CD box set, which convey the astonishing range of what Lomax captured in his quest to "bring 'em back alive, all the voices."

--Eddie Dean

—Mr. Dean is co-author of Dr. Ralph Stanley's "Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times" (Gotham).

The entire review can be read here

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