ALAN LOMAX The Man Who Recorded theWorld
By John Szwed Viking. 438 pp. $29.95
Reading about Alan Lomax (1915-2002) can make a person feel very, very lazy. Lomax, who famously scoured the United States and the world collecting folk music, was an archivist, producer, anthropologist, singer, political activist and theorist, to name just a few of his roles. Although he started out collecting folk music in the rural South, he eventually traveled the world finding and classifying song and dance.
John Szwed, a professor of music and jazz studies at Columbia University, knew Lomax personally. His biography is rich in detail, thoroughly explaining Lomax’s methods of music collection as well as his movement into crafting books, concerts, festivals and radio programs. But Szwed skimps on the kind of personal material that might have humanized his subject.
Consider Lomax’s relationship with his father. Himself a folklorist, John Lomax took his son into the field to collect, setting him on the path toward his life’s work. This time on the road learning how to become “a messenger for the masses” changed Alan’s life. Yet Szwed writes that, at age 23, Alan was “on the verge of becoming the bestknown folklorist in America, but self-doubt haunted him.” Did he want to do the work, or was he living out his father’s dream? The book barely touches on Lomax’s conflicted feelings in this regard. John’s death gets only a quick mention, and we don’t learn much of anything about his son’s reaction. By comparison, when the film director Nicholas Ray dies, Szwed devotes several lines to the ceremony and quotes from Lomax’s eulogy for his friend.
Lomax’s story is filled with interesting trips and, like the man himself, never seems to stop in one place for very long. Among the names that pop up as he is out collecting and, later, putting on concerts are the novelist Zora Neale Hurston and singer-songwriters Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Among many interesting anecdotes is one about Lomax’s 1939 performance at the White House. He was there to sing for the president, first lady and the king and queen of England, but “everywhere he went in the White House” the Secret Service jostled him in an attempt to frisk him. It turned out somebody had told the FBI he was a threat, thus beginning the FBI’s decades-long interest in Lomax.
Lomax helped reconnect American music with its roots in folk traditions, and his story is an important one for anyone with an interest in cultural history. Szwed admirably captures the efforts of a man who seemed determined to honor what came before him.