ALAN LO­MAX The Man Who Recorded the­World

By John Szwed Vik­ing. 438 pp. $29.95

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - — Mark Berman bermanm@wash­post.com

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.

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