Alan Lomax MOBI µ Ebook

Alan Lomax The remarkable life and times of the man who popularized American folk music and created the science of song Folklorist archivist anthropologist singer political activist talent scout ethnomusicologist filmmaker concert and record producer Alan Lomax is best remembered as the man who introduced folk music to the masses Lomax began his career making field recordings of rural music for the Library of Congress and by the late 1930s brought his discoveries to radio including Woody Guthrie Pete Seeger and Burl Ives By the 1940s he was producing concerts that brought white and black performers together and in the 1950s he set out to record the whole world Lomax was also a controversial figure When he worked for the U S government he was tracked by the FBI and when he worked in Britain MI5 continued the surveillance In his last years he turned to digital media and developed technology that anticipated today's breakthroughs Featuring a cast of characters including Eleanor Roosevelt Leadbelly Carl Sandburg Carl Sagan Jelly Roll Morton Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan Szwed's fascinating biography memorably captures Lomax and provides a definitive account of an era as seen through the life of one extraordinary man

10 thoughts on “Alan Lomax

  1. says:

    If you’re American Alan Lomax probably recorded your grandma Alan Lomax was the man he was an American giant and he embodied or became embroiled in every twist and turn and up and down of every phase of American folk music in the 20th century As soon as he heard folk singers he knew it was all pure gold There was no money in anything he did but it didn’t stop him He was too impatient for the academics he attempted gargantuan feats of research with no resources he lived like a bohemian from tiny grant to temporary position to royalty payment to tiny grant He was in his 50s before he got anything looking like a regular source of income He was a big Texan guy who had limitless energy combine harvesting charm and total commitment He loved folk music and he even loved the folk who sang it And sometimes he was a bull and the whole world was his chinashopTEN GALLON HAT But we need start with John Lomax brought up as “the upper crust of the po’ white trash” his words in Meridian Texas He was born in 1867 and grew up amongst actual cowboys boys with cows He had one year of college and became a teacher in the backwoods for six years In 1895 at the age of 28 he scraped enough together to go to the University of Texas in Austin to get a degree and then wound up at Harvard doing some research into cowboy songs His professor was George Kittredge who had studied under Francis J Child himself Talk about the apostolic succession Soon he turned himself into a star after dinner speaker Subject cow boys and what they like to sing about In 1910 he published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads published with an introduction by only just ex President Theodore Roosevelt the unlikely cultural radicalBy now the ballad collecting ten gallon hat wearing cigar smoking raconteuring good ole boy persona was fully formed and this is who Alan grew up with Alan was born in 1915 when the family fortunes were at their peak He went to the poshest schools ending up at Harvard and flirting with communism DOUBLE ACTBy 1931 with the Depression crushing the country the Lomaxes had crashed down like millions of others and were broke and jobless John decided his lecturing was the only money making prospect for the time being He proposed another book and got a tiny advance from Macmillan By May 1933 John and teenage Alan were on the road the first field trip It’s amazing this has never been turned into an earnest but cringe making tv movie – it has all the ingredients the firebrand proto communist son the conservative Southern father continually at loggerheads about the purpose of their song collecting the dire expectations heaped upon the enterprise this has to make some money the wardrobe size shellac disc recording machine bouncing around in the back half of the car the boldly going where no folk song collectors have previously gone into black prisons black churches black Saturday night dances into the black world of the South at a point where if the white administrators and officials weren’t already paranoid about their black populations and the pressure of exposes and contempt from Northern liberals already the Lomaxes arrived just in time to redouble their suspicions You can hear the prison officials dripping their venom all over J A this burly old boy and his teenage son and they have to charm and smarm and hustle their way inside the prisons and then ingratiate themselves with the convicts who were had a tendency to think that if the Lomaxes made a record of them then it would be released and then they would be famous and then they would be released just like their record The people who sang for us were in stripes and there were guards there with shotguns They were singing there under the red hot sun of Texas people obviously in enormous trouble But when they opened their mouths out came this flame of beauty This sound which matched anything I’d ever heard from Beethoven Brahms or Dvorak LEADBELLYSo 1933 and 34 was driving all over the South to the most isolated locations to record white and black performers On their second foray into a black prison Angola Penitentiary Louisiana they discovered Leadbelly the human jukebox of black folk music He got out of prison in 1934 and they became his managers and he became their house servant and chauffeur They took him to Washington and New York laid on concerts and became embroiled in a horribly complex relationship of mutual admiration dependency and exploitation 15 years after his discovery Leadbelly’s signature song Goodnight Irene became the biggest hit of the year but a little late for him as he died the same year The American South of the 1930s were of course was where all the great blues singers were from Son House to Skip James all the way to Robert Johnson But the Lomaxes didn’t record them at all thought they were just black pop song stylists Alan later struggled with trying to figure out if the blues were part of folk culture or merely popular culture It took him till 1940 to wake up So his ears and his cultural antennae were not perfectThe Lomaxes were amassing huge piles of recordings for the Library of Congress in Washington They were folklorists and they thought that commercial music was the opposite of what they were doing But of course while they were recording Texas Gladden in Saltville Virginia singing The Devil’s Nine uestions in 1933 just a few dozen miles away in Norfolk a record company would be recording the exact same type of folk song which they called hillbilly music in a hotel suite which they’d booked for that purpose The record companies would then issue their records in the Southern states and the Lomaxes would drive back to Washington and deposit their records in a library When 23 year old Alan finally did turn his attention to the commercial records he was thunderstruck by their uality He compiled the List of American Folk Songs on Commercial Records in 1940 and – lo and behold – it was this list which Harry Smith used to compile his now very famous Anthology 12 years later That appears to have been overlookedMR ANONYMOUSAL conceived it as his mission to introduce the rest of America to its own folk music That was his thing The city dwellers had been treated to actors and intellectuals polishing up folk songs and presenting then in suave concerts There was John Jacob Niles followed by Richard Dyer Bennett followed by Burl Ives and Carl Sandberg Finally in 1940 out of the swirl of Oklahoman dust came Woody Guthrie AL was gobsmacked I realisedthat I was meeting a guy who was a ballad maker in the same sense as the people who madeall the ballads that I spent my life trying to find and preserve for the American people I thought they were from anonymous people Well here was Mr Anonymous singing to meINVASION OF BRITAIN 1952After the war the heat from Joseph McCarthy’s red scare was beginning to rain down on AL’s friends and neighbours This folk song thing was encouraging the negro and encouraging striking workers everywhere and something was going to be done Alan was probably exactly right when he figured they were coming after him so decided to take his tape recorder to Europe for a while He came to England met and Lomaxed all the folkies of that early time and got busy recording folk singers in England Scotland and Ireland along with Peter Kennedy and Seamus Ennis After that he did Spain and Italy then America with Shirley Collins then the Caribbean and finally in 1963 he slowed downRushing about the world recording every singer and player he could find in America then Britain then Spain then Italy and the Caribbean took its toll even on a guy whose energy makes even reading about him exhausting He’s like Dickens he lived three lives in one the pace was relentless and not surprisingly he fell into periods of burnout and self doubt A cloud of anxiety hung over everything I did I could never keep a systematic notebook In the office I could never get around to cataloguing or classifying the songs So behind me year by year there accumulated an ever growing black mountain of unfinished and unorganised work What are my reasons for continuing to immerse myself deeper and deeper in this uagmire of folklore?THE THEORY OF FOLK EVERYTHING The rest of AL’s career the final thirty years is strange He finally developed a Theory It was called cantometrics and it was not a little barmy from what I read In the 1940s anthropology had met musicology at a party and one thing led to another and suddenly there was a new discipline called ethnomusicology You might have thought that AL was a born ethnomusicologist but those guys were too humble for AL they were all too devoted to spending 15 years studying the use of nose flutes in the hill tribes of the Philippines Alan wanted to study the folk music – and the folk dances – of the entire world all of it He was after a giant theory of folk just like historians like Spengler and Toynbee had had their giant theories of history He didn’t care that the days of the giant theory had passed and that they were now thought of as too bombastic too arrogant too Victorian and too mystical I could try to summarise what cantometrics was and how it was supposed to make things better but I can’t And frankly neither can John Szwed Here’s a tiny inkling of what cantometrics involved When we have described the musical styles of humanity and with their families and sub families we shall have the principal formative aesthetic currents of human history finally in our view 1954a From a hand sorted sample of world music classified according to vocal ualities ornamentation organization solo or choral and tonal unity he derived a provisional map of the distribution of nine grand families of music which he announced in a 1955 communiué to Charles Seeger Pigmy Bushman the oldest; Proto Melanesian Highland New Guinea Central Formosa and Borneo Melanesian forest Andaman; Melanesian; Australian; Amerindian; Polynesian; Negro African; Eurasian; and Old EuropeanI turn with a shudder back to the records back to Flora O’Neill the Trallalero singers of Genoa the chain gang laments Vera Hall Fred McDowell all the calypsonians and all the singers of joy and sorrow and love and pain that flood through the 100 plus cds which should be in every library and for which we desperately need a buyer’s guideTHE FOGGY FOGGY DEWThis biography is a grand piece of work but mildly distressing for its extreme lack of interest in AL’s personal life There is one single photo in 438 pages Girlfriends suddenly appear and are never mentioned again A second wife makes a one line appearance and is replaced within four pages by another woman no explanation The woman who replaced the second wife was Joan Halifax and this is what became of her Joan Halifax and Alan had now been together for almost four years They went to conferences and meetings wrote articles together did fieldwork in the Dominican Republic and Morocco when they returned they made plans to be married in Florida where Joan had grown up and where her family still lived but Alan never appeared for the wedding Their relationship ended shortly thereafterYes well I suppose it did That’s about as much personal detail as you get SIGNS AND WONDERSFor Lomax singing styles and dancing styles were like species and just like the worried ecologists he was living through a century which was rapidly tarmacking them over where the transmitters of culture had become few in number and bloated with power their networked voices beamed into every home spraying everywhere evenly with the same products the same dreams and the same future He had to run to capture something of all these voices and lifestyles before the Cheshire cat fade out So an essentially melancholy tone reverberates through AL’s life – the things he loves are vanishing he’ll never get enough on tape and so few other people seem to understand how important this is In this he fits right into the elegiac tone of many cultural commentators from DH Lawrence and Black Elk to Rachel Carson and Greenpeace More optimistically he also embodied another of the 20th Century’s great discoveries – that technology now allows us to capture forever what was previously impossibly transient and ephemeral Not just the songs but the performances themselves these particular uniue voices So the butterflies themselves may have perished but we still have great butterfly cds This is a biography in which every page counts For anyone interested in folk music it’s essentialPS There’s a perfect epilogue to this book in the form of a documentary made in 2004 by Rogier Kappers called Lomax the Songhunter Highly recommendedPPSRounder Records are in the process of issuing the best of the folk music field recordings Alan Lomax made during his career They’ve issued around 80 cds so far and they think there’s about 20 to come That’s just the a selection

  2. says:

    The title makes the same outsize claims as its subject did but Alan Lomax's contribution to the preservation of certain musical traditions is invaluable His obsessive recording trips often as John Szwed points out with primitive euipment gave us a record of popular music as it existed across America Europe and the Caribbean just before technology and mass marketed song vanuished it To him we owe recordings of African American fife and drums laments and lullabies from the far corners of Spain and Italy Caribbean rituals and he encouraged and influenced folklorists elsewhere The theoretical framework he tried to erect around this massive trove of recordings is less distinguished; he spent years trying to obtain academic bona fides for a sketchy universal theory of music and he tended to idealize what he called folk traditions as timeless and pure not far from being static museum pieces And his ambition knew no bounds he created folk operas and sent suggested plots to the Italian director Roberto Rossellini But beyond all the fruitless theorizing the braggadocio the extravagant unfinished projects and the poor treatment of spouses and child he saved all that music from oblivion and that achievement speaks for itself

  3. says:

    This is not so much a biography of the man as one of his career But it was an incredible and fascinating career which makes this book worth reading for one interested in what he did So one is left with a feeling for the deeds of Lomax but despite the many pieces of his writing the reader does not get so much of who he was Interestingly there is only one photo of Lomax in the book so you also don't get that view of himI knew very little about Lomax going in to this book and I didn't live through the time period covered With that as a context I did get a 'myth making' feel out of the story arc It isn't that anything comes across as untrue there is far too much detail for that but it is clearly written by a great admirer of Lomax's I don't think this is a negative; after all my interest was based on admiration as wellIn the end this book is like a biography of an explorer he was a modern day Magellan and the author does well to let Lomax's imagination drive the narrative

  4. says:

    A comprehensive probably definitive study of the life and work of Alan Lomax one of the greatest most important Americans who has ever lived The audiobook goes into significant detail of the development of Lomax's views and work on folklore musicology and humanity in general beginning even before he was born with his family influences and the work of his father John Lomax a great musicologist and folklorist in his own right The author ably describes the ordeals Lomax endured in his uest to preserve and recognize the music and lifestyles of the folk of the world ordeals that included racism; anti communist hysteria white people who cared about the lives of black people were naturally assumed to be communists in the J Edgar Hoover one of the worst Americans who ever lived days; elitism academic and social; and a failure to understand the substance and significance of his workAfter finishing this book it is impossible not to conclude that Alan Lomax was truly a brilliant Renaissance Man who devoted his life to the study and promotion of humanity particularly those ignored andor scroned by the elite of the worldI strongly recommend listening to the audio version of the book which includes interludes of performances from musicians recorded by Lomax

  5. says:

    This is an interesting book a book that attempts to tell the story of a man whose life was dedicated to the art of collecting stories and songs Interesting in theory for me though since in practice this is an exhausting read that is a hell of a slog to plow through The book is nothing but an endless name dropping of people that I have never heard of save Leadbelly and Jelly Roll Morton the only two names in this book so far that I've seen before Maybe that's a slight on my intelligence maybe it's a poor reflection on my behalf Maybe it isn't and this is just a boring book I don't know and I'm not very willing to delve into this any to figure it out I've stopped reading in the middle of the sixth chapter after a week I'm sure the book involves many many of the interesting people of history but I would rather be reading their books than a listing of events from the life of Alan Lomax man who travels to find people interesting than him and then gets sickMaybe I'll pick this book up again some other time but it's not doing anything for me nowOne star

  6. says:

    Painted in this biography probably truthfully as a champion of the disadvantaged genius Lomax is was a refreshing antithesis to the money seeking prodigy discoverers of today such as American Idol Instead of trying to find artists to fit the mainstream he tried to find and salvage what the mainstream was working intentionally and unintentionally to either destroy or usurp for its own purposesSzwed's telling of Lomax's story reads a bit like a laundry list I would have preferred a collection of letters annotated with bits of necessary background knowledge

  7. says:

    This book was utterly absorbing Alan Lomax had his faults but his utter tenacity and unfailing dedication to capturing and understanding the world’s cultures through music later dance and speech is breathtakingIt’s also extremely relevant for where we are now in such a fractured and polarized America As Szwed puts it “he felt that the solution to the country’s internal crisis lay in some form of multicultural awareness a process of making all peoples aware of their histories and creating pride in what America had achieved with its cultural mix”By recognizing and elevating original folk music by Black America especially Lomax embodied the view that “Folklorists should be interpreters to the world outside the folk community but they should also champion these peoples who are subjects to the control of the modern world”As much as I loved reading this book I did get frustrated at times with the density of certain sections and the relative thinness of othersLomax’s treatment of women is deplorable and Szwed’s breezy comments on Lomax's infidelities and his abandonment of women in his life seems to gloss over them ultimately doing them a disservice It pushes them into the background where whatever voice they had is lost Also I’ve read other reviews here that uestion how compressed the last couple of decades were It does read as if Szwed had a deadline and as a result it gets a bit blurry as to what was going on Perhaps or it could be that Lomax was not discovering or recording or performing music as much as analyzing it which may be less interesting to SzwedThis is unfortunate because the last section of Lomax's life seems to be where the real beauty and synthesis of his ideas and work began to reveal themselves I was especially and personally struck by a comment made by Michael Naimark an associate of Lomax’s on the “Global Jukebox” project“The Global Jukebox has fallen into an abyss beetween academic and pop culture between world saving and money making and between content and technology And in the new media industry the technology folks seem to drive the content rarely the other way around it’s too bad since most of the planet's cultures have the content but not the technology” My last note is that Szwed made the decision to tell the story of Lomax and his work predominately through Lomax's writings and letters While I liked reading snippets from Lomax's letters and papers from over the years I would have liked a bit substantive first person commentary from those around him Charles Seeger Carl Sandburg and especially Elizabeth Lomax his first wife are voices that seem to have complex opinions about Lomax and the work they were doing together and apart that don't get examined too closely I find it hard to believe this doesn't exist but as a professor of music and jazz studies Szwed seems interested in the scope of the music which of course is vast so there it isI’m sure glad I read this book though and I’m encouraged to read Lomax’s actual writings and to listen to the music he collected Given the huge scope of his work a recommendation for where to start by Szwed would have been helpful but I’m sure I can Google it

  8. says:

    3 12 star book Well written and well researched but it really felt like the last 34s or so were skimpy on a lot of Lomax's worklife details as if Szwed was in a hurry to get done or something Worth reading

  9. says:

    As a musician and music lover with a strongly developed sense of history I have great respect for the late Alan Lomax and his work as a musicologist This one man studied recorded and preserved an improbably large share of the extant corpus of American folk music The influence of his recordings and writings on the development of popular music in the late twentieth century is matched by no one else not even Bob Dylan Indeed without Lomax Dylan might not even have existed More broadly still black American music might never have found a mass white audience if not for his efforts which means the great creative explosion that resulted from this cultural conjunction couldn’t have happened without him either The world owes Alan Lomax an incommensurable artistic debtI was excited when I picked up this book The little I knew about Lomax – about his shoestring travels across America with a recording machine in the trunk of his car his risky encounters with redneck cops prison wardens and the suspicious poor his adoption of the blues singer Leadbelly his troubles with Senator McCarthy and the FBI his tireless championship of black causes his purist rejection of artists like Dylan who put the material he had discovered and preserved to their own artistic uses – made him sound like a thoroughly fascinating character the sort of man about whom it would be impossible to write a dull book This after all was the man who ended up rolling in the dirt with Albert Grossman at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 after Grossman caught him and Pete Seeger trying to take an axe to Dylan’s band’s power cable while they were on stage How could a book about a man like that be boring?Oh easy Just leave it to John Szwed An associate of Lomax during the great man’s later years his attitude towards his subject is one of obsessively hagiographic adoration In this plodding barely readable book the arc of Lomax’s life story is lost to view under an avalanche of irrelevant minor details It is as if Szwed was determined to capture every move and gesture made by his subject to describe and comment upon every essay article letter postcard or shopping list that Lomax ever wrote regardless of its relative importance or thematic value This suffocating mass of detail completely obscures what is really important in Lomax’s story One of the most important traits of a biographer or historian is selectivity Szwed appears uite incapable of itHe is also incapable of admitting any serious faults in his hero despite the evidence – given to us here in as much detail as everything else – that Lomax was manipulative selfish and self serving and tended to exploit and betray the women in his life The author finds excuses for it all Lomax was academically and politically uarrelsome – but in this book it’s always the other guy’s fault Szwed does not even scruple to slap on a coat or two of whitewash if the occasion demands it – having abandoned seuential reading about three fifths of the way through the book I skipped forward to see what the author had to say about the Newport incident and discovered that he barely mentions it and then only to dismiss it as ‘apocryphal’ This is simply untrue; several eyewitnesses have gone down in print with their descriptions and there is no doubt that it happenedThis dreary book has only one redeeming uality and that is the obsessive depth of its scholarship with respect to matters concerning its subject Perhaps one day a real historian or biographer will find it useful as a compilation of primary sources from which to produce a really good biography of Alan Lomax There’s no doubt that one is needed This isn’t it

  10. says:

    It has interesting moments but the book could have been half as long

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