Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World

Alan Lomax photographed by Shirley Collins
Alan Lomax photographed by Shirley Collins

When The White Stripes were first blowing up and getting national attention, Jack White cited Alan Lomax's book The Land Where The Blues Began as being crucial to his musical development and suggested other young rock-and-roll musicians give it a read. The life and work of Texas born musicologist, author, photographer, producer, political activist Alan Lomax is an inspiration for many well-known folk and rock artists. From 1933 and on into the 1980s, first with his father John and later on his own, Alan Lomax recorded innumerable examples of "rural" or "folk" music performed for the most part by everyday people - laborers, fishermen, maids, and even prisoners - who were usually confused as to why anyone would care about their songs and culture in the first place. He was not alone in his work. John Wesley Work III and Zora Neale Hurston both guided and accompanied Lomax in his travels through the musical and spiritual culture of the Southern states and on into the Caribbean. On his own, Lomax put himself at great personal risk by disregarding the "color lines" drawn throughout the U.S. There's a chilling description in The Land Where The Blues Began of Lomax and his then wife Elizabeth being humiliated before a Mississippi sheriff who took issue with a "foreign agent" and "yankee" spending time with blues musician and former preacher Son House.

Describing that meeting (which took place in 1942), Lomax wrote that Son was "possessed by the song, as gypsies in Spain are possessed, gone blind with music and poetry...with him the sorrow of the blues was not tentative, or retiring, or ironic. Son's whole body wept, as with eyes closed, the tendons in his powerful neck standing out with the violence of his feeling and his brown face flushing." Many years later, in the 2008 documentary film It Might Get Loud, Jack White plays a recording of Son House's "Grinnin' In Your Face" and speaks movingly of the impact this a cappella performance had on him as a teenager. It's just one example of how the legacy of Lomax continues to resonate in the 21st century.

Along with Jack White, Bob Dylan, Moby, and Sun City Girls all owe a debt to Lomax's philosophy and work. SCG's Sublime Frequencies label is sort of the bastard child of Smithsonian Folkways (Lomax was a consultant to the Smithsonian folk festivals) and has released several strange CDs and DVDs including Nat Pwe: Burma's Festival Of Spirit Soul featuring The Nat Pwe festival where spirits take possession of transvestite mediums demanding cigarettes, liquor, and cash. And when you consider Lomax's musicological work overseas - in particular the music he studied and recorded throughout the British Isles - you can trace his impact on several strange psychedelic bands like The Incredible String Band, Pentagle, Dr. Strangely Strange and David Tibet's Current 93 (Lomax's collaborator British singer Shirley Collins appears on Thunder Perfect Mind and Black Ships Ate The Sky). Filmmakers the Coen Brothers and Martin Scorsese have used Lomax's field recordings - including the chain gang chant "Po Lazarus" in the Coens' O Brother Where Art Thou? - in soundtracks to their films.

 

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Columbia University professor John Szwed's new book Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded The World includes maybe four and a half pages of description as to how Lomax's legacy resonates in 21st century culture. Except for Moby, Shirley Collins (who's role in Lomax's life and work is given surprisingly little copy) and Scorsese (via a mention of his film Gangs Of New York), none of the other aforementioned artists are name-checked in the book (although strangely, My Cat Is An Alien gets a shout out). How the music Lomax recorded is influencing musicians born after 1960 is pretty much ignored.

Which is strange because as Szwed points out several times in the book, Lomax was no purist. He wasn't stuck in the past. In a chapter describing the advent of rock-and-roll music in America the late 1950s, Szwed writes that what Lomax "had thought of as ethnic and racial styles ten years earlier were now rapidly beginning to influence each other, with singers crossing lines once held in place by custom and even by law." Much later, Szwed describes Lomax's pre-Google, pre-Pandora.com vision for an online interactive Global Jukebox that could call up "musical, dance, and speech styles of single performances, whole cultures, or regions of the world," the idea being that one musical or video example would lead the user to another and another well-beyond their own culture. But Szwed's book folds in on itself at the end, putting a double bar at the end of an expansive and unruly history, as if to say "That's it. Song's over. Alan has left the building." There's no "Suggested Listening" list at the end and no song titles in the index. What the hell?

The book reads like a well-researched but rather dry companion to Lomax's brutal memoir-disguised-a-history-lesson The Land Where The Blues Began. It is an engaging book for those already familiar with its subject, with plenty of revelatory moments and de-bunking of myths. But will it inspire casual readers (or young rock-and-roll musicians) to explore their own--or global--cultural histories? Or give them another perspective on the society they were born into? Probably not.


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