Documenting a documentarian John Szwed's biography of the legendary Alan Lomax is a must-read

Alan Lomax, who died in 2002 at the age of 87, wore many hats. In his long life, which spanned much of the 20th century, he worked as a folklorist, archivist, producer, writer, scholar, oral historian and filmmaker. He was also a musician and producer who played a key role in researching and preserving folk traditions, particularly in the US and England (spurring the folk revivals in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s in both countries).

Lomax recorded thousands of songs and interviews as director of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. In 2021, the Library of Congress, with the support of the Association of Cultural Equity announced that Lomax’s archive, which contained 5,000 hours of field recordings, nearly half-a-million feet of film, 3,000 videotapes and 5,000 photographs, would be digitised.

He also helped popularise the music of Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton and greatly influenced a young Bob Dylan (who said: “Alan was one of those who unlocked the secrets of this kind of music”). He made the first recordings, in the field, of a young plantation worker, McKinley Morganfield, who would become Muddy Waters; Muddy would later be a key influence in the development of rock and pop music.

I reviewed Lomax’s field recordings of Muddy Waters in a column more than a decade ago; now is the time to revisit this collection.

John Szwed, the biographer of Miles Davis and Sun Ra, and a professor of jazz studies, wrote a biography of Lomax in 2010, under the title The Man Who Recorded The World (Penguin). I have just read the book over the past few weeks and during that very enjoyable activity I realised that some of the blues and Caribbean folk records I checked out of the Sheffield City Phonographic Library in the 1960s were from field recordings made by Lomax. I first heard blues icon Lead Belly on Lomax’s recordings.

I grew up with ragtime being played on the piano by my father at home, but I had no idea that Lomax’s book Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes Of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole And Inventor Of Jazz, released in 1950 was instrumental, along with new commercial recordings Lomax arranged, in reviving Morton’s reputation.

So, how did this big, energetic Texan become the most famous folklorist and sound archivist on the planet?

Szwed prefaces Alan Lomax’s story with that of his pioneering father John Lomax, who was a well-known collector of cowboy ballads. In 1932, he made his first field trip with his father, travelling around Texas in a Ford Model A with a wardrobe-sized Edison cylinder-style recording machine strapped to the back seats. He had several epiphanies on the trip, enabled by a singing washerwoman and black tenant farmers singing about the hardships of their lives, so that later, as he reflected on his life, he said: “[I realised] my job was to get as much of these views, these feelings, this unheard majority, onto the centre stage.”

Szwed doesn’t really delve into Lomax’s messy personal life. He obviously made the decision to focus on his life’s work, about which he goes into great detail. What we do know is that son Alan took a more liberal position on the music he and his father were recording. As a result, he was placed under surveillance by the US authorities and during the McCarthy-era witch hunts he moved to Europe, spending much of the 1950s there.

I was not aware of how important Lomax’s work was in promoting traditional music in the UK until I read the chapter on how skiffle music influenced the development of British pop music. Lomax found that early trad jazz (such as 1920s New Orleans music) was being enthusiastically played by many British groups; they played marches, blues and old standards. Lonnie Donegan, King of Skiffle, “borrowed” Lead Belly’s songs (he copied them), tweaked them for a banjo and created the skiffle boom in the 1950s in Britain. These early precursors of rockabilly, which included Rolling Stones (named after a Muddy Waters’ song) and Beatles members, mirrored the scene in the US around the time of Elvis Presley’s first, historic singles.

He was placed under surveillance by Britain’s MI5 as a suspected communist.

Lomax also travelled and recorded widely in Europe but by the end of the 50s he was back in the States, ready to continue promoting and presenting traditional music. But he wasn’t a stuffed shirt; after all, he lived a Bohemian lifestyle and started many projects he never finished. He liked rock’n’roll as an authentic American idiom but was less impressed by “folk” singers seeking careers on the back of poor people’s music.

He nonetheless mentored and supported many singers and musicians. He organised concerts, discussions, wrote many books, released many albums and compilations and he did this while battling stiff criticism from academics and turf wars with other promoters (a memorable one is the spat between Lomax and Bob Dylan’s manager at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Dylan “went electric” causing a huge ruckus).

In his later years, Lomax worked on a grand theory, cantometrics, that he hoped would provide a taxonomy of all songs and music on the planet, dividing the world up into canto (song) regions rather like a historical linguist, which proved unwieldy and unpopular with the academic world. Perhaps more successful is his idea of a “global jukebox”, which he was trying to fund when he died in 2002. This idea did make it to fruition, and you can sample a wide range of global sounds on theglobaljukebox.org.

Szwed’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in traditional music. We’re still going through Lomax’s legacy, much of which is available at the site mentioned above and also via the Library of Congress. Also recommended is a film by music documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, Lomax The Songhunter.

John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.

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