by Nolan Porterfield ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 1, 1996
Scholarly biography of a colorful folklorist who was equal parts academic, businessman, and hustler. Best known for spending much of the last 16 years of his life roaming the rural landscape for singers--from cowboys to convicts--who would record their folk songs, John Lomax (1867-1948) patched together a long career by working hard and exploiting his good-old-boy Texas persona and his old-boy university network with equal skill. First encouraged in his interest in folk music by his mentors at Harvard, Lomax solicited and collected songs from newspaper editors, educators, friends, and local officials while holding various positions at Texas A&M and the University of Texas. At both institutions he plunged into major squabbles, which are reported here with a completeness endearing only to academics. Twice, when the ivy tower became too hot, Lomax's friends got him into business, where he sold bonds with shrewdness and success. The Great Depression and ill health turned Lomax's interests back to music; he hit the road to deliver lectures and to record the tunes that so substantially increased the holdings of the Library of Congress's Archive of American Folk Song. Even this venture wasn't free of contention, particularly when ex-convict Huddie Ledbetter, an effective singer known as Leadbelly who found fame with Lomax's help, suspected the ""Big Boss"" was getting the better part of their business deal. Porterfield, an award-winning biographer and novelist, is clearly amused by his subject, but the resulting work is as heavy on detail as it is light on insight. It would have been better, for instance, to know why Porterfield claims, despite evidence to the contrary, that young Lomax was not ""rigidly conservative"" than what he ate at a particular diner. An unblinking portrait of Lomax's eccentricities, his outspokenness, and his prejudices--including racism--keep this from dissolving into standard academic fare.
Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1996
Page Count: 656
Publisher: Univ. of Illinois
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1996
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