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ALAN LOMAX by John Szwed


The Man Who Recorded the World

by John Szwed

Pub Date: Jan. 3rd, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-670-02199-4
Publisher: Viking

Overdue, hagiographic biography of the folk-song collector.

Szwed (Music and Jazz Studies/Columbia Univ.; Crossovers: Essays on Race, Music, and American Culture, 2005, etc.) piles up mountains of research on the prolific career of folklorist, author, producer, radio host, filmmaker, musician and impresario Lomax (1915–2002). Son of Texas scholar John A. Lomax, he put his father’s life on a new track in 1933, when, at teenaged Alan’s urging, the pair undertook a Southern recording expedition for the Library of Congress, which climaxed with the discovery of singer-guitarist Lead Belly. The younger Lomax went on to extensively document the music of Haiti, conduct famous sessions with Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters and rescue jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton from obscurity. As the government scrutinized his leftist affiliations during the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, Lomax left the United States for eight years in European exile, and he recorded a celebrated series of albums on the music of the British Isles, Spain and Italy. Upon his return, he revisited the South in 1959 to cut a storied series of albums for Atlantic Records. Lomax later developed Cantometrics, an ambitious cross-disciplinary system aimed at classifying world folk music. Szwed delineates Lomax’s work down to the last detail; even unfulfilled projects are discussed at stultifying length. But the author observes that work uncritically and tartly dismisses others’ reservations about his subject’s endeavors—e.g., his self-serving managerial dealings with Lead Belly, or the romanticism and inaccuracies of his 1993 book The Land Where the Blues Began. Mystifyingly, Lomax’s personal life gets scant consideration. His fraught, oft-competitive relationship with his father received deeper treatment in Last Cavalier, Nolan Porterfield’s 1996 biography of John Lomax. The younger Lomax’s life with two wives, lover and collaborator Shirley Collins and companion of 23 years Carol Kulig and his apparently chronic philandering are also left unexplored. Lomax emerges as a brilliant, driven and often conflicted man who revolutionized the study of folk music, but in the end the interior sources of his genius remain unplumbed.

Despite its wealth of detail, this is a portrait left half-painted.