ALAN LOMAX: The Man Who Recorded the World John Szwed Viking (2010) NY//William Heinemann (2010) London US$29.95//£20 – 438 pp., inc. acknowledgements, notes, and index.
The late Alan Lomax[i], the doyen of 20th Century folklore throughout the world, was an unique individual on so many levels. Dr. Szwed[ii] covers them all in appropriate detail in this well-written and timely biography. Lomax was undeniably a multivalent monomaniacal cultural polymath, one who was constantly coming up with ideas at a ferocious rate, a rate impossible for any one person to possibly follow up on them all in a single lifetime. As the world’s best-known folklorist, Alan helped kick-start folk music revivals in many countries besides the United States – Great Britain, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and Scotland among them. Influenced in his latter decades by Ray Birdwhistell’s kinesics approach to examining social activities, he made attempts to create broad-brush methods of examining “folk” social behaviors in a microanalytical fashion. He used and utilization markers like singing quality and style (cantometrics), dance movements (choreometrics), or speech patterns (parlametrics) to attempt to determine “deep” truths about any given folk community. His approaches have tended to meet with a rather underwhelming reception from others in the field over the years, yet they are still worthy of consideration and utilization. There is something in them that may be used by others in all walks of folklore. As an offshoot of his world-wide collecting (mainly music) for these focused approaches, Lomax also came up with the idea of The Global Jukebox well before the internet existed. This was a then-theoretical way to make all the musics of the world available to all the people of the world[iii]! Alan always thought big… and constantly, as Szwed elaborates in his final chapters’ summations of Alan’s ways of thinking!
Other realms of endeavor for Alan Lomax besides and including obvious folkloric activities such as field recording (ergo the sub-title) were: radio production and presentation; commercial phonograph record production; film making and still photography; ethnomusicology and anthropology; oral history (a creator of that approach); academic and popular journalism as writer, editor, and compiler; concert promoter and producer; talent scout; theatrical producer; social activist and public servant; singer and philosopher. The list goes on and on and on, with all being dealt with at appropriate times in Szwed’s chronological text. And then there is the small matter of over sixty years of field recording and filming in many countries and regions to which I have already alluded. This one aspect (recordings) alone would have made Lomax an important figure in the social sciences and the arts… and folklore… of the 20th Century, yet they are only one portion of the whole person’s realm of interest, although the primary one over the decades.
John F. Szwed takes all these threads of Alan Lomax’s life and weaves them into a sturdy and readable fabric that flows smoothly on the page. The book places Lomax in all his contexts beginning with his initial forays into Texas and Louisiana prisons with his father, John A. Lomax[iv], by the mid-thirties, takes him into his time as the youngest director at the Archive of Folk Song at The Library of Congress, his expanding social and political interests that lead to him leaving the US for Europe during the McCarthy era, his return in the late fifties and then his fabled “Southern Journey” into the field once again. Szwed takes the reader through Alan’s growing desire to tie all social behaviors together for each community and cross-correlate them, his attempts (not always successful) to get sufficient funding for his multitudinous ideas, and finally to his last years with many things still left undone, but many presently starting to come to fruition post mortem.
I always go back to the words of an old Black gospel song in thinking of Alan Lomax: “So high, you can’t get over him; so low, you can’t get under him; so wide, you can’t get around him… you must come in at the door.” Dr, Szwed’s book is one excellent entrée to the door that opens on to Alan Lomax – he is treated evenly and fairly at all times, the good and the bad presented to the reader without any overemphasis on either side. The man was often difficult to work with, though well-meaning, and this comes across in these pages. So do his massive number of accomplishments, accomplishments that would leave us all seriously lacking in knowledge concerning folk communities around the world if they had never been done (or at least attempted). This is a big book, but Alan Lomax was a big subject. Szwed’s ability to stray beyond the usual accepted and acceptable (names/dates/directional chronology) boundaries of “biography” to assist us in some understanding of “The Lomaxian Way” so that plodding linear thinkers such as myself can come away with some form of light bulb clicking on overhead! This is deep and broad sociological, folkloric, and philosophical stuff that is most worthy of our serious examination and thought.
Love him or hate him (there seems to have been few in the middle-ground[v]), the state of folklore research owes Alan Lomax a massive debt for leading the way for us all. If one wants a quick overview of the man, just go to pages 388-392 for a succinct and understandable summary of much of Alan’s life and works. But the whole trip is quite fascinating and is worthwhile investigating – once again, another highly recommended book from Szwed that deals with a difficult subject[vi]. This is a life that needed to be written about and Alan Lomax has “found” the ideal Boswell in John Szwed – highly recommended to all, and not “just” to folk music aficionados.
[i] Alan and I worked together for a ten month period at the Library of Congress spread over a couple of years listening to all the African American music found in the holdings of the current Folklife Center (p.382). We put together a series of albums that I edited that later became the core of “The Deep River of Song” portion of The Alan Lomax Collection from Rounder Records. Alan and I also remained friends until his death after that time in spite of the intensity of the experience for us both and our later geographical distance.
[ii] John and I are friends from our time at The University of Pennsylvania, he as a professor and I as a graduate student in Folklore and Folklife. I was even his T.A. in the jazz course he taught there and we spent much time together mulling over many topics of mutual interest. This took place over some five years in the 1980s.
[iii] Since beginning this review, the Global Jukebox idea has become a reality via the Association for Cultural Equity in NYC that Alan began – their site may be seen at www.culturalequity.org on the internet and the jukebox sampled there.
[iv] A fine biography of his father has been written by Nolan Porterfield, The Last Cavalier: The Life & Times of John A. Lomax, 1876-1948. University of Illinois Press (2001) Urbana/Chicago.
[v] I still remember my first year at Penn when fellow students came back from the AFS meetings in Pittsburg. Some had big white buttons with Alan’s picture on them with the international red circle with slash across his face. When I worked with Alan in the LofC archive, he was nicknamed “The Ayatollah” by some staff members there! Always strong responses to Alan – some positive, some negative.
[vi] Szwed’s previous books include the life of Sun Ra (Space is the Place: The Lives and Times Of Sun Ra – Pantheon  NY), a major modern jazz pianist and bandleader who was also an important composer and arranger and, to some, a whack-job; then he tackled Miles Davis (So What: The Life of Miles Davis – Simon & Schuster  NY), another difficult subject! Not for John the easy way out – he seems to like challenges!! Szwed’s work over the years regarding the many aspects of African American culture (especially music) is always interesting and challenging, testing the accepted boundaries, and are also well worth investigating.
PETER B. LOWRY
Published – WESTERN FOLKLORE.