Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, John Szwed, Viking, 448 pages

All history is biography, it’s said, but an individual biography usually shines a mere flashlight on surrounding historical events. John Szwed’s book on Alan Lomax is more like a floodlight thanks to his subject’s centrality to so much of American 20th-century culture. Alan Lomax knew everyone, went everywhere, appreciated just about everything, and worked tirelessly to foster in all Americans his own great love for them: the people, the folk.

Imagine a world scarcely acquainted with the blues, bluegrass, work chants, gospel music and spirituals, jazz, zydeco, calypso, cowboy songs, and most of the great ballads of British and American folk music. Such a world would never have spawned rock ‘n’ roll. For some, that’s a tempting thought. But the world is richer for knowing these ancestors of rock. And for much of that knowledge we have the work of Alan Lomax to thank.

Alan’s story (1915-2002) is in many ways a continuation of his father’s. John Lomax (1867-1948) grew up near the Chisholm Trail in Texas, fascinated by cowboy culture. By fascinated I mean obsessed: a lifelong compulsive devotion. That devotion, in ever more all-embracing forms, persisted in his younger son Alan.

Szwed does a fine job of establishing the self-made John Lomax, a great example of the pent-up human genius liberated by the American frontier, as one of the world’s first ethnographers and ethnomusicologists, who transferred to Alan a love for “roots” music of all kinds yet wrangled with his son over Alan’s perceived disloyalty to his own roots—at one point publicly shouting, after both had participated in a “festival of Negro song,” “You have disgraced the South!”


There has been at least one biography of John Lomax—Last Cavalier by Nolan Porterfield—but Szwed’s is, surprisingly, the first of Alan. The name Lomax is a household word among music lovers, though John and Alan were neither the first nor the most brilliant to collect, record, and analyze folk songs, tales, and customs. Among their predecessors were Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, the Brothers Grimm, James Russell Lowell and Francis James Child at Harvard, Marjory Kennedy-Fraser and The New Scottish Orpheus, and English musician Cecil Sharp. Many composers as well have gone on “listening tours” of the provinces to refresh their ears—Haydn, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Dvorak, Sibelius, Bartok, Smetana, Grieg, and de Falla, to name a few. Even Cole Porter roamed the globe picking up rhythms for his own compositions such as “Begin the Beguine,” based on a dance from Martinique.

What set Alan apart from these other excavators of folkways, according to Szwed, was that he not only devoted his entire life to popularizing and publicizing his beloved voces populi but became a spokesman for “the common people, the forgotten and excluded, the ethnic, those who always come to life in troubled times.” His heyday—the Depression, the war years, the Cold War—certainly qualified as troubled times. Having endured the collapse of the credit system without welfare, food stamps, unemployment insurance, Medicare, or Social Security, the Little Man was genuinely deserving.

In fact, Alan Lomax’s achievements are inseparable from the cultural crisis the country found itself in after the ’29 crash, as hard times ground on, the world rearmed, and threats both inward and outward forced Americans to ask themselves Who are we? What do we stand for? What can we draw upon now for strength?

All over the planet, peoples were asking themselves the same questions, as a vast wave of nationalist, nativist, patriotic, populist, and yes, chauvinist mass emotion swept over them. “There’s no place like home!” cried Dorothy. “Tara. Home. I’ll go home,” whispered Scarlett. “This land was made for you and me,” sang Woody Guthrie. The U.S. adopted its first national anthem in 1931.

Szwed locates the Lomax brand of ethnomusicology “where art emerges from deeply encoded but virtually unconscious behavior.” One of the book’s intriguing questions is how conscious an unconscious behavior can be made before it dies on the vine. In his introduction to American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934) John Lomax made this startling comment: “Worse than thieves are ballad collectors, for when they capture and imprison in cold type a folk song, at the same time they kill it.”

Another question is how teaching a nation to sing the blues of the oppressed and the ballads of radical reds could possibly unite it. And a third was how one could make a living collecting other people’s music without ripping them off.

The first puzzle Alan was too helplessly committed to his life’s work to address. But the second he strove incessantly to solve with countless proposals, projects, travels, recordings, exegeses, concerts, lectures, radio shows, books, collaborations, and conferences. In the book, his private life is at times totally obscured by a blur of activities too numerous even to be touched upon here.

The third question is a thorny one that never quits snagging the wary and unwary alike. In Szwed’s opinion, the Lomaxes did their best to avoid exploiting their subjects—we’re talking about the likes of Lead Belly, Jelly Roll Morton, Woody Guthrie, Aunt Molly Jackson, Son House, Brownie McGhee, Muddy Waters, Josh White, Sidney Bechet, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jean Ritchie, Texas Gladden, and Memphis Slim. Szwed details the constant efforts Alan made on behalf of Lead Belly, Morton, Aunt Molly, and Guthrie to find them gigs, recognition, and hope.

Szwed knew Alan Lomax from 1961 on, drank and worked with him, and was regaled with “tales of this or that epiphany” from his thousands of miles and hours of fieldwork. Neither Texan nor New Yorker but both, a Harvard dropout and self-trained as a musician, Alan was “a true bohemian.” In pursuing the musical expressions of the underclasses, his basic motivation was not to ape his father but to follow his muse: “It wasn’t a matter of folklore. It was the way I felt.” It is the same way a later generation of British youth would feel about R&B, hungrily seizing upon “race” records that shipped home with sailors from the States, and applying them to their own existence in the dregs of empire.

Minstrelsy, ragtime, Dixieland, “going up to Harlem,” the “voodoo” craze, and entertainments like “The Jazz Singer” had already given the ’20s their tag as The Jazz Age. Ironically the Lomaxes considered “jazz the corrupting force they feared most.” It was “created in tea rooms for the benefit of city-dwelling whites. … The music went white.” Worst of all, it went inauthentic.

“Authenticity” is another thorn. To proclaim your own authenticity is to be inauthentic. True authenticity is unconscious. This leaves outsiders like musicologists to determine what is or isn’t authentic. Or Joni Mitchell, who told The L.A. Times in April 2010, “Bob [Dylan] is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist and his name and voice are fake.”

Fortunately for their mental health, the Lomaxes came to realize that no music or tradition is “pure” or “original” or “untainted.” All culture is a mess—you just wade into it. They discovered that older folk songs were actively being transformed into blues by a natural musical process right under their noses, which excited them no end.

Szwed’s eloquent writing and extensive quotations capture such great characters as Woody Guthrie (“rustic cool,” “the missing link to the working classes,” who “could play the hillbilly to perfection,” “a combination of Joyce, Mark Twain and the musical Oklahoma!”), Mississippi guitarist Son House (“possessed by the song, as Gypsies in Spain are possessed, gone blind with music and poetry”), Mound Bayou tractor driver Muddy Waters (“not a composer but a recomposer—he only made a couple of songs in his life”), and the amazing Zora Neale Hurston (“her reputation for flamboyance, infighting, and refusing to step off for anyone had killed her chances of [an] academic job”). The story of how Lead Belly came to compose “Bourgeois Blues” illustrates how intimate Alan became with those he championed.

A multi-volume series of recordings that Alan made during his Red Scare-induced exile in Europe (1950-1958), “The World Library of Folk and Primitive Music,” fitfully funded by Columbia Records, preserved croons, chants, hymns, laments, love ballads, fighting and spinning songs, skip-rope rhymes, instrumentals, and everything else that made sound in Ireland, England, France, Spain, Romania, Greece, India, Indonesia, France, British East Africa—and also Scotland. As a Scottish American, I found it gratifying to hear him say of the Scots that:

I started the recording machine one night and the people around it looked like ordinary shopkeepers, but suddenly, every one of them joined in on the phrase exactly at the right time. They all knew the emotional nuances of the songs, held back none of their feelings, and sang together as well as any Negro congregation I’ve ever heard.

So was Alan Lomax a red? Yes and no, mostly yes. The FBI surveilled him discreetly for 30 years. Just because he was not a card-carrying Communist Party member doesn’t mean he didn’t have 100 percent progressive politics, which he brought into all his work, even when his conflation of folk song with protest song hurt the cause of folk music. He associated with Communists and New Dealers of every stripe, palled around with Pete Seeger, organized benefits for Russian War Relief, and masterminded much of Henry Wallace’s campaign.

Which raises the question: are folkies necessarily leftwing? Was Tom Lehrer right when he sang:

Remember the war against Franco?
That’s the kind where each of us belongs!
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs.

Volkisch sentiment is not usually characteristic of the left, which prides itself on being sometimes pacifist and always internationalist. The upwelling of American folkishness in the ’30s and ’40s was mostly a symptom of the period’s fierce nationalism. In fact, as soon as war seemed inevitable, Alan welcomed it as “a people’s war” and made plans to record and teach songs to draftees in military camps. The “I Hear America Singing” bandwagon morphed all too easily into that caisson that keeps rolling along today.

Where do we hear America singing now? Like it or not, in rap and other street music, in reality television, in the generic praise music of community megachurches, and, let us not forget, in the greatest strain of folk music ever seen on earth, pop. Pop’s domain reaches from the coolest corners of jazz to the darkest recesses of heavy metal and everywhere in between. It is the people making music. “Yesterday” is a ballad of today. Techno is a tribal dance music of today. All over the world, pop is based on American popular music—the music of our folk.

Marian Kester Coombs writes from Crofton, Maryland.