Alan Lomax and the Salvation of American Song

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with John Szwed. (46 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

Alan Lomax with unidentified man. [Library of Congress photo]

We’re listening in awe and gratitude to the all-American sounds that Alan Lomax recorded and saved for all time. There’s outlaw minstrel Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, singing a cocaine ode “Take a Whiff on Me” in 1934. Then Woody Guthrie accompanying himself, Pete Seeger and others on “Bound to Lose,” playing a guitar with a label on it: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” And then there are the strangely uplifting choruses of prison work songs from the Angola Convict Sugar Plantation in Louisiana and the Parchman Farm Penitentiary in Mississippi — songs like “Rosie,” which Lomax recorded in 1947 with prisoners, “C. B. and the Axe Gang.” As John Szwed writes in his vivid biography of the protean Lomax, “This was as close as twentieth-century people were going to come to the sound of slavery.”

Alan Lomax (1915 – 2002), The Man Who Recorded the World in Szwed’s subtitle, was the son of a proper folklorist at the University of Texas. The old folklore compiled texts; the new would revel in the truth of sound that had body language in it, too. Together in the early Thirties, father John and his teenage apprentice had set out across the South with early Edison recording equipment on what John Lomax used to call a “hobo-ing” trip. What Alan ended up compiling was a sort of unofficial, non-commercial people’s soundtrack of the Great Depression. Homegrown songs of spirit seem in retrospect to be pouring out of the suffering soil wherever Alan Lomax turned. Makes you wonder: what is the music of the meltdown today, and where’s to find it?

John Szwed [Martha Rose photo]

Alan Lomax brought a roaring confidence to new fields opening up in the 30s. There was something of the great Edison in Lomax’s recording chops as the tech kept improving. He had something of John Hammond’s talent-spotting gift in the period when Hammond was signing Billie Holiday and the Count Basie band for Columbia Records. “He’s got an infallible ear for the un-commercial,” Hammond said dismissively. There was also something of Orson Welles in Lomax’s showmanship — maybe something of Elvis Presley in Lomax’s fantasies. Lomax was open to rock’n'roll, despite its commercialism, and he was soft on Elvis — not least, John Szwed remarks in our conversation, because Elvis did what Alan wanted to do: liberate the white man’s hips! Even as he coopted so much black musical style, Elvis was the herald of a great healing shift in racial cultures.

Alan Lomax grew up to be a walking trove of all the world’s musics — especially its songs. By the end he’d built “folksonomies” of song elements and delivery styles, a whole anthropology in which the ways people sing marked the main links and differences between the cultures of continents. John Szwed is talking about an ecstatic genius whom many friends found “oppressive” if only because of his certainty that nobody anywhere knew what he knew about songs. “But Lomax was arguably one of the most influential Americans of the twentieth century,” Szwed writes, “a man who changed not only how everyone listened to music but even how they viewed America.”


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6 thoughts on “Alan Lomax and the Salvation of American Song

  1. Explication/elucidation of two interesting references in this outstanding ROS interview of John Szwed about his Alan Lomax (1915 – 2002), The Man Who Recorded the World:
    I. Zora Neale Hurston and Lomaxes:
    ZORA NEALE HURSTON:
    ARCHIVE OF FOLK CULTURE
    SOUND RECORDINGS
    AFS 309-535: Two hundred twenty-seven 12-inch discs of songs, stories, and instrumentals recorded in Florida and Georgia by Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alan Lomax, summer 1935.
    AFS 377 B1: One disc containing “Bella Mina” sung by group led by Hurston, recorded in Chosen, Florida, June 1935. (One minute; tape copy on LWO 4872 reel 27A)
    AFS 1877-1936: Sixty 10-inch discs of songs, stories, and instrumentals recorded in Haiti by Alan Lomax, December 1936–January 1937.
    AFS 1879 A1-3: One disc containing three American Negro children’s game songs and explanation, sung and spoken by Hurston. Recorded in Petionville, Haiti, December 21, 1936. (Hurston was in Haiti conducting independent research.) (Three minutes; tape copy on LWO 4872 reel 132B)
    AFS 1879 A1: “Bluebird.”
    AFS 1879 A2: “Bama, Bama.”
    AFS 1879 A3: “There Stands a Bluebird,” with explanation.
    AFS 2735-3153: Four hundred nineteen 12-inch discs of songs, stories, and instrumentals recorded in several southern states by Herbert Halpert, March 15–June 15, 1939, under the joint sponsorship of the Library of Congress and the Folk Arts Committee of the W.P.A. This collection can be accessed through the American Memory online presentation entitled Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942.
    AFS 3135-3136; 3137B-3139; 3144B: Six discs containing eighteen songs, stories, and explanations sung and spoken by Hurston. Recorded in Jacksonville, Florida, June 18, 1939. (Forty- five minutes; tape copy on LWO 4872 reels 208B- 209A)
    AFS 3135 A: “Gonna See My Long-Haired Babe.” Railroad spiking song with explanation.
    AFS 3135 B1: “Let’s Shake It.” Railroad lining song with explanation.
    AFS 3135 B2: “Dat Old Black Gal.” Spiking song with explanation.
    AFS 3136 A: “Shove It Over.” Lining song with explanation.
    AFS 3136 B: “Mule on the Mount.” Lining song also used in other work, with explanation.
    AFS 3137 B1-2: “Georgia Skin” and “Let the Deal Go Down.” Spoken description of a card game interspersed with a gambling song, with explanation.
    AFS 3138 A1: “Uncle Bud.” “Jook” song with explanation.
    AFS 3138 A2: “Oh, the Buford Boat Done Come.” Dance song with explanation.
    AFS 3138 B1: “Ever Been Down.” Blues song with explanation.
    AFS 3138 B2: “Halimuhfack.” “Jook” song with explanation.
    AFS 3139 A1: “Tampa.” Song Hurston says she learned as a child, with explanation.
    AFS 3139 A2: “Po’ Gal.” Blues song with explanation.
    AFS 3139 B1: “Mama Don’t Want No Peas, No Rice.” Bahaman song with explanation.
    AFS 3139 B2: “Crow Dance.” Bahaman dance song with explanation.
    AFS 3144 B1: “Wake Up, Jacob.” Camp rousing song with explanation.
    AFS 3144 B2: “Oh, Mr. Brown.” Dance song with explanation.
    AFS 3144 B3: “Tilly, Lend Me Your Pigeon.” Bahaman song with explanation.
    AFS 3144 B4: “Evelina,” with explanation.
    AFS 9829-9868: One 12-inch and thirty-nine 16-inch discs of songs and instrumentals recorded at the National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C., by the U.S. Recording Company, May 1938.
    AFS 9845 A1-6: One 16-inch disc containing six songs sung by a choir led by Hurston, recorded May 6, 1938. The choir was sponsored by the Rollins College Folklore Group of Winter Park, Florida. (Eleven minutes; tape copy on LWO 5111 reel 266B)
    AFS 9845 A1: “Can’t You Line It.” Lining song similar to AFS 3136 A.
    AFS 9845 A2: “Mule on de Mount.” Spiking song similar to AFS 3136 B.
    AFS 9845 A3: “Dat Old Black Gal.” Spiking song similar to AFS 3135 B2.
    AFS 9845 A4: “Oh Lula, Oh Gal.” Spiking song similar to AFS 3135 A1.
    AFS 9845 A5: “Somebody’s Knockin’ at My Door.” Blues song with guitar.
    AFS 9845 A6: Unidentified song.
    AFS 19,536-19,539: Four 7-inch tapes of an interview with Mary Elizabeth Barnicle and Tillman Cadle recorded in Townsend, Tennessee, by Michael Clark and Gene Moore, January–February 1977. Subjects include personal and family history; Barnicle’s career as a folklorist; friendships with Zora Neale Hurston, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Alan and John A. Lomax, and Aunt Molly Jackson; fieldwork in Kentucky; and a Harlan County strike.
    AFS 19,536A: One tape that includes (about two-thirds of the way through) Barnicle discussing Hurston, the Lomaxes, and the 1935 expedition to Florida, Georgia, and The Bahamas. (Twenty minutes; LWO 12,983 reel 1A)
    See:
    http://www.loc.gov/folklife/guides/Hurston.html

    II. Mention in passing by John Szwed of Context of No Context:
    Within the Context of No Context, which was edited by New Yorker editor William Shawn, was published in book form in 1981 accompanied by Trow’s profile of music mogul Ahmet Ertegün. In 1997, “No Context” was reprinted with a new introductory essay, Collapsing Dominant.
    In “No Context,” Trow pointed out the role of television in the destruction of American public culture and Americans’ sense of history. “Middle-distance” institutions that had long given Americans’ lives real contexts (such as fraternal organizations, bowling leagues, and women’s clubs), had disappeared as people stayed home to watch television. Their replacements, television shows, were false contexts designed to be just compelling enough to keep people watching. What remained as real contexts for Americans to live in were “the grid of two hundred million” (the U.S. population at the time) and “the grid of intimacy” (the immediate family). Celebrities had a real life in both grids, and only they could now be complete. Deprived of real context, everyone else now wanted to be celebrities themselves.
    George William Swift Trow Jr. (September 28, 1943–November 24, 2006) was an American essayist, novelist, playwright, and media critic. He worked for The New Yorker for almost 30 years, and wrote numerous essays and several books.
    He is best known for his long essay on television and its effect on American culture, “Within the Context of No Context,” first published in the November 17, 1980 issue of The New Yorker, and later released as a book. This was one of the few times that the magazine devoted its central section to one piece of writing.
    See:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_W._S._Trow

  2. Thank you for this excellent educational piece our on musical hereitage in America! Our history pertaining to music and labor history need to be more available to the ears of young Americans before they are deaf to such things!

  3. We do owe Alan Lomax a great deal of gratitude and I hardly know how much myself… He had excellent taste!!! And thank you for this interview and the wonderful musical excerpt throughout sending with a nice long one from a long time favorite Mississippi Fred McDowell. Trance-forming!

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