Alan Lomax and the Salvation of American Song

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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