A reevaluation of the life and career of pathbreaking American music folklorist Alan Lomax

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Alan Lomax (right) with Wade Ward in 1959 (Shirley Collins)
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“I thought of Alan as a Minotaur—half man, half supernatural—who defied life as we know it,” said Alan Lomax’s friend and fellow folklorist Bill Ferris in his keynote address of the 2006 American Folklife Center symposium. But as Jorge Luis Borges suggests in “The House of Asterion,” a tale told from the perspective of the Cretan Minotaur, it’s lonesome in the labyrinth.

Despite enormous contributions to our understanding of American and international vernacular musics, the legacy of Alan Lomax (1915-2002) is fraught and uneven; no American folklorist or musicologist has been more widely recognized, revered, and unjustly reviled. However, a recent biography and an ambitious campaign to digitize and reissue Lomax’s recordings are making a persuasive case for a reevaluation and recontextualization of the man’s complicated career and the myths and misunderstandings clouding it.

The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE), which Lomax founded in 1983 and which today shepherds his legacy and mission from its headquarters at the City University of New York’s Hunter College, has just completed its remarkable goal of hosting 17,400 of Lomax’s recordings for free streaming on its website. In addition to the launch of this unprecedented online archive, the ACE’s Global Jukebox label recently released the downloadable anthology The Alan Lomax Collection from the American Folklife Center, offered as supplement to the recent paperback publication of John Szwed’s fine, affectionate biography, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World. Suddenly anyone near an Internet connection or a public library can fully evaluate what once would have required an unlimited budget for vintage records and prodigious patience for archival research in the Library of Congress.   

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In his various roles as field recorder, oral historian, producer, promoter, writer, and theorist and advocate of “cultural equity” (his phrase for the respectful recognition, safeguarding, and revitalization of local and vernacular arts traditions), Alan Lomax’s influence has been vast and lasting. His pivotal, if sometimes troubled, professional and personal relationships with the musicians he recorded—Jelly Roll Morton, Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Mississippi Fred McDowell (pictured below, left), Texas Gladden, Almeda Riddle, Hobart Smith (pictured, with Ed Young, at bottom), Aunt Molly Jackson, and Pete Seeger—directed two generations’ conceptions of what American folk music was (even if it was rather narrowly and arbitrarily defined), while his recordings provided much of the repertoire of the 1950s and '60s folk revival.   

In The Man Who Recorded the World, Szwed, professor of music and jazz studies at Columbia University, presents a multivalent portrait of this notable, often irascible man of abiding contradictions. Born in Texas and often identified with his explorations of the culture of the American South, Lomax lived much of his life in New York, though, according to Szwed, “he took up too much space, assumed too much, and laughed too easily for a New Yorker.” (The author, who worked with Lomax, writes that he “once asked him why he stayed in New York, and he said he could get done in the city in one day that it would take a month to do somewhere else.”) Lomax's was an age when unabashed flamboyance, progressivism, a boundless appetite for rural music, a milieu largely unfamiliar to most urban audiences, and friendships with singing agitators proved not only irregular but dangerous—the Federal Bureau of Investigation maintained an investigation of Lomax for nearly four decades before finally abandoning it in 1982.   

He was a tough act to follow. American folklorists in the wake of Lomax have had to decide whether to stand on the shoulders, cower at the feet, or outrun the long shadow of this giant in the field, who epitomized and perpetuated both the best and worst aspects of how to engage and document artists operating outside the cozy realms of bourgeois lived experience (what Ferris calls “life as we know it”). The Minotaur metaphor echoes again: To peers and followers alike Lomax was both mage and monster, purist and pragmatist, at once revolutionary and reactionary in his interests and methods, awkwardly straddling—and ultimately transcending—academic and populist discourses on American identity and vernacular culture.  

Lomax’s early adventures in field recording, song collecting, and the presentation of vernacular music were conducted under the rather domineering tutelage of his father John; together the two rose to prominence with their “discovery” and worldwide promotion of Louisiana blues, ballad, and pop singer Lead Belly. (Szwed dismisses the myth that the Lomaxes forced Lead Belly to appear wearing prison stripes during performances, arguing that Mr. Ledbetter himself selected that sartorial signifier of his much-touted incarceration.) Later Alan was to join forces on field recording sojourns with African American author Zora Neale Hurston (in Haiti) and British folksinger Shirley Collins (throughout the South.) But romantic public perception has frequently painted him as a one-man cultural conservation army (or colonialist), riding down dusty back roads with a bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder, seeking out obscure and disappearing back-porch musical traditions to preserve (or exploit.)   

Although he took many such recording trips down many such roads, the truth is rather more nuanced. Szwed’s biography compellingly positions Lomax among “the group of competing yet intertwined interests defining the cultural landscape of the first half of the twentieth century—a group that included the New England Brahmins, the labor movement, the exclusivity and cultural conservatism of a Henry Ford or a Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the folklore scholars, and the entertainment and communications industries, all of them contending to set the agenda for American identity.”   

Today the notion of a singular or even a shared American identity sounds quaint, but Lomax was increasingly motivated by principled, almost messianic ideals of universal social justice and “cultural equity” decades before UNESCO’s 2003 declaration to safeguard “intangible cultural heritage.” In the late 1980s he embarked upon a hugely ambitious multimedia project he called the Global Jukebox, which Szwed explains in his book as an “interactive computerized audiovisual system that would allow anyone to access databases” of “musical, dance, and speech styles of single performances, whole cultures, or regions of the world.”   

Lomax’s arcane personal system of scientific classifications—including “cantometrics, choreometrics, parlametrics, and phonotactics”—was intended to expose cross-cultural musical affinities, articulating the universal dimensions of expressive culture. Unfortunately, the primitive Hypercard technology he employed was insufficient to fully realize his utopian goals.   

The Global Jukebox concept was extraordinarily prescient of contemporary Internet capabilities for archiving, disseminating, and joining massive musical data archives—including YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and filesharing websites. Although it emerged from a position of connoisseurship, it anticipated today’s user-generated, participatory curatorial behaviors.

“The whole point was to take the listener beyond her or his own tastes and culture and open them up to wider possibilities of musical and dance expression,” Szwed emphasized in an email interview. At the time, Szwed contends in his biography, many young scholars snickered at Lomax’s earnest strivings toward connectivity; they “found his old-school passion to defend the forgotten people of the world a bit embarrassing.” But contrary to the derision of the young folklorists who resented Lomax’s supposed essentialism regarding “the folk”—some went so far as to distribute protest buttons depicting his encircled mug with a diagonal bar through it—Lomax did acknowledge the re-imagining of folklife in the 1970s as potentially encompassing individual innovators as well as any group with its own culture and communicative, expressive traditions. (In 1971 Den Ben-Amos famously, and diffusely, defined folklore as “artistic communication in small groups.”)   

Szwed’s biography convincingly illustrates how Lomax’s long career paralleled and in many ways reflected the shift in folk, cultural, and ethnographic studies away from notions of purity and structuralism and towards notions of contingency, context, and relativism:   

“Lomax had begun his career with an early-twentieth-century folklorist’s aesthetic, the belief that a song was a thing, an object to be collected, labeled, and put on display as a text that was evidence of a community’s collective cultural creation. Yet as he tramped through canefields and visited prisons, he became aware of the astonishing creativity and artistry of individual folk performers, something not discernable in the frozen words of songbooks.” He eventually came to believe that “folklore could show what it meant to be an American... Folk culture could become pop culture.”   

And so it has, to a great extent. The proliferation of Internet accessibility has vindicated Lomax’s once crazy vision, transforming folk icons into pop stars and vice versa, revealing that binary as specious, same as it ever was. Szwed explains that, from his early days with Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, Lomax recognized and appreciated the cross-pollinations, hybridizations, and syntheses—as well as the self-conscious performativity that adapted to different audiences—in the music he was marketing as “folk.”   

“Despite the label of ‘folk purist’ that was hung on him later in his career,” Szwed writes in the book, “Alan had spent years thinking about pop music and its power to affect the lives of Americans from birth to old age.” In our interview Szwed elaborated, arguing that “Lomax should not be seen as a purist. What he worried about, and what causes the confusion about his thinking, is the erosion of musical style traditions by the force of dominant aesthetics and the power of mass media.”