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

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.”   

This portrait of latter-day, adult Lomax is arguably truer, and more relevant today, than the picture enshrined in the popular American imagination, the one of the eager, untidy white guy with the goatee and microphone—a harbinger of so many eager, untidy white guys with goatees and microphones—kneeling at the feet of Lead Belly or Mississippi Fred McDowell or Muddy Waters. According to Nathan Salsburg, an archivist with the Association for Cultural Equity and a fine folk-inspired fingerstyle guitarist who I contacted by email, “a common misperception is that [Lomax] was most interested in the faceless mass of the ‘folk.’ Instead, his promotion of individual artists helped create a climate hospitable to the American folk-pop troubadour in the 1960s. He also loved some pop music, especially Prince and Michael Jackson, whom he saw as creolizations synthesizing the very best of American music, both white and black, both pop and folk and all the intermingling channels between.”   

The labyrinth of the Alan Lomax Collection at the Library of Congress—housed within the American Folklife Center, a facility whose tireless spokesperson Archie Green was directly inspired by Lomax’s advocacy work—houses over 5,000 hours of recordings from around the world, a remarkable legacy that still provides ample fodder for unpacking, studying, and just plain listening and dancing. Salsburg and his colleagues are largely responsible for how that material is disseminated, and in recent years, distribution has bifurcated in interesting ways. 

The ACE’s Global Jukebox imprint, its name a nod to Lomax’s dream of access, has been concentrating in recent years on making Lomax’s work available primarily through two very different formats: limited-edition vinyl releases by boutique independent record labels (notably Portland’s Mississippi Records and Salsburg’s own Twos & Fews label) and via a substantial archive of audio and video streams on respectively, the ACE website and a dedicated, and very popular, YouTube channel. 

Over the past year, the label has collaborated with Mississippi Records on a series of five vinyl releases documenting Lomax’s 1959 so-called Southern Journey recordings with Shirley Collins, astutely curated and annotated by Salsburg, as well as a collection of the first recordings of Mississippi Fred McDowell. The wonderfully titled Whaur the Pig Gaed on the Spree, available on vinyl through Twos & Fews, commemorates the 60th anniversary of Lomax’s historic recording trip to Scotland with a selection of tracks curated by Scottish musician Alasdair Roberts. Other projects include Join the Band, which documents the Georgia Sea Island Singers (pictured above), a group who performed Gullah songs that Lomax first heard when visiting the Georgia coast with Zora Neale Hurston in the mid-1930s; unreleased 1959 Sacred Harp recordings from Alabama; two 10” vinyl releases containing 1947, 1948, and 1959 recordings at Parchman Farms prison in Mississippi; a vinyl LP of Sid Hemphill fife and drum recordings recorded in Sledge, Mississippi in 1942; and an undetermined large-scale release in honor of the 60th anniversary of Lomax’s 1962 Eastern Caribbean recordings.   

It’s a treasure trove, much of it long out of print. The hunger, transport, and contrapuntal grace and awkwardness—of Lomax and the artists alike—is palpably manifest in all these recordings. Audiences are likewise hungry, certainly for free and immediate online content—when YouTube recently profiled the ACE channel, it received 800,000 views in 48 hours—but also for retrospective, baldly nostalgic vinyl products that resemble their 1950s and '60s antecedents, from the aesthetics and typography of the cover art down to fussy printing and packaging details like “tip-on” jackets.   

“Now more than ever," Salsburg explains in an essay for the American Folklore Society, "perhaps because contemporary music is in a more dire state than ever, commercially and aesthetically—old titles, artists, and albums are trotted out of the vaults for re-release, repackaging, critical reevaluation… It points to the cultural moment: instead of looking forward, further, ever faster, as by nature popular culture must demand of us, many listeners are slowing down and beginning to look around and back.” This trend has analogs elsewhere in our culture, he contends: “Like the local foods movement, with its surfeit of backyard chicken books and canning guides, the reissue era and many of its participants are concerned with pedigreed sounds and sustainable objects; things bearing the stamps of their time, people, and place but also transcending them.”   

Salsburg readily admits that neither the online nor the limited-edition boutique vinyl format, both pragmatic (and successful) responses to today’s transitional media landscape, comfortably aligns with the Lomax philosophy. On the one hand, there’s a culturally conservative reification and commodification of the music presented as a deluxe vinyl artifact—though appealingly tactile and “serious” in its presentation, it’s also arguably nostalgic and exclusive—and on the other a democratic immediacy to access and “cultural feedback” (a stated goal of the ACE) unmoored from a fully contextual presentation and audiovisual fidelity. That could not have pleased Lomax, whose sometimes heavy-handed curatorial style, particularly evident in his film and television narrations, “can be the equivalent of being handed a sandwich and, as you eat it, being told how it tastes,” as Salsburg put it in an interview.  

Online content may have irked Lomax with its lack of fidelity. Szwed maintained in an interview that “Alan always believed in making musical style available in a wide variety of formats and recorded and filmed in the highest possible quality; it was his way of assuring that they wouldn't be marginalized because they were poorly recorded.” Although the ACE’s mp3 streams and YouTube channel, in Salsburg’s estimation “would have utterly blown Alan’s mind, [they] might have seemed too democratic for him, so to speak, as the stuff can get disseminated with little or no contextualization or theoretical emplacements.”   

That’s a central characteristic of what Salsburg calls “Folk Revival 2.0,” in a recent essay of the same name: “It’s a realm not of scholars, but of amateur enthusiasts, record collectors, and music fans. In many ways it’s guided by a repudiation of the notion, and the model, of the mediating scholar, the expert, the gatekeeper.” As a result, “it’s largely democratic, though sometimes anarchic, and it takes a myriad of media forms, from blogs, to radio, to the long-playing record and still, perhaps grudgingly, the C.D. Its primary function is making masses of previously under- or unrepresented music accessible (or at least available) to an enthusiastic international audience.” However, when the music is “liberated from the marketplace” in this manner, risks often temper benefits, as its “cultural emplacements are torn asunder [and] its fidelity is compromised to an almost laughable degree.”   

“The curator in me wrings his hands a bit, but the archivist—and especially the fan—appreciates the access,” summarizes Salsburg. Hand-wringing aside, this obsessive dissemination, reinterpretation, and consumption of vernacular culture by informed fans and collectors represents an important dimension of Lomax’s anti-establishment, populist legacy.   

In our interview, Szwed posited that although “many have claimed that his suspicion of the media never squared with his enthusiastic use of them, it was not the media he feared, but those who controlled it.” Folk Revival 2.0 exists in part as an unanticipated mutant flowering of Lomax’s seminal Global Jukebox gestures, in which the listeners themselves forge and control the connections, now that the music has been, in Salsburg’s words, “rendered undomesticatable and just approachable enough to be momentarily, subjectively recontextualized by a billion micro-curators.” If, as Salsburg asserts in an email, Lomax was instrumental in “making America’s vernacular culture visible to itself—both to the folks that make it and to the rest of us,” then certainly Lomax would have appreciated the potential of new media platforms and instant online participation to help America hear itself singing its varied carols.   

This is the Whitmanesque progressive legacy that disciples and torch-bearers like Szwed and Salsburg are perpetuating, and it’s a legacy that’s easy for folklorists and fans alike to get behind. We are lucky that through them the Minotaur lives on, in the online labyrinth and beyond.  

All photos courtesy of Alan Lomax Archive. The second-to-last photo, in color, is of Spencer Moore.

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