The Man Who Recorded the World

The Man Who Recorded the World: A Biography of Alan Lomax, by John Szwed, William Heinemann, RRP£20 448 pages

Alan Lomax (1915-2002) was the song collector who helped awaken the US to its vibrant vernacular music. This is an impressive biography that backs up its claim that Lomax was “one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century”. But John Szwed, author of books on Miles Davis and jazz, proves less forthcoming about Lomax’s complicated personal life.

Lomax was 17 when he went on his first song-collecting trip with his folklorist father John in 1932. The two Texans travelled through the south visiting plantations, bars and prisons in search of black folk song, which at the time was barely known by whites outside the south. “I saw what I had to do,” he recalled. “My job was to try and get as much of these views, these feelings, this unheard majority on to the centre of the stage.”

In the course of his long life, Lomax collected thousands of songs in field trips around the US, from big cities to isolated islands off the Georgia coast, recording Appalachian ballads, sea shanties and work songs. His collection forms the backbone of the folk archive in the Library of Congress. He also popularised folk on television and radio shows, discovered the influential bluesman Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, made an important series of recordings with the jazzman Jelly Roll Morton about the birth of jazz in New Orleans and brought Woody Guthrie to wider notice.

Political idealism was the spur for his manically ambitious schemes (the book’s title comes from his project to create a global library of songcraft). Folk songs, for Lomax, weren’t something to be collected and labelled like a museum exhibit. They were the voice of the people, a living tradition in need of support and promotion.

Lomax’s methods caused controversy. Vague communist sympathies in his student days caused him to come under the FBI’s investigation, while McCarthyite witch-hunts in the 1950s drove him to London, where he helped launch the British folk revival. He has also faced accusations of exploiting musicians: primarily Lead Belly, a homicide convict whom he and his father encountered in a Louisiana jail.

After the bluesman’s release in 1934, the Lomaxes toured him around the north, splitting the proceeds three ways. The aim was to introduce white audiences to black culture, though there was also a degree of southern paternalism involved. To the younger Lomax’s mortification, Lead Belly called them “Big Boss” and “Little Boss”.

Szwed defends Lomax against charges of ripping off Lead Belly, arguing the folklorist was more interested in the bluesman’s financial well-being than his own. Lomax led a precarious existence at the margins of academic life, hustling for grants from universities and institutes, sustained by an extraordinary drive for work. The British folk singer Ewan MacColl remembered meeting him after Lomax had been up for 36 hours working without a break. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss thought Lomax was a genius.

His personal life was turbulent. His mother died when he was 16 and he had an oppressive relationship with his father. He suffered from depression and his relationships with women were disastrous, with a series of failed marriages and constant philandering.

Szwed skates over all this. Lomax was interested in links between emotions and culture, devising a theory through his readings of Freud and Marx that folk song encoded, at a deep level, a society’s emotional state at a given point in its history.

Szwed chooses not to pursue any similar link between Lomax’s private life and work. Instead he records Lomax’s life much as Lomax recorded musicians on field trips, taking care to present the man and his achievements in their social, political and intellectual context. In this the book succeeds magnificently.

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic

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