The man who saved music

  • Article by: CURT SCHLEIER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 8, 2011 - 3:21 PM

The life of Alan Lomax, who traveled the world, collecting and preserving folk music.

Alan Lomax by John Szwed

Most people probably have heard of Alan Lomax. He's the guy who visited rural areas of the country around the time of the Great Depression, recording -- and thereby preserving -- American folk music (including jazz, blues and prison songs). Now, thanks to John Szwed's comprehensive biography, "Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World," we learn that he did much more.

Lomax's efforts were not limited to the United States. He recorded the folk music of several European and Caribbean countries, as well. He also taped singers' oral histories. Equally important, he tried to place the songs in a sociological context of the economic, social and political times in which they were created. Lomax (1915-2002) helped create in America the academic discipline of ethnomusicology.

And that is just a partial list. Lomax was an early leader in efforts to protect the rights of folksinger/creators and wrote extensively on the subject. He wrote and produced radio and TV shows, produced many records and was a filmmaker, as well. He was an early civil rights activist and worked extensively in the African-American community to save and give worth to black music.

The book is replete with the names of famous artists he helped bring to prominence, including Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Leadbelly, for the bullet lodged in his abdomen), Jelly Roll Morton, Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives.

Szwed has done an impressive amount of research and laid it all out in chronological order. Missing is perspective and a sense of Lomax's personality. Yes, Lomax accomplished a great deal. But he was not alone in musicology.

He was introduced to the field by his father, John, who recorded cowboy, black and worker songs and spread "the message of folklore." A number of others -- Carl Sandburg, Charles Seeger and his son Pete -- also collected folk music. It's not clear if their work differed from Lomax's.

Moreover, Lomax's efforts required considerable sacrifice. He frequently lived an almost hobo-like existence, was away from his family for lengthy periods, and, particularly in early visits to the South, put himself in danger. He once was arrested for setting foot on a black woman's porch.

Why this passion? Just a love of music? A strong sense of social justice? This is not fully explored.

And while he apparently had an excellent relationship with his first wife and their daughter, he had numerous affairs. What does his womanizing say about him? If nothing, why mention all the ladies, some of whom come and go in a paragraph?

The book is also marred by occasionally awkward writing, such as, "Maxwell was one of those New Yorkers who seemed to come out of nowhere or the midwest. ... " Huh?

Despite these flaws, "Alan Lomax" is an important and valuable biography and an interesting slice of U.S. history. Even those who assumed they knew Lomax and his work will no doubt be surprised by what they learn here.

Curt Schleier is a New Jersey-based reviewer.

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  • Alan Lomax

  • ALAN LOMAX

    By: John Szwed.

    Publisher: Viking, 438 pages, $29.95.

    Review: Szwed's book is both interesting and important, but he could have dug deeper into what motivated Lomax to devote his life -- and risk his safety -- for such a peculiar passion.

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