Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I'm Happy To Print This As An Old Blues Man

Eddie Dean//JANUARY 15, 2011

The Catcher of Songs//WSJ

(Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the WorldBy John Szwed Viking, 309 pages, $29.95)

Alan Lomax proved that the poorest places held some of the richest cultural treasures

As Washington geared up for war in late summer of 1940, Alan Lomax fired off a round of heated memos to his boss in the music division at the Library of Congress. As assistant in charge of the Archive of American Folk Song, the 25-year-old Lomax had ambitious plans for serving the cause, such as publishing songbooks for draftees at military camps and arranging antifascist war ballads for marching bands and pop singers, even recording conscripts with musical talent.

In his barrage of strategies in which folk music could be used to inspire a united fighting force, Lomax paused to take a jealous swipe at a hit record that had won over a nation primed for patriotic fervor: "I need not overstress my opinion that 'God Bless America' and Kate Smith are both extremely dull and mediocre," he wrote. "They have both been elevated to an artificially astronomical position by the power of mass advertising and the star system."

Smith's operatic bombast had little to do with what Lomax called "real American music." For him, real American music was performed by rural people such as Texas Gladden, a mother of nine who Lomax recorded a year later in her southwest Virginia home, in a capella, bare-bones renditions of "Gypsy Davey" and traditional songs handed down for generations. "Texas sings her antique ballads in the fashion of ballad singers from time immemorial," Lomax said. "The emotions are held in reserve: the singer does not color the story with heavy vocal underscoring; she allows the story to tell itself."

Capturing such performances and the stories they told was a lifelong obsession for Lomax, who wandered America and the globe in search of the sounds of traditional music endangered by the very technology he used to record them for posterity. His travels took him from his native American South to remote outposts of the Caribbean and across the ocean to the British Isles and the fishing villages of Italy and the mountains of Spanish Basque country. His work spanned six decades, from the Depression all the way to the 1990s. (Lomax died in 2002.) He began his career gathering songs with a 300-pound disc-cutter in the back of a Model A and ended it using hand-held video cameras for backwoods documentaries. No matter what the gear, Lomax never wavered from his mission—to find evidence that the world's poorest places offered some of the richest cultural treasures.

An illustration of a reel-to-reel tape machine graces the cover of "Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World," the first biography of the renegade folklorist who, says John Szwed, "changed not only how everyone listened to music but even how they viewed America." The drawing shows the type of portable, hi-fi recorder that made possible Lomax's most influential fieldwork, like the 1959 recording of a Mississippi prison work gang that later appeared on the soundtrack for the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000).

"Po Lazarus"—rendered by black convicts chopping wood and singing in unison—is vintage Lomax in its utter fidelity (sonic and otherwise) to a world where the grace of artistic expression can rise from the depths of misery. The song is part of the vast Lomax archives. They include more than 5,000 hours of sound recordings, which have been mined by artists from Aaron Copland and Miles Davis to Bob Dylan and Moby, a fitting legacy for a visionary outlaw who believed, says Mr. Szwed, that "folk culture could become pop culture."

The staggering output came with a heavy cost, dooming Lomax's first marriage and other relationships as he followed his collecting compulsion, often working himself to the point of physical collapse. A charmer and a bully, an antiacademic who depended on educational funding, a man equally at home in a straw hut in Haiti and at a White House reception, Lomax was a controversial figure, often accused of exploitation and grandstanding. He made enemies well beyond the field of folklore, not least the FBI agents who trailed him for years on account of his radical politics.

An early file report depicts "a very peculiar individual in that he is only interested in folklore music, being very temperamental and ornery. . . . He has no sense of money values, handling his own and Government property in a neglectful manner." Even so, Lomax had fiercely loyal supporters in high places, ranging from Margaret Mead to filmmaker Nicholas Ray, and he has been a revered mentor to several generations of historians, including Mr. Szwed.

As a biographer of Miles Davis and Sun Ra, two notoriously difficult and singular characters, Mr. Szwed is in thorny but familiar territory. He is a reliable if at times overeager guide along the Lomax trail, one that is littered with miles of tape and mountains of paper. Mr. Szwed is especially helpful in establishing the explosive dynamic between Alan Lomax and his father, John, who set the often wayward son on his life's journey.

The author of a landmark 1910 anthology of cowboy ballads, Texas-born-and-bred John Lomax was a towering force in American folklore circles by the time a teenage Alan began accompanying his father on song-collecting trips in 1933. The material they sought for the Archive of American Folk Song broke from the norm. Instead of merely transcribing song-texts, in the tradition of European scholars, they made recordings of performances, mostly those of rural Southern blacks from the work fields and prisons, whose culture was deemed lowlife and unworthy of collecting, much less studying.

If Lomax shared his father's love of this music and an appreciation of its enduring worth, he had his own epiphanies that went beyond aesthetics to ideals of social justice. He wanted to break free of the prejudices of his conservative, Southern-patrician father, with his Stetson hat and cigar and superior manner toward the folk he recorded. The father-and-son road trips featured a lot of quarreling, culminating in a blow-up over John's patronizing treatment of Lead Belly, the black songster and ex-convict whom the Lomaxes had recorded in prison and helped gain parole and fleeting fame back East. The elder Lomax also engaged Lead Belly in an ill-fated business arrangement that included Lead Belly performing duties as John's chauffeur.

Alan Lomax, Assistant in Charge: The Library of Congress Letters, 1935-1945
Edited by Ronald D. Cohen Mississippi, 414 pages, $29.95

"Alan Lomax, Assistant in Charge" focuses on a crucial period when Lomax took over the Archive from his father and began seeking out songs in areas that John scarcely dreamed of. Starting a pattern that would last his lifetime, Alan's partners in field were now mostly women, such as the author Zora Neale Hurston, who helped him gain access in black enclaves in Florida, the Bahamas and Haiti, "the richest country for folk-songs I have yet hit," he wrote to his father in 1936. "The drumming is amazing and the stuff is all pure folk, with absolutely no radio, movie or phonograph adulterants."

The following year found Lomax— accompanied by his new bride, Elizabeth—in the mountains of Kentucky, where he wrote his boss at the Library of Congress about the dangers of ballad-hunting. "It seems I am very nearly ready to lay down my life for the Library, for one evening I was nearly stabbed by the most religious man in Clay County. This sixty-year oldster was mortally jealous because I was helping his perfectly rotund wife up and down some steep clay banks and finally turned on me with his knife open vowing that he intended to rip the guts out this young black son-of-a-bitch." The week-long expedition to Clay County alone yielded 50 records for the Archive, including "two feud ballads, some fine fiddle music, banjo picking, camp meeting hymns and the like."

The Lomax Legacy

The colossal scope of Alan Lomax's recorded legacy, housed in climate-controlled stacks at the Library of Congress's John Adams Building and widely available in a steady torrent of releases, can humble even the most adventurous listeners. Here are three of the best, from an introductory compilation to an eight-CD box set, which convey the astonishing range of what Lomax captured in his quest to "bring 'em back alive, all the voices."

The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler Dipping into such multi volume compilations as "Deep River of Song" and "The Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music," this 38-song primer veers all over the map from sacred to secular, joyful to despairing, stark to raucous, without missing a beat. Highlights include "The Jovial Tradesman," a centuries-old English drinking song by Bob and Ron Copper; "War," a satirical Calypso ode to the atomic bomb by Growling Tiger; a defiant "Ten Pound Hammer" by ditch diggers on the job in South Carolina; and "Saeta," a lament (recorded on the streets of Seville during a Holy Week procession) that helped inspire one of Miles Davis's most celebrated solos from his 1959 "Sketches of Spain" album.

Southern Journey, Vol. 1: Voices from the American South: The first of a 13-volume series featuring Lomax's extensive field trips in the South in 1959 and 1960, this set is subtitled "Blues, Ballads, Hymns, Reels, Shouts, Chantey and Work Songs." It showcases rural performers in their element, with a ground-breaking portable stereo recorder and ribbon microphone gleaning the raw power of folk music "with the bark on."

Highlights include "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" by Arkansas ballad collector Almeda Riddle; "The Last Words of Copernicus" by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers; and the slide-guitar tour de force "Wished I Was in Heaven Sitting Down" by Mississippi Fred McDowell, whose work was later covered by the Rolling Stones. "We recorded outdoors after dark, by flashlight," wrote Lomax of the recording session. "No wind was blowing and the katydids were out of season, so we could take advantage of the natural resonance of the earth and the trees. The sound we captured made us all deliriously happy."

Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings: Eight CDs of the New Orleans pioneer playing piano and reminiscing about the bad old early days of jazz. Morton's bravura performance, recorded over several sessions in 1938, unspooled in (to quote Lomax's memorable description) "a gravel voice melting at the edges, not talking, each sentence bowling along like a line from the blues, like an eddy of a big sleepy southern river, weaving a legend, and as the legend grew, the back seat of the hall filled with [ghost of] ladies in crinolines, listening."

An essential document of oral biography, the Grammy-winning box set also includes "Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and 'Inventor of Jazz,'" the memoir Lomax cobbled together from hours of transcriptions. Lomax despised the early 1990s Broadway production based on the book—a box-office smash and Tony-winning critical success called "Jelly's Last Jam" that turned Morton into a tap dancer.

In his field-collecting, Lomax ignored the standard code of conduct, paying his "informants" or plying them with drink. He won their confidence by strumming a guitar and singing cowboy songs in his Texas drawl—really by any means necessary to get a performance on record, because for Lomax it was a race against time and the encroaching homogenization of modern culture. "An advance might be in order," he complained to his Library of Congress boss in 1938 from the woods of Upper Michigan, where he was recording lumberjacks. "I am not wastreling—but songs in Mich. absolutely require beer."

His unorthodox methods paid off, and Lomax had major finds in blues and jazz, genres that he and his father passed over on earlier excursions. In the Delta, he recorded sharecropper Muddy Waters, who later moved to Chicago, where his electric blues galvanized young British rockers. Back at the Library's Coolidge Auditorium, at a grand piano with a bust of Beethoven, Lomax taped the life story of Jelly Roll Morton, a forgotten New Orleans jazz pioneer whom he'd found managing a run-down nightclub in Washington. "I had a bottle of whiskey in my office, I put it on the piano," recalled Lomax of the start of the marathon sessions. "As I listened, I realized that this man spoke the English language in a more beautiful way than anybody I'd ever heard."

Lomax has been taken to task for exploiting these performers, echoing criticism that he and his father had received earlier for their dealings with Lead Belly. Mr. Szwed addresses the critics, if not emphatically, showing that Lomax was no more unsavory in his dealings than what was standard at the time, and was more conscientious than most.

Lomax eventually became both a well-known folklorist and a New Deal intellectual. As Mr. Szwed notes, he was a "young Washington bureaucrat [who] could identify with Brer Rabbit . . . and still become a personage in the capital, welcome in the homes of the country's leaders."

Yet he relished his role as a burr in the saddle of the establishment. At a Library of Congress concert celebrating the 75th anniversary of the abolishment of slavery, Lomax told the tuxedoed audience: "I hope you will be ready now to listen to Negro songs with different ears. . . . Some of these people could look past poverty and misery, they could look clear through the darkness and despair and ignorance and see something on the other side."

Presenting such programs was just one way Lomax forged his career after leaving LOC in 1942, along with integrated concerts and lecture tours and radio broadcasts. Under threat of the blacklist, he spent most of the 1950s abroad, as a freelancer always short of funds, chasing grants and girlfriends, his only constant companion his Magnecorder. Based in England, he partnered with the BBC and worked with major record labels on monumental projects, most notably the 17-volume Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, the first global survey of its kind.

Upon his return to the U.S., Lomax picked up where he'd left off, surveying yet again his native South for a series of albums, elated to find vestiges of folk cultures in bluesmen like Fred Mc Dowell. He wrote exhaustively, including an acclaimed memoir of his early trips to the Delta, "The Land Where the Blues Began." Yet Lomax remained an outsider and ever a zealot, on the fringes of academia and the media industry, as he tried to advance a science of performance-based, comparative folklore.

Too often Mr. Szwed gets swamped tallying the onslaught of dizzying ideas and unfinished projects of Lomax in his later years—there is a half-mad quality to these attempts to make sense of such nebulous theories as "cantometrics." Even if Lomax failed to find a unifying principle for a lifetime's work, the sounds he captured of human song in its incredible variety—what he'd begun to assemble as a multmedia, interactive database he called a Global Jukebox—are quite enough to revel in and marvel over for generations to come.

Mr. Dean is co-author of Dr. Ralph Stanley's "Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times"

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