Arts Desk

Tomorrow: John Szwed Discusses Folklorist Alan Lomax, the “Man Who Recorded the World”

Alan Lomax

In 1933, the then 18-year-old Alan Lomax began going on trips throughout the American South with his folklorist father John in which they recorded singers, mainly African-American ones, using the bulky recording machines of the time. From that period on until his death in 2002, Lomax, the subject of a lunchtime presentation at the Library of Congress by Professor John Szwed tomorrow, recorded people playing and singing music throughout the U.S. and the world. He taped Leadbelly, Woodie Guthrie, Muddy Waters, British folk singers, and traditional musicians from Spain, the Caribbean, Africa, and elsewhere. Lomax was not just a folklorist, he was a musicologist, archivist, singer, DJ, filmmaker, photographer, author, and producer of radio, TV, video, and concert programs, and countless albums. He also earned a bit of criticism over the years for some of his methods.

Yale professor emeritus and current Columbia professor John Szwed’s talk is titled “Alan Lomax—The Man Who Recorded the World: A Bio-Ethnography,” and is  drawn from his forthcoming book on Lomax. Szwed previously penned books on Miles Davis, Sun Ra, and the city of New Orleans. I e-mailed him a few questions regarding Lomax.

Washington City Paper: When did you decide to write this book and how long did it take to research?

John Szwed: I knew Lomax for years, even worked with from time to time, and had some idea of the breadth and complexities of his life, but I wanted to know more. I was also fascinated by what he had learned by collecting and studying songs across the world. He knew more about song than anyone alive, and I feared that no one would ever know more.  Lomax began with a simple question that no one else has yet answered persuasively: Why do people in every known society throughout the history of the world sing? His answer was quite remarkable.  And then there was his studies of dance and the its relation to work...

WCP: What aspects will you be covering in your Library of Congress presentation?

JS: I want to talk a bit about the problems of writing about any person's life, even those people you know, and even those who leave a mountain of paper, recordings, and films to work with. I'd like to communicate some of Lomax's best ideas, many of which have never been followed up and yet are still important.

WCP: In a July 2002 piece for counterpunch.org, author Dave Marsh attacked Lomax as a prissy, stereotypical folklorist who stole a copyright credit from Leadbelly, failed to pay Muddy Waters, plagiarized and failed to credit John Work of Fisk University, and gained
more attention for himself than for the talented musicians he recorded. Do you address these allegations in the book?  Did you talk to author Robert Gordon regarding his research that he did for his Muddy Waters bio, and/or look at that work as it relates to Lomax?

JS: Yes, I take up all the Lomax stories, most of which I believe to be wrong.  Why they're wrong is not terribly interesting, but I was obliged to deal with it to get to what I think was the valuable and even exciting parts of his life and work. Let's just say that Dave Marsh, who has done so much valuable and fine reporting, drove off a cliff with his obituary of Lomax. Talk about kicking a man when he's down!

I never spoke to Gordon, but I did exchange e-mails with his co-author Bruce Nemerov...  I tell a much simpler and less villain-laden story than they do, based on what I believe is more information.

WCP: Because of the passage of time was it hard to do interviews because people have passed away, and documents and tapes and records may no longer be available?

JS: Those are not really problems... There are still a lot of people alive—Pete Seeger, for instance, and many others not so well known.. . And Lomax used the best equipment to record and film, and nearly everything has survived.  In fact, a lot of his films and recordings are just coming out now for the first time. The problem, as with everything in life, is sorting out who has first hand knowledge and who is guessing or passing on stories uncritically.

Photograph by Shirley Collins

The American Folklife Center presents a free lecture in the 2010 Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series, “Alan Lomax — The Man Who Recorded the World: A Bio-Ethnography” by Professor John Szwed,  Wednesday May 5, 2010, 12:00 noon – 1:00 pm, at the Mary Pickford Theater, 3rd Floor, James Madison Building, Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave SE, between 1st & 2nd Streets.  For more information, please visit www. loc.gov/folklife/events/botkin-lectures.html#may5 or call 202-707-5510.

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