John Szwed's Biography of Alan Lomax Illuminates a Legend

It's hard to imagine how music in the 20th century would have evolved in quite the same way if, as a sickly child, Alan Lomax had succumbed to one of his many illnesses, or if his chronic ear infections had left him deaf.

Surely, other folklorists and ethnomusicologists would have promoted rural blues musicians like Lead Belly. Surely, someone else would have noticed Woody Guthrie. Surely, rock 'n' roll, the British Invasion, the 1960s folk scene, and everything that followed would have happened anyway. But it feels safe to say that without Lomax's exhaustive efforts in documenting rural, traditional, and ethnic music over the course of his lifetime, today's music would sound a little bit different.

According to John Szwed's comprehensive new biography, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (Viking), Lomax's ill health in childhood helped set the stage for his prodigious knowledge and curiosity. Born in 1915 in Austin, Texas, Lomax spent much of his youth in unconventional classroom settings or being home-schooled by his mother using the then-new Montessori method. Music and play were incorporated into everything, lessons Lomax seemingly incorporated throughout everything he did the rest of his life.

Lomax was the son of folklorist John Lomax, one of the first prominent scholars of the popular American folk song. During the 19th century, scholars had focused on gathering ballads in manuscript form (leading to several high-profile forgeries); very few folklorists bothered to go out and actually listen to the songs people were singing. John Lomax changed all that when he began to document cowboy ballads from his native Texas. His first collection was published in 1910. By 1928, the Library of Congress had opened the Archive of the American Folk Song.

It was for that archive, and for a book contract for an anthology of the American folk song, that the elderly Lomax set out in 1933 to record the field music of the South. Alan, out of college for the summer, agreed to accompany his father. Stopping just outside of Dallas, they decided to record a black washerwoman they overheard singing, just to try out their new equipment. Lomax wrote of the moment:

"The voice of the skinny little black woman was as full of the shakes and quavers as a Southern river is full of bends and bayous. She started slow and sweet, but as the needle scratched her song on the whirling wax cylinder, she sang faster and with more and more drive, clapping her hands and tapping out drum rhythm with heel and toe of her bare feet, and as the song ended, she was weeping and saying over and over, ‘O Lord have mercy, O Lord have mercy.'" From that moment, Lomax was hooked.

It's hard to overstate the impact Lomax had on the development of music in the middle of the 20th century—his field recordings in the Deep South; his promotion of black musicians, singing "black" music, at a time when even the Northeast was highly segregated; his celebration of the "hillbilly" folk music of Guthrie and others; his recordings from Europe and the Caribbean, bringing to American audiences what we now blithely call "world music."

It's also hard to overstate the exhaustiveness of Szwed's book—and the exhaustion reading it, at times, produces. Szwed is an academic, a professor of music and jazz now at Columbia University, who has previously written well-received biographies of Miles Davis and Sun Ra. Szwed actually knew (and occasionally worked for) Lomax for 40 years before the latter's death in 2002. This knowledge of the man certainly helps Szwed approach his subject with both depth and gusto, but one wonders at times if the biographer was too close to his subject. After 392 pages, one feels like one knows everything that Lomax has ever done; yet the man himself remains just out of reach. He hung out with writers Zora Neale Hurston and Carl Sandburg; he was investigated by the FBI again and again and again; he went through several wives and lovers. He loved music, he loved travel. He followed in his father's footsteps but went above and beyond them—but to what end? And why? The clearest insights into Lomax's psyche come from his letters and journals, which are excerpted throughout the book, but perhaps not generously enough.

It's possible, however, that such a categorical approach is inevitable for a biography of a documentarian like Lomax, whose personal archives rival the ones he collected for the Library of Congress. Szwed notes that in the collection Lomax left to Hunter College in New York, there are 5,000 hours of sound recordings; 400,000 feet of film; 2,450 videotapes; 2,000 books and journals; hundreds of photographs; and more than 120 linear feet of notes, letters, and files. Perhaps such a mass of documents will always take precedence over a less reportable but more streamlined personal narrative.

Yet despite its occasional stylistic flaws and redundancies, and despite its only glancing look at some of Lomax's critics, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World is still an invaluable and fascinating resource for anyone interested in the history of American music.