The Man Who Recorded the World: a Biography of Alan Lomax

The Man Who Recorded the World: a Biography of Alan Lomax
John Szwed
Heinemann, 464pp, £20

The Nebraskan novelist Willa Cather once wrote that "the great fact" of America was "the land itself . . . The land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength; its peculiar, savage kind of beauty." This savagery, strength and desire to be "let alone" have informed the American character since the founding of the nation, with many of the chief expressions of its culture - from James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales to Orson Welles's film noir Touch of Evil - playing on the borderline between "sivilisation" and the frontier, as Huck Finn might have put it. Like Huck, writers engaged in the project of staking out a uniquely American corpus of art and myth have lit out for this territory, and few more literally than the folklorist Alan Lomax.

If the outcast or outsider figure is the archetypal American hero, Lomax may, at first, seem an unlikely candidate for the role. He was born in Austin, Texas, in 1915 to John and Bess Lomax and, as a 14-year-old, was sent by his lecturer father to the Choate school in Connecticut (a few years later, John F Kennedy would begin his studies there). An excellent, if often sickly student, Lomax then enrolled at Harvard as a philosophy major. Soon, however, the parochialism of university life started to wear thin and Jack London-like fantasies of a wilder life began to preoccupy him. In a letter to his father, he complained that conventional academic study would "only serve to repress all that is animal and frank in me . . . I satisfy none of man's primary needs: physical labour, strong drinks, food and women."

This longing was soon met. As the Great Depression turned fertile soil into a curtain of black dust that blew from Oklahoma City to the Arizona line, the bottom fell out for the now widowed John Lomax. Like everyone else in the country, he was hit hard by the crisis and the family was steadily running out of money. To raise funds, John - once a prominent speaker on traditional music - went on the road to collect folk songs, ostensibly for publication in a book whose rights had been sold in advance to Macmillan. Alan leapt at the chance to join his father and to drop out.

Thus began his fabled nomadic existence as a chronicler of the nation's margins. In The Man Who Recorded the World, John Szwed, professor emeritus of anthropology at Yale and professor of music at Columbia, describes Lomax Jr's life as "encyclopaedic". It is hard to think of a more apt description. In the decades that followed, Lomax would cross America in a car that was converted into a makeshift recording studio, dragging equipment "up hills, across fields and creeks" to capture the communal music of the people before it was obliterated by radio and pop. He would play back recordings using a stylus of cactus needles or thorns; he would share songs with E A McIlhenny, the creator of Tabasco sauce, who claimed to know the songs of the Eskimos; he would have a car stolen (and returned) on his behalf in Chicago, desperate to continue his work.

His achievements were rewarded with an invitation to play at the White House and international fame as a radio personality but, above all, Lomax was unwavering in his belief in the importance of his project. In 1946, he wrote:

Folklore may prove to be not a romantic and colourful ragbag of the discarded and outworn ideas of humanity but one of the great wellsprings of the democratic attitudes that have, in the past two centuries, begun to make for a more equitable life for all mankind upon this planet.

The blues, in particular, were proof of a vibrant American culture that had matured independently of European tradition. Though often drawing on Scots and Irish balladry, much American folk song was enriched by the polyglot, multiracial heritage of the United States; it served as a space in which social boundaries could be negotiated or even crossed. As Szwed writes: "Whatever the barriers that kept the black community separated from the white, music was a ticket in for the outsider and people of colour were hardly surprised that whites would be drawn to their arts."

Visiting Angola Prison Farm, a former slave plantation, John and Alan Lomax met the blues singer Lead Belly, then serving a sentence for attempted murder. Huddie Ledbetter had earned his stage name from "a life of toughness, from his strength, his badness and a bullet in his stomach" and was later mythologised as the criminal who sang his way to freedom by impressing prison governors. This apocryphal story was so potent in its symbolism that it turned up again and again in poems, films, newsreels and even a play by Tennessee Williams (Orpheus Descending, 1957). At the time, the Brooklyn Eagle called him "a virtuoso of knife and guitar", Time hailed him as a "murderous minstrel" and the Herald Tribune declared: "Sweet singer of the swamplands here to do a few tunes between homicides".

Lead Belly eventually joined the Lomaxes on their early travels, working closely with father and son to produce books of songs and perform at lectures. In March 1935, John took their show to Harvard for an evening talk and concert presided over by his one-time mentor George Lyman Kittredge. After a fiery set by Lead Belly, the assembled crowd of 600 white academics was ecstatic. Kittredge leaned over to John and whispered: "He's a demon, Lomax!"

This troubling tendency to exoticise black culture as an authenticating force has a long history - the assumption that the stereotyped otherness of a people who had been imported into America as slaves could be co-opted to confer hipness and offer excitement to a white majority. (A Lou Reed song from 1978 ironically riffs on the theme: "I wanna be black, have natural rhythm/Shoot 20 foot of jism . . .") Though Alan Lomax, too, idealised the unvarnished singing of black prisoners and workmen as a direct channel into the American spirit, his mission was far grander than just a white man's predilection for racial tourism.

In his 1947 book Folk Song USA, Lomax controversially decided not to separate the songs of white performers from those he had gathered from black singers. His was an inclusive spirit that recalls Walt Whitman's orgiastic claims to all that lived and breathed on America's shores, regardless of race or class. In the introduction to the songbook, he wrote: "Folk song, like any serious art, deals with realities - with poor boys a long way from home, with workers killed on the job, with bloody-handed murderers, with children dancing and fighting in the backyards."

Asked by Nasa to compile the "ultimate mix-tape" - a compilation of 90 minutes of the world's music, to be sent into space on the Voyager missions of 1978 - he chose Blind Willie Johnson, Louis Armstrong and Chuck Berry to represent the US. His love for Johnson's music "wasn't a matter of folklore. It was the way I felt." Szwed's biography is a worthy testament to Lomax's passions and ideals, which gifted the world some of the most important American recordings ever made.

Yo Zushi works at the New Statesman