Preserving the Memory of Folk Music's Premier Preservationist

by Nick Obourn

Music professor John Szwed had his work cut out for him once he decided to write a biography of legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.

A selection of photos taken in 1959-1960 during one of Lomax's song-collecting expeditions through the American South, set to his recording of "When the Train Comes Along" (1959), performed by Fred McDowell. (2:53)

Lomax, whose life work was donated to the Library of Congress after his death in 2002, had amassed more than 5,000 hours of sound recordings; 400,000 feet of film; 2,450 videotapes; 2,000 books and journals; and numerous prints, documents and databases. Szwed pored through those vast archives in the American Folklife Center to complete Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, his new and widely praised biography of the folklorist and preservationist.

"The sheer quantity of it all was overwhelming," Szwed said. "Once you enter the largest collection of folk music and dance in the world you can drown in it. A worse problem for me was that I kept running into things that were so fascinating that I wanted to stop work and just enjoy it."

Lomax was one of the first to record native music in the field, starting at age 18 with his father, the folklorist and author John Lomax. As Alan Lomax's career developed, he also worked at the Library of Congress, organized concerts across the United States and edited the landmark 18-volume Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music.

Collecting music on location in the United States and abroad, however, was his passion, and his recordings redefined ethnomusicology, which until then had focused on printed lyrics. "Recording allowed songs to be learned or studied for their style and performance, not just for their words and music," Szwed said. "And even words and music were different when they were heard, and not simply read off a page. It was now possible to hear breathing, vocal quality, tempo, all the elements that are part of emotion and meaning in music."

Szwed, who is also the author of So What: The Life of Miles Davis and Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, chronicles Lomax's 60 years crisscrossing the United States in search of folk and blues music in rural and predominantly African American areas. In 1933, Lomax and his father were the first to record blues legend Lead Belly, or Huddie Ledbetter, who was serving a sentence for attempted murder in Louisiana's Angola prison. He was the first to record Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters, and he was among the first to record Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke and Pete Seeger.

Author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (BC'22) played a crucial role in helping Lomax navigate rural areas in the south to record folk music, especially in segregated areas. Lomax was once in Florida when Hurston convinced him to darken his skin so they could move more easily within black communities and avoid running afoul of the Jim Crow laws.

Lomax also traveled to Europe to find native music in England, Ireland, Scotland, Italy and Spain. He went to places few outsiders would go, and was trailed for much of his life by the FBI, which believed his interest in desegregation and unionization and folk songs made him a leftist.

Lomax studied for a master's in anthropology at Columbia in 1939. In 1962 he was invited by anthropology professors Margaret Mead and Conrad Arensberg to base his research here. He worked at Columbia for more than 20 years, researching systems of non-verbal communication and developing a map of the world's song and dance styles.

It was during this time that Szwed got to know Lomax. "Alan was a controversial figure, but I soon found out that this was the result of the bold sweep of his work, the radical nature of his research and his relentlessness," said Szwed.

His conversations with Lomax and Arensberg over frequent dinners at a Chinese restaurant near Columbia "was to me a way of glimpsing an earlier period of anthropology, a time before its professionalization, when it was driven not by teaching and careerism, but by a raw lust to know and experience everything in the world," Szwed recalled. "It seemed I was regaining what Alan called 'that early morning feel' of life."

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