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Last Cavalier The Life and Times ofJohn A. Lomax, 1 867-1948 By Nolan Porterfield University of Illinois Press, 1996 580 pp. Cloth, $34.95 Reviewed by Beverly B. Patterson, a folklife specialist at the North Carolina Arts Council in Raleigh. She is the author of The Sound ofthe Dove: Singing in Appalachian Primitive Baptist Churches, which is accompanied by a casette of documentary field recordings. In 1898 an unsigned article in the University of Texas Magazine closed with a romantic description of the cowboy: "no man in all the world can ever take the vacant place of 'the last cavalier.'" Nolan Porterfield believes this article, "Minstrelsy of the Mexican Border," to be John Lomax's first published commentary on matters that would "form the core of his life's work." Borrowing the image almost a century later, Porterfield layers it with new meanings, presenting a decidedly unromantic view ofLomax himself as the "Last Cavalier" in an engaging biography that reads much like a novel. One of die most obvious strengths of the book is its well-documented picture ofLomax's personality. In a short prologue, Porterfield advises die reader that "it is the extravagant character and unique mix ofopposing elements in 'John Avery Lomax' which give his life the force oflegend." Lomax, he declares, is "a horned toad produced by some mydiical mating of pond frog and turde dove," and he sets out to make his case. Like Lomax himself, die story is complex. Peppered with quotable details from an extensive archive ofLomax's papers, and from publications and interviews with family members, it offers a lively, insightful, and sometimes humorous picture of "a man who dwelt on himself in coundess letters , journals, and jottings, who saved almost every scrap of biographical paper." Incidental to diat picture is information about the culture and times that molded the man. Readers can look through Lomax's life to a whole class of southerners like him struggling to leave the farm and achieve some wealth and social standing in the middle class. In die story ofLomax's relationship with Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, we watch the operation ofracial attitudes ofthat time; in accounts of courtships, two marriages, and differences between Lomax and his children, we see changing social attitudes; in Porterfield's account of Lomax's relationship with the University ofTexas as student, staffmember, and influential alumnus, we 106 Reviews get a sobering look at the direct intervention of governors and other politically powerful people in southern academic life in a time when schools lacked the protection of tenure. While the book gives much information about the culture that molded Lomax, it shows less well the impact Lomax had on that culture. Porterfield may assert that Lomax eventually won a reputation as "a major force in the cultural history of the United States," but he cannot just assume that his readers agree. Jerrold Hirsch points out in an article on Lomax in theJournalofAmericanFolklore (Siting 1992) that some histories ofAmerican folklore studies "virtually ignore him." It would not be surprising, then, if the general public had litde knowledge of his contributions. Porterfield actually offers a great deal of information about how Lomax affected his time, and he recognizes many ofLomax's achievements, but he scatters that information piecemeal through the book. As a result the reader may reach the end without ever realizing the full weight of these achievements. Here and there we gather thatJohn Lomax was one of the first great champions and collectors of American folk music; that publications of his collections have carried numerous songs into the public domain, where they live to this day; and diat Lomax left an even larger legacy in the thousands offield recordings he deposited in the Archive of American Folksong at the Library of Congress. All of this is given a lively presentation and careful attention, but no more attention than his work as a banker and bond salesman. In this volume, readers will not see any bold pronouncements to rival the opening sentence ofa 1997 press release from the Library ofCongress for a new compact disc on Rounder Records,^ Treasury ofLibrary ofCongressFieldRecordings: "In 1933,John Lomax drove down the road and into history." Porterfield...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 106-108
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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