Alan Lomax is the only folklorist ever to have been honored with a front-page obituary in The New York Times. John Szwed’s biography of this remarkable and controversial person is a fascinating, densely packed volume about a workaholic overachieving genius. Lomax may have been one of the twentieth century’s most influential cultural figures, a veritable Kilroy who “was there” at an unbelievable number of major and historic culture-shaping events, many of which he initiated or organized. Perhaps the most influential folklorist of all time, Lomax is portrayed as one of the giants of our time. To many of us who have eked out careers in public folklore Alan Lomax was “the father of us all.”
The author devotes several chapters to the life of Alan’s father, pioneer ballad collector John A. Lomax. The Lomaxes’ pioneering use of recording equipment in the field allowed subsequent and repeated hearing of a song or musical piece. Early in his own collecting career, Alan Lomax became interested in the context of the music he was recording. He began interviewing singers about their songs, performances of songs, and eventually, their lives. This broke new ground in the profession at a time when most folklorists were literary scholars interested in texts. Thus, he came to anticipate what much of the academic folklorist profession came to embrace three decades later, that folklore must be understood in context. His use of the tape recorder for field recording was the first in the profession, and he contributed to the foundation for oral history research.
Lomax attributed his interest in singers’ lives to his early fieldwork with African Americans. At a time when southern blacks and whites were rigidly segregated, his interest in black music brought him, a southern white, into intimate contact with a close, yet separated culture. He eventually realized that understanding African American music had to be based on a broad understanding of black people’s lives. The biography never reveals at what point Lomax’s passionate commitment to respect for African Americans and dedication to the advancement of their rights as fellow citizens occurred, but it was an attitude almost unheard-of among white southerners of his time, and it kept him in continuous and lengthy conflict with his conservative father. Alan’s fascination with African Americans and their culture eventually developed into a belief that because of its multiple origins and its growth and success during centuries of violent oppression, it was one of, if not the, most vibrant, important, and influential cultures in the world.
For much of the volume, Szwed takes the reader along on a dizzying series of field expeditions interspersed with bursts of social and political activism and hobnobbing with high-profile academics, political and historical figures, and cultural celebrities. His many field expeditions and his ambitious recording, broadcasting, and publication projects are far too numerous to list in this review, but many, both in the United States and abroad, broke new ground in ethnographic research and its popular dissemination. Lomax’s journeys into the black communities of the southeastern seaboard states with Zora Neale Hurston and [End Page 105] John Work III and white NYU professor Mary Elizabeth Barnicle were remarkable for having been bi-racial. On one of these expeditions, Lomax made the first recording of a slave narrative and the first extensive documentation of the music of the Sea Islands. Lomax’s interest in slave narratives eventually led him to initiate the WPA’s American Slave Narratives project, a major advance in the use of oral history research.
Lomax’s discovery in the late 1930s that New Orleans jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton was spending his declining years entertaining in a tiny club he owned in Washington, DC, led to a vast series of recorded interviews, interspersed with musical performance. The 78-rpm record album Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings (Circle, 1947; later released as LPs by Riverside, 1955, and CDs by Rounder, 2005), and the book, Mister Jelly Roll: The...