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Useful only if you read Lost Delta Found, in part fiction, not scholarship
on August 27, 2005
The Lomaxes had a major impact in producing the perceptions of folk music and traditions in this country which are dominant. They were pioneers in the collection and publication (for their own profit copyrighting folks songs that their informants taught them in their own names)of folk music. They also had a lot to do with the promotion of urban intellectuals who claimed to play folk music like Pete Seeger and players of various levels of contact with folk tradition who became involved with them like Leadbelly and Woodie Guthrie.
They were not angels. They were deeply flawed. They tended to find what they wanted to find, and produce what they were looking for. Folklorists I know who have met people the Lomaxes interviewed have reported that the Lomaxes were rude and forceful and sometimes insulting to people they interviewed. For example, they often claimed that as representatives of the government in Washington [They worked for the folklore program of the Library of Congress] people were legally bound to open their doors to them.
The legends and the attitudes produced in this book are comfortable and entertaining, particularly to people who know little but the common sterotypes about Black people, the blues, and the times depicted. However, this book has a lot of untruth in it. The real situation in the time and places depicted can only be understood if we have access to another text, one by Black sociologists and folklorists from Mississippi and Tennessee whose work Lomax hijacked, suppressed, and lost.
The truth and the untruth of this book--still valuable despite Lomax's confusions, fictions, and weaknesses--can only be understood by reading __Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering The Fisk University-Library Of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942__ by John W. Work, Lewis Wade Jones, Samuel C., Jr. Adams. The editors, blues scholars Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov, found the original papers of the two trips to Mississippi that Lomax bases this book on (although fictively he combines them into one trip in the __Land Where the Blues Began__). It is interesting that these papers were "lost" for decades, though they were found by Gordon and Nemerov in the Library of Congress which supposedly lost them and among Lomax's papers after his death.
Gordon and Nemerov point out in their introduction the degree to which Lomax simply took credit for work that Work--the most outstanding African American folklorist of the 20th Century who was also a leading composer and expert of Black religious music and a director of Fisk's Jubilee singers--and the graduate assistants Jones and Adams provided did. They also point out that it was Lomax's pressure and the opportunity to use the portable recording machines Lomax had that led them to set up what was supposed to be a joint study, but was hijacked by Lomax and taken away from the directions the Black scholars wanted.
This book of Lomax's supposed story was published at a time that he claimed the African American scholar's work was lost. Moreover, as my reader review of Lost Delta Found reports, the difference in emphasis from what African American researchers who looked at the communities from the inside is significant.
No doubt, readers whose connection with the blues is superficial will find Lomax's book simply a welcoming bit of the same old stuff. Yet, such readers are in part disabled because their knowledge of the blues is based on the type of fiction, stereotypes, and unrepresentative selection Lomax shows in this book, and is now recognized to have been Alan Lomax's practice throughout his entire career.
Aside from these issues, this book is problematical especially from the point of view of an African American who studies and plays the blues not from outside, but inside the Black nationality.
Lomax keeps trying to to write about how he wants to know what it feels like to be a Black person or compares petty indignities he faced and attempts to say "ahhah, now I know what it is like to be Black." This is something he could never in the slightest degree be able to do.
Of course the logical conclusion is for Lomax to realize that this work should be done by Black folklorists who know how it feels to be a Black person in the South, not by Alan Lomax. Yet, he essentially worked to divert the focus of the project from the topics that African American scholars who knew what it was like to feel black. This book essentially hides the work of Black scholars involved in what was supposed to be a joint project.
Their conclusions were quite different. They had already spent much time in the Delta working on a previous study of Youth in the Delta. The Fisk scholars also had a deep knowledge of the Mississippi Delta since Fisk College supervised and assisted African American school teachers throughout the Delta. Where Lomax sees the blues and the delta issuing from old ways, the Fisk scholars reported on how the Delta had attracted a new, younger, more dynamic population that the rest of the Black Belt South. Where Lomax sees compliance and fear in the face of segregation, the Fisk scholars found a growing militance among the youth.
Lomax's story is an artificially put together fiction manufactured out of his memories, notes, and perhaps wishful thinking 50 years after the fact. It centers on Alan Lomax and not on the people of Mississippi. He combines incidents that took place on a longer trip in 1941 with incidents that occured on a shorter one in 1942. People known to John Work and his team for years are recreated as people that Lomax discovers just walking down the street in Memphis or Clarksdale.
The other thing I get from Lomax is how alien this book reads to me as a Black person. Lomax's approach is that he is always explaining Black culture and Black people to white people, so that reading this book from within the culture, I feel a bit excluded.
While he tries to show the connections between the Delta culture and Africanism, his view of Africa is too general to deal with a large continent. Africa has a lot of countries and different cultures. Africanism can't simply be generalized. To be useful different cultures can be identified or at least discussed. One could say that Lomax's approach might be excused in the 1940s when he made these trips, but this book was written in the 1990s. For example, in _Deep Blues by Bob Palmer_, Palmer speculates that an important factor differentiating musical traditions in the Mississippi Delta from the the Southeast is that much of the Delta's Black population descended from Bantus and not West Africans, something Lomax is unaware of.
Lomax also discounts the point of view of his colleagues from Fisk by claiming educated African Americans don't appreciate the importance of the folk culture that he, Alan Lomax, understands. Of course, this did not prevent Lomax from more or less forcing Work to surrender much of his own recordings to the Library of Congress with little attribution.
Lomax really does not inform the reader that John Work--whom he terms a "composer"--had done extensive research as part of this study and for years before this trip with some of the individuals. As an outsider, Lomax constantly got in the way of collection and did not understand nuances and his team understood. Nemerov and Gordon note that in the interview with Muddy Waters that has been published on the CD of their trip to Stovall Planation, Lomax's cuts off Work who has begun a sensitive and knowing conversation about Muddy's music with comments shut things down.
In fact, Lomax used the open door with white Mississipians that the Library of Congress provided and their posession of a precious portable recording machine to force Work to donate transcripts and recordings from his own work to the Library of Congress. Nor does he mention the special graduate seminar on the material from the research that Work and Charles S. Johnson organized at Fisk between the 1941 and 1942 journeys, a seminar that brought Black and white folklorists and sociologists from all over the country and promised to launch a new day of African American research into Black folklore, had that and so many things not been disrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War.
In fact, Lomax doesn't give an image of himself as a serious, detached scholar, trying to build up data for general scholarly discussion and knowledge. He sounds like the kind of paternalist southern white boy who "knows Black folks," wishes he could be "Black on Saturday night" and who is always looking for moonshine and where Black folks are juking. Of course, this may appeal to many white pseudo blues fans who are basically in the same category.
Work, Jones, and Adams are more concerned with impact on folklore that the real social and economic and cultural changes going on in the Delta had.
To be sure there is a lot of valuable and wonderful information in here. A lot of it is taken from interviews and other work done by the Fisk team and blended in to place it in the fictional sequence Lomax creates in his book to place himself at the center of things. There are some good folkways described, and good contexts for a number of the songs that have previously appeared in other Lomax productions without much backgrounds.
After four decades reading Lomax, I was surprised at some very good prose, although he gets too purple to be accurate. He also tends to quickly leap to comparisons of Black Mississipians and the their culture to the most stereotypical and paternalist images of Africans, images few Africans would find acceptable.
If you are interested in Blues, African American folklore, etc, this is a book to be read, but not without reading the Nemerov and Gordon edition of the Fisk studies. Serious blues studies like Kubrik's _Africa and the Blues_ or any of the work of David Evans are also good.
It is unfortunate that the discourse about Blues falls so strongly in the hands of people who are not Black and see writing about blues largely a discourse between white people where black people are not subjects of their own stories, but objects for interpretation or enjoyment by white people who are assumed the only audience.
This too shall pass.