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Alan Lomax, Assistant in Charge: The Library of Congress Letters, 1935-1945 (American Made Music Series) Hardcover – December 8, 2010
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"Ronald D. Cohen has performed an invaluable service in gathering together Alan Lomax's letters, from many scattered sources and under difficult circumstances, covering Lomax's most active period at the Library of Congress, from 1935 to 1945. Alan Lomax, following in the footsteps of his father, pioneer folksong collector John Lomax, became the preeminent authority on the indigenous music of the world. From the time he was seventeen until his death in 2002 at age eighty-seven, he was indefatigable in recording and documenting the folksongs, folk tales, and folk customs of both North America and Western Europe. Like his father, he was a prodigious letter-writer, and his correspondence provides a detailed and most interesting account of his day-to-day activity."
-Nolan Porterfield, author of Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax
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Collected correspondence from arguably the most important folklorist of the twentieth century
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As the title implies, this book is a collection of letters from Alan Lomax written during while he was with the Library of Congress. Many letters with personal details have, out of necessity, not been allowed to be used or quoted from. The letters in this book came from a period when Lomax was doing field recording throughout the South, Michigan, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and the Bahamas among other areas. Everyone who listens to folk, blues and other genres of music should thank Lomax for his pursuit of many fine well known and unknown artists, that we are now able to listen to.
These letters go into detail surrounding Lomax and his search for musicians, customs and tales of the many people he came across-field notes if you will. As such it's not any kind of biography, nor does it purport to be. He details the many small day to day things, describing his surroundings and the many people he met along the way, and some of the obstacles he had to overcome. Because these are in his own words, we get a better feel for who Lomax was. Someday, hopefully, the many personal letters will get their own book, which will help fill in the gaps of just who Lomax really was. Known to be somewhat of a radical politically, and possessing a sometimes fiery temperament, a book dedicated to personal affairs would be welcomed.
Lomax made the first recordings of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Muddy Waters, just to mention a few of the more well known musicians he found in his travels. He also crossed paths with bluesmen like "Mississippi" Fred McDowell, Son House, Memphis Slim, Sam Chatmon, Big Bill Broonzy, Jack Owens, and Bud Spires. Lomax also recorded countless lesser known folk musicians from both the U.S., and around the world. In this book the reader gets a real feel for the era and life in general. Together with his recordings, this is a good book if you want to know how Lomax dealt with all the ups and downs, and day to day details in order to capture this (in some cases) fast disappearing music. His letters are a small window, but a fairly good look into an America (and other areas) that has long since disappeared, It's a window into people and their surroundings, that is different from the present-reading some of his letters is to go back in time to another place.
Other books about Lomax-"The Land Where The Blues Began" (by Lomax), "Alan Lomax, Selected Writings 1934-1997" (by Cohen), or even "Lost Delta Found" (by Gordon and Nemoror), don't have the depth found in these letters. The recently published biography, "Alan Lomax The Man Who Recorded the World" (by Szwed), is a good companion to this book. While these books have their merits (with Szwed's being the only biography), this book through his letters, brings us closer to Alan Lomax, and his quest in finding and recording music from the many places he visited, and can sit alongside the above titles. Is it a complete look at Lomax? No. For that check out the other titles. This book is highly recommended for those (like me) who find both Lomax and music from this era exciting and important. If you're a casual reader (or listener), the book may be a bit on the dry (and expensive) side. But no matter how you regard Lomax, the music he left us is a priceless look into a world long since past, and for that reason alone this book is important.