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Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World Hardcover – December 30, 2010

4.7 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The scope of Alan Lomax’s protean and profoundly influential life’s work grants him the designations folklorist, musicologist, oral historian, photographer, filmmaker, recording and concert producer, anthropologist, archivist, activist, and author. But even this litany barely covers Lomax’s pioneering documentation of music born of pain and injustice, his crossing racial lines in the segregated South to collect African American songs, and his bringing folk music into the mainstream. Szwed, a biographer of Miles Davis and professor of music and jazz studies at Columbia University, gamely charts Lomax’s itinerant, messianic, world-changing endeavors, beginning with his start as his folk-music-collecting father’s assistant and on to his myriad inventive and demanding ethnomusicology projects, his barely surviving on grants and Library of Congress stipends, his run-ins with the FBI and embroilment in controversies, and his continual self-reinvention. Here are the full stories of Lomax’s pivotal relationships with Zora Neale Hurston, Lead Belly, Jelly Roll Morton, Pete Seeger, and Margaret Mead. Factually tireless and fluently analytical, Szwed gamely corrals a great river of events, efforts, and discoveries into a straight-ahead portrait of an intrepid, culture-defining artist and humanist. Driven by a voracious hunger for life and unshakable faith in art, Lomax forever sought the “flame of beauty.” --Donna Seaman

About the Author

John Szwed is the author of So What: The Life of Miles Davis and Space Is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra, among other works. He is a professor of music and jazz studies at Columbia University. He lives in New York City.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; First Edition edition (December 30, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670021997
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670021994
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,247,839 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Stuart Jefferson TOP 100 REVIEWER on February 2, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Hardcover-4 page Introduction, 387 pages of text, 3 pages of acknowledgments, 27 pages of Notes, and an Index. There are no photographs except for a b&w photo of Lomax across from the title page. The paper stock is a roughish cream color, with an easy to read typeface. The author, John Szwed, has written previously on Miles Davis and Sun Ra, both acclaimed biographies. In this book on folklorist (to use a broad term) Alan Lomax, Szwed (who worked for Lomax-but not for money) paints a fairly deep portrait of who Lomax was, the folk music, tales, and customs he recorded, and the controversy surrounding him throughout his life.

Begining with the birth of John Lomax, Alan's father (also a folklorist), we begin to see the many forces both personal and externally, that shaped Alan Lomax. John Lomax began collecting songs while he also began to have a family. Alan, while in college, began associating with people with radical ideas (especially for the times), and who had a penchant for blues and gospel music. When Lomax went on his first "collecting" trip with his father, his course in life was pretty much set.

Interspersed throughout the book are portions of letters which deepen the look into Lomax and the era (s). There are, occasionally, lyrics from songs Lomax recorded, which help clarify the music and Lomax's point of view. He recorded many musicians, a large number of them relatively unknown. The more well known musicians included Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly (or Leadbelly), Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll Morton, and many others. Taken together, this book is both an in depth look at Lomax, but it's also a window into America's (and other areas) past-a time far different from today's world.
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Szwed is an excellent biographer and folklorist. (Disclosure: I took a class with him at Temple University decades ago.) His subject, Alan Lomax, came to the collecgtion of folksongs via his father, John Lomax, who belonged to the heroic age of folklore studies, when men (and one woman, Olive Campbell) went trekking into the hinterlands armed with smiles, the promise of a free drink, and a half ton of cumbersome recording equipment. Alan, John's youngest son, at first had a love-hate relationship with his father's avocation, joining him on a song-catching tour only when family fortunes had sunk so low that a meager stipend from the Smithsonian was the only source of funds. But Alan, more of a musician than John, eventually got his own rhythm. With his father, he discovered Lead Belly in a southern prison. Alan managed to get to know practically everyone from the 30's onward. He went on a collecting trip with Zora Hurston and he lived long enough to be sort of the godfather of the folk revival of the 60's -- which would not have been possible without his Smithsonian recordings. What's especially poignant in Szwed's biography is the idea that by the time Alan Lomax came of age as a folklorist, the motives driving folklorists had shifted. The previous generation gathered songs and tales partly as a way of locating an "authentic" American culture, of finding a land grandees in Boston or New York never deigned to hear of. For Alan Lomax, the motive seems more contemporary: to preserve what he could of folk culture that was being swept away by popular culture and media. His description of a folklore pavilion he proposed for the 1939 World's Fair has this avowed aim. But as Szwed notes (without comment), his ideas were either ignored, co-opted, or given to companies sponsoring pavilions to implement (Heineken Brewery did a Dutch folkore theme). That's a parable right there!
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The story of Alan Lomax begins with his father who was also a famous collector of folk music. The family members were eccentric and Alan inherited both the positive and negative traits. He set off to become a collector of folk music at his father's insistence. However, he grew in his love for the music and also in his desire to understand the deeper reasons why folk music exists, how it changes from place to place, and finally, how it fits into the study of anthropology.

The writing although dense and filled with long quotations from Lomax, always has an element of surprise. Perhaps because the events were taking place in the early part of the Twentieth Century, there was more openness and innocence. Lomax traveled with his wife and daughter, he spent nights in shacks with African-Americans, and he was constantly in need of money. He was friends with Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll Morton, and Pete Seeger, not to mention Carl Sandburg and Margaret Mead.

When Roosevelt became President, Lomax was recognized for his amazing depth and breadth of folk music contacts, and frequently performed for the White House. He earned a Carnegie Grant. He spent time abroad searching for folk music in England, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, and Italy. His notes and recordings gradually became touchstones not only for the musicians of his era, but of many musicians of the future.

It was a pleasure to read a book and do it at a leisurely pace. As I read it, I began seeing how folk music has affected jazz, classical music, and pop music. For a musician or a non-musician, it is a wonderful journey.
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