Alan Lomax Biography – Reviewed – The Man Who Recorded The World


The Man Who Recorded The World

Anyone interested in the history of American music should probably read this book.

Alan Lomax if you don’t know anything of him, was a music collector an ethnomusicologist and a lover of ‘Folk and Folksong’. His influence on American popular culture through his collecting of the ‘people’s’ music is unfathomable.

He virtually discovered Huddie Ledbetter, ‘Leadbelly’, in a Texas State Prison, he was key in the career and life of Woody Guthrie, and in so much as that is the case, Bob Dylan’s career too.

He recorded, archived, wrote about, translated, studied, transposed, annotated and spent his life creating a repository of knowledge about Folk Culture, mainly through that culture’s production of a musical history and heritage. Hence he was to be seen in the early days dragging heavy batteries and early recording equipment through the Appalachians, the Kentucky mining districts and the streets of New Orleans.

The book reveals his life’s history, through letters and first person accounts. The author John Szwed counted Alan Lomax as his friend and so we are treated to a knowing study of Lomax, not written in the first person, but edited so.

I learnt a great deal I didn’t know about the man, such as his difficult relationship with his father, the quality and depth of his education, the incredible level of collecting he did for the Library of Congress and the politically difficult negotiations and posturing required to be successful in a government department and to be able to continue the obsessive work of your life. I learnt of his doubts and worries, his whining and whingeing, his poor health and the singularity both of his character and of his purpose.

I learnt how involved he was with the early development of Radio as a creative and artistic genre in the 30s and 40s of pre, present and post war America, of his staunch defence of ‘the negro’ and of his political leanings and investigation by the USA’s federal forces. This included one scary moment when he is being frisked unknowingly by both the US and UK special forces at a concert he performed at for the English monarch!

The book can be somewhat dry at times and perhaps a little plodding, but given a basic knowledge of American Folk history you will find almost every step in the book exciting enough and certainly page turning.

His key involvement in the ‘movement’ towards an appreciation of America’s working people and their Folk music as Art of highest order makes this essential reading, and though you will wince at the innocence of early folk music posturing and middle class patronization of the working classes in America, you can forgive all that, because Alan Lomax virtually invented the terms we have now come to accept, albeit with some trepidation and turning of the collective stomach. He had to define styles, to grapple with the very nomenclature that we all require to describe something in order to begin to codify his subject of research and we therefore owe him a debt, if only for drawing the starting line in the sand, and once playing in a band with Jackson Pollock.

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