The World in a Jug

Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World
By John Szwed
Viking, 438 pages, $29.95
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Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World by John SzwedIn May 1932, folklorist John Lomax and his teenage son Alan drove around the town of Terrell, Texas, with an Edison cylinder-recording machine in the back of their Ford Model A. When they heard a washerwoman singing on her porch, they pulled over to try out the recorder. The woman put on a clean apron and began to sing for the device in words pared down to the barest expressive essentials. “Healin’ water done move, / Healin’ water done move, / Soul so happy now, / Healin’ water done move.” 

“The voice of that skinny little black woman,” Alan Lomax wrote decades later, faithfully reproducing the juvenile romanticism of the moment, “was as full of shakes and quavers as a Southern river is full of bends and bayous . . . As the song ended, she was weeping and saying over and over, ‘O Lord have mercy, O Lord have mercy.’” 

His epiphany had a second part that connected the spiritual with the sociopolitical. A few miles down the road, at the Smithers Plantation in Huntsville, the Lomaxes recorded black tenant farmers singing the hard truth of their lives: “His clothes is full of patches, / And his hat is full of holes, / Stoopin’ down, pullin’ cotton, / From the bottom boles, / Poor farmer, poor farmer, poor farmer, / They git all a farmer makes.” 

“I saw what I had to do,” Lomax said, looking back 64 years to his 17-year-old self and adding the mythifying note: “My job was to get as much of these views, these feelings, this unheard majority, onto the center of the stage.”

It’s one thing to feel a sense of mission, another to fulfill it. That Alan Lomax did fulfill it, on an unprecedented scale and as far as was humanly and technologically possible in his time, we learn from Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World. John Szwed, the author of this comprehensive and acute biography, and a professor of music and the acting director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia, takes us with Lomax time and again, at home and abroad, down backroads and across savannas into unknown country. We watch this formidable Texan engage with the locals, find his way to the most primordial and essential musicians, and come away with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of recordings and interviews that are accompanied by their cultural and sociohistorical context, ready for broadcast, archiving, and release. Even today, listening to Lomax’s field recordings can shock a listener from his comfort zone into musical materia prima as elemental as earth and breath and blood, or startle us with a refinement that seems to come out of nowhere. 

Szwed seems in effortless command of a complex field of action. His writing moves without strain, from the general to the particular, from the big picture to the small, and he possesses an intellectual and scholarly range appropriate to his subject. As for the defining period of the New Deal, for instance — when Lomax, based at the Library of Congress, was given extraordinary scope and resources — Szwed gives us a masterly compound picture of the politics and aesthetics of the time, including a wealth of bureaucratic struggle, the still-vexed question of copyright and royalty payments, and Lomax’s deep engagement with such iconic figures of the period as Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Jelly Roll Morton. 

When, in 1938, Lomax first met Morton, a seminal but forgotten New Orleans musician running a nightclub in a corner of Washington, D.C., he viewed jazz as the enemy of all he held dear, his preference always being for the root above the branch. But with characteristic keenness he recognized the man’s musical and personal authenticity as soon as he heard him play and talk. Their long interviews, which, according to Szwed, invented the genre of oral autobiography, resulted in the classic 1950 book Mister Jelly Roll. The new commercial recordings Lomax secured for Morton restored to him, in his last years, the proper benison of his art.

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