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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A congregant of the Union Holiness Church, Portsmouth, Virginia, photographed by Lomax in May 1960. / Courtesy of The Alan Lomax ArchiveLomax left for Europe during the McCarthy years, and remained there for most of the 1950s. Based in England and working with the BBC, he recorded extensively throughout the British Isles and, via radio broadcasts and concerts, achieved a degree of celebrity he had not known at home. By the time of his visit to Spain in 1952 — which resulted in 11 LPs with authoritative commentary for Columbia Records — Lomax’s romanticism had been tempered by experience and honed to a gleaming edge. “I remember the night I spent in the straw hut of a shepherd on the moonlit plains of Extremadura,” Lomax wrote. “He played the one-string vihuela, the instrument of the medieval minstrels, and sang ballads of the wars of Charlemagne, while his two ancient cronies sighed over the woes of courtly lovers now 500 years in the dust.”

Lomax returned to the States in 1958 and settled in New York, where a folk music revival was gathering enough steam to look like an engine of significant social change. He threw himself into the center of another convulsive American epoch, mentoring young musicians; writing articles, books, and ballad operas; producing records, concert series, and films; and battling sectarian academics and citified popularizers. He was perceived as a purist even as he welcomed rock ’n’ roll as an authentic American idiom.

Raymond Spencer Moore in his tobacco fi eld, Chilhowie, Virginia, photographed by Alan Lomax in September 1959. / Courtesy of The Alan Lomax ArchiveArguably, no one else in view could equal Lomax’s depth of experience and scholarship, but he was hardly the only man present who thought himself best qualified to run the show. (Notwithstanding the guidance he received from Margaret Mead, writes Szwed, critics “challenged nearly every aspect” of his research.)

He was involved in a number of territorial squabbles, including his literal wrestling match at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, which Szwed almost convinces us was not about Dylan going electric but about the fair distribution of rehearsal space.

In his last years, getting fat, almost broke, despite awards and patronage (including that of Columbia University, which for a time housed his nearly infinite archive), with the IRS nipping at his heels, Lomax moved toward a more scientific approach. (For 27 years, he held the unpaid position of director of the Cantometrics and Choreometrics Research Project at Columbia.) It was a hard sell, both in the academy and on the street. In advance of digital technology, Lomax even envisioned a “global jukebox” through which those fundamentals could be pursued not only within cultures but across them. He was trying to get the concept funded when a stroke felled him. Lomax died in 2002 at the age of 87.

In the wake of Alan Lomax, many can speak for the passionately dedicated scholar of American music; others, bruised by the dynamo, have different tales to tell. Szwed details Lomax’s two marriages and many girlfriends, for instance, and the difficulty the unconventional households caused his daughter. For the most part, though, Szwed functions, persuasively, as an advocate for the man he calls “one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century, a man who changed not only how everyone listened to music but even how they viewed America.”

Rafi Zabor is the author of The Bear Comes Home, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and the memoir I, Wabenzi. He lives in Brooklyn.

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