Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World
By John Szwed
Hardcover, 352 pages
List price: $29.95
The first time I saw Alan Lomax was at a meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, an academic group then too new to have developed its own orthodoxies.
They were still debating the defi nition of music, the meaning of dance, the function of song, all with a sense of wonder and urgency. The founders of the discipline were all there—Charles Seeger, Mantle Hood, Alan Merriam—but the doors were still wide open.
I was a graduate student new to the world of folklorists and ethnomusicologists and eager to connect with them somehow. The big event that night was a concert of African music by the Nigerian drummer Olatunji, who had added to his group some of the members of the Sun Ra Arkestra, and the mixture of the two musics had the scholars puzzled. As the audience fi led out, I saw Lomax talking with two men who I later learned were Colin Turnbull and Weston La Barre, not your everyday anthropologists. I knew it was Lomax despite never having seen a picture of him, because his slightly genteel Texas accent drifted to the back of the room. He was big, though I suppose not as big as he looked, in an ill-fitting blue suit, with his collar and tie askew. Well-dressed enough to be a Bible salesman in Alabama, I thought, but missing the mark of a successful academic. Later, in the high sixties, when I knew him better, it was he who chastised me for my choice of clothing—he told me that government-grants people and highly placed folks of color would not take me seriously. (My one effort at dressing up for something or other amused him, and he said my tan suede jacket and bright tie made me look like a southwestern TV station manager.)
I must have been staring at him that day in the theater, for as he passed me, stepping over rows of seats, he declared as if it were the day’s headline, "Pygmies are a baseline culture," and went on his way. He sounded like some nineteenth century grand theorist speaking from a higher plane, with a scarcely concealed moral program and no sense whatever of then-trendy cultural relativity. Once I had heard him speak at length, I began to wonder what kind of folklorist was this, if that’s what he was, with no particular interest in the text of a song or a tale. It turned out that he was speaking comparatively of other levels of art, of humanity—preverbal levels, where bodies interact in front of a cross-cultural tableau, and where art emerges from deeply encoded but virtually nonconscious behavior.
Later, I worked for Alan on occasion, though never for money, as it was understood that he was always short, and I had a day job. He was infi nitely patient with the novice, answering questions more fully than was required, with tales of this or that epiphany on the shores or in the swamps of this or that community, of sheriffs with bowie knives who threatened to cut his throat if he ever came back to their county. His stories of working with Zora Neale Hurston were rich and full of his admiration for her fearlessness while doing fi eldwork among hoodoo practioners. When I asked him for advice about graduate study, he suggested I drop out and instead do as he had done: seek the company of the very best people in the fi elds that interested me.
Whenever Alan asked me to join him for lunch or dinner, it was always someplace with well-etched character, though sometimes with marginal food. It might be a bar where the bartender was also waiter, cook, and cashier—“like it used to be." Or a tiny Chinese restaurant where he felt free to order something not on the menu. In conversation, Alan could shift instantly from deadly serious or highly focused to mock folksy or laughing at the absurd, his eyes always a clue as to what was coming. When he called me, usually late at night, it was never just to talk, but because he wanted something—a reaction to a new research project, maybe a suggestion of a name of someone who might work with him on it. Though the request was unspoken, I always knew he was asking me if I would do it. And I wondered how many he had called before me.
Sometimes what he had dreamed up could cost great sums of money, or simply be impossible at the moment. One idea was a plan to sell the television networks on a half-hour prime-time program that featured old people being old people— talking about their lives, maybe sharing secrets, making connections to tradition, performing wisdom and maturity, he said, something like that. He spelled out the details of what would be a kind of homespun reality show. When I cautiously suggested that this would be impossible to sell in the high-profi t atmosphere of the media, he pointed to a little vase on the table with a few tired daisies in it and said, “This is not much of a vase, and the fl owers aren’t much. But if you knew that you could count on finding this vase and those fl owers on the table every night for years to come, wouldn’t that be something?” He could be hard to argue with.
His enthusiasm was boundless and seemed to grow with age. His drive to celebrate life in all its diversity and to see, taste, and hear everything was astonishing. If you mentioned the blues, he could tell you that Son House was the greatest folk musician in the Western world. Tell him that you were on the way to Trinidad, and he’d say that a man named Nassus Moses who played a one-string fiddle and lived in a hut in the suburbs of Port of Spain was the greatest folk musician in the Western world. And in one sense or another, they always were the greatest at something or other.
One night he suggested that several of us go to the Village Gate in New York to see Professor Longhair. It was a bit surprising to hear him praising the brilliance of New Orleans’s sainted rhythm and blues pianist, since we weren’t aware that he kept up with that sort of thing, but we happily followed him to the club. Since we were late, we squeezed our way in and found seats wherever we could. When ’Fess opened his fi rst set with “Jambalaya,” Longhair’s rolling, “blues rumba”–flavored revision of Hank Williams’s revision of Cajun music, backed by a Crescent City band of beboppers and funksters, I expected a post-gig lecture from Alan about taking creolization too far. But then I felt something brush by my leg, and when I looked down there was Alan crawling on the floor toward the bandstand so as to stay out of people’s vision. When he reached the stage he knelt there, his hands on the edge of the stage like a supplicant Kilroy, until the set was over. As he came back to our table, he cried out over the crowd, “Greatest folk musician in the Western world,” then followed it up with a letter to the Village Voice spelling out the New Orleans piano lineage, how Longhair was the roots of Fats Domino’s style, and thus basic to the history of rock and roll, if not the world.
To those who only knew Alan’s work from his songbooks he seemed to be the pied piper of the folk, a kindly guide for a nostalgic return trip to simpler times. But he might have thought of himself as spokesperson for the Other America, the common people, the forgotten and excluded, the ethnic, those who always come to life in troubled times—in the Great Depression, in the rising tide toward World War II, during the postwar anti-Communist hysteria, and inside the chaos of the era of civil rights and counterculturalism—those who could evoke deep fears of their resentment and unpredictability. At such times folk songs seemed not so much charming souvenirs as ominous and threatening portents.
Despite having spent most of his life in New York, he never quite seemed to fit the city. He took up too much space, assumed too much, and laughed too easily for a New Yorker. But neither did he seem to fi t Texas either. We once shared chili and beer in an El Paso dive, where his beard and sideburns were the event of the evening. Yet he never seemed uncomfortable, for he moved with an absolute assuredness of who he was and where he was at the moment. In that, he was a true bohemian, not a New Yorker or a Texan. But it seems odd to call Lomax a bohemian. His father had aspired to being a hobo, wandering the countryside, but bohemian was something else; it meant belonging nowhere or everywhere. Much of Alan’s life in the city was spent in Greenwich Village, among its artists and his dissident neighbors. Most Village residents, after all, came from somewhere else, some small town in the hinterlands, and most of them were happy to say that they had come from nowhere, never mentioning their family and their life before the city. But Alan never denied that he was from Texas or tried to disguise his accent. In his youth he often lived in a state of resistance to his father, but he never rejected him publicly, and in fact often quoted him and identified with his goals. To many in New York, especially in the 1930s and 1940s, a Texan was all the bad things they had left behind somewhere on the other side of the Hudson River—insularity, bigotry, churlishness, and various hatreds and philistinisms. But Lomax would not let them get away with it, and insisted that he be seen as an individual.
I once asked him why he stayed in New York, and he said he could get done in the city in one day what it would take a month to do somewhere else. And before the age of the computer and cell phone, who could deny it? But that was not the whole story—bohemian or not, he had lived in New York longer than anywhere else.
Alan was intense, passionate, in and out of love, dependent on others, but often resistant to them when they got too close. He could get by on little money, live an unsettled life, drift out of his times at one moment, but then come back again, deeply involved. He worked like a dog, driving himself until he fell asleep—in the middle of a recording session, in the waiting room of an offi ce—but only for moments, as life to him was too long not to fi ll the time with curiosity. He took on more than was humanly possible, and paid for it in frustration over his own incomplete projects. His was a life not easy to live.