Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Alan Lomax – The Man Who Recorded the World by John Szwed

Alan Lomax’s work recording American songs and culture for the Library of Congress is legendary and this book introduces you to his life and background, as well as his work. His father, John Lomax, was the man initially responsible for field recordings around the country and when Alan joined him, despite their political differences, they found common ground. The men traveled the country, seeking out traditional songs in prisons (where they met, befriended and, per some, helped to parole Lead Belly), plantations and homes. Both men were prone to illness and each traveled separately as well as together and carried on as best they could when stricken.

Alan expanded on his father’s work and made an expedition to Haiti – one of the first scholarly explorations of the country – and upon returning to the States, began working at the Library of Congress, transcribing songs and fielding requests. He helped to discover, promote and record Woody Guthrie, among others, and worked with folk giants such as Pete Seeger. Feeling the need to expand, he went to Europe and recorded throughout the continent. He spent eight years there, compiling albums from different regions and became a radio personality in England, where he championed skiffle and early rock’n’roll (understanding its relation to black American music).

Returning to America, he remained under FBI surveillance for years as a suspected communist, but he managed to avoid being blacklisted and worked for and with the government for most of his life. While living and working in NYC, even Dylan is drawn into Lomax's circle, since his lover, Suze Rotolo, had a brother that was Alan's assistant. Dylan met and heard many of his greatest influences right in Alan's apartment.

Lomax went far beyond simply collecting folk songs to creating theories on "song families" related to geography and other factors - theories that were too scientific for musicologists and too folky for the academics - and did research on body language, speech styling, linguistics and more in relation to music - an approach that no one had used previously and has yet to be fully realized. One of my favorite quotes from the book refers to his work with "signal redundancy" - gestures and facial expressions that are cultural and learned: "Speech using the amount of redundancy found in music can only be found in that of children, the mad, or lovers".

Another fascinating aspect is something that I had never considered due to my age: before recording techniques became common, songs were only able to be shared by means of transcriptions, usually based on Western methods. Thus, intricacies in the songs were lost and, of course, anything that fell outside of Western musical styles (such as the use of different scales) could not be accurately transcribed. He tried to get people to think outside of these tradition methods but had little success.

Alan’s personal, romantic and medical lives are all intertwined with his work and the stories flesh out a brilliant and flawed human who helped to change the course of musical history in our world. He passed away before he was able to finish much of his work – he always had multiple new projects that he was entertaining – so hopefully others will pick up where he left off. A very enjoyable read about a multi faceted man who continued to try to expand the way we thought about music and culture throughout his entire life.