The remarkable life and times of the man who popularized American folk music and created the science of song
Folklorist, archivist, anthropologist, singer, political activist, talent scout, ethnomusicologist, filmmaker, concert and record producer, Alan Lomax is best remembered as the man who introduced folk music to the masses. Lomax began his career making field recordings of rural music for the Library of Congress and by the late 1930s brought his discoveries to radio, including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Burl Ives. By the 1940s he was producing concerts that brought white and black performers together, and in the 1950s he set out to record the whole world.
Lomax was also a controversial figure. When he worked for the U. S. government he was tracked by the FBI, and when he worked in Britain, MI5 continued the surveillance. In his last years he turned to digital media and developed technology that anticipated today's breakthroughs. Featuring a cast of characters including Eleanor Roosevelt, Leadbelly, Carl Sandburg, Carl Sagan, Jelly Roll Morton, Muddy Waters, and Bob Dylan, Szwed's fascinating biography memorably captures Lomax and provides a definitive account of an era as seen through the life of one extraordinary man.
In this busy biography, Columbia music professor Szwed (So What: The Life of Miles Davis) recounts Lomax's six decades of field trips seeking out and recording folk music untainted by commercial jazz and pop influences, especially in the American South, where he discovered blues luminaries Muddy Waters and Lead Belly; his radio shows, concerts, lectures, books, and films; and his impecunious bohemian existence with the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Szwed presents Lomax (1915 2002) as a major intellectual force who championed the cultures of impoverished and racially outcast groups against a homogenizing modernity, and developed wildly ambitious sociopsychological "cantometrics" that theorized a Freudian link between a culture's level of sexual repression and the vowel patterns in its songs. Lomax was an indefatigable promoter of music and ideas, but Szwed's breathless, swirling chronicle of his activities can be fatiguing. One also wishes he had probed more deeply into Lomax's problematic notion of a pure, primitive musical culture sprouting organically from the lives of rural people in isolation from urban entertainment elites.
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A wonderful examination of a rare life that brought us together through sound and world folk recordings, most famous perhaps behind those of the American South, sounds that informed blues and rock.