The passing of the legendary Pete Seeger last month gave me pause as I searched for a title for this book review. For both the Lomax and Seeger families are indelibly linked with the concept of folksong in America and each has made inumerable contributions to our nation's musical heritage. Amidst this legacy I often encounter the term "songcatcher", an idiom regularly associated with the ballad tradition in musicology and one that many folksong practitioners lay claim to. There is even a film bearing this name (which I have never seen). But as a humble archivist, the image that I simply can't escape is that of a scientist with a giant butterfly net ready to take a song back to the lab. So when I read John Szwed's account of Alan Lomax consulting Carl Sagan on a track-list for outer space, I realized that proverbially shooting a banjo at Neptune is an idea that is as uniquely American as any I can think of. Ergo, a whole new twist on "catch and release."
In the marvelous "The Man Who Recorded the World", biographer John Szwed deserves high praise for contextualizing Alan Lomax’s storied and at times controversial career as an activist, archivist, documentarian, entertainer, folklorist, radio personality and writer. Like the mythical minotaur, to which Lomax was once compared by an erudite colleague, much of the man’s lifestory remained cloaked in a legend that would persist for years after he ceased working. Lomax passed in 2002.
Unraveling some 60 years of frenetic AV documentation would be a challenge for many historians, but to assemble a portrait of a renaissance man with chameleon-like qualities, who often baffled and bemused the FBI, is Herculean. Prior to this factual and chronological account, it was exceedingly difficult to appreciate the full range of Alan Lomax's accomplishments given the inherent challenge of discerning the folklore from the folklorist. But Szwed’s affinity for the music and the man resonates throughout this highly accessible introduction to a pioneering force in the preservation of cultural heritage. Thus it should appeal to both casual fans and students alike.
At last, the rambling New Deal funded roadtrips through the backwaters of Depression-era America, which for decades have captured imaginations through tales of prisons, poverty and jook joints, are given a proper framework. Further, the legends of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Mr. Jelly Roll are now united against the backdrop of WWII era America where an energetic young Library of Congress employee who was largely deaf in one ear strove to tell America about itself. It’s also a tale of father and son, husband and wife, father and daughter, friends and lovers, artists and benefactors. And most of all black and white.
Today almost 100 years after Alan Lomax's birth, this timely biography should hopefully re-ignite interest in the Lomax canon of field recordings. Thankfully the book does not attempt to mythologize its subject, revel in gossip or overly rely on interview accounts as is common in many celebrity biographies. One will find it refreshing to observe how basic historical detective work can align to present a compelling depiction of a complex individual.
Among that which is revealed are some clearly life-changing struggles during 1949 in the wake of his father's death and the dawn of the Red Scare. This undoubtedly painful time resulted in Alan fleeing to Europe where he would do his greatest fieldwork as an ex-pat. From there he returns to the US in 1958 (age 43) and receives a shot at redemption at Columbia University where he re-emerges as a song scientist with cantometrics research. In the second half of the book, one may discern that Alan Lomax ultimately moves beyond his father's shadow to finally achieve a greater respect from the academic community. We also learn that he likes rock-n-roll. Given that there is likely no job description for a "songcatcher," ultimately John Szwed succeeds in portraying Alan Lomax as a diligent sonic curator who is permitted to stand behind his immense body of work and see that it is good.