Swans Commentary » swans.com September 26, 2011  



Alan Lomax: An Ear For Folk


by Peter Byrne





Last Saturday night, I got married,
me and my wife settled down
Now me and my wife are parted,
I'm gonna take another stroll downtown

—Lead Belly, Good Night Irene


(Swans - September 26, 2011)   Who was Alan Lomax? The question wouldn't have been asked by anyone who like Lomax came out of the 1930s and could carry a tune. More than anyone else he brought black American music, along with popular, non-commercialized music generally, on to the national stage. But he did not create that music. For all his erudition, astonishing feats of recording in the field and endless promotion, he was only a white middleman. That's why he slips our collective memory. The era of white fixers and intermediaries, some of them stalwart "progressives," ended in the 1960s.

An emblematic scene took place in a south-side Chicago motel in 1961. The novelist Nelson Algren was showing the city to Madeleine Gobeil, a young French-Canadian who had asked him for help in her research on his one-time lover Simone de Beauvoir. Algren's routine as a cicerone had always been to wow visitors with the city's seamy and gentility-challenged side. The adventurous Madeleine relished the idea, always momentous for white people, of going to the black south side. She was also keen on celebrities, and Algren arranged a meeting with James Baldwin, who had come to town on a visit.

Algren said he liked Baldwin's fiery non-fiction. The corollary was that he disliked Baldwin's novels whose soul-searching homosexuals offended his macho self-image. He came to the meeting with a used-up 1930s past in tow, a man with his heart on his left sleeve who was fixated on an underclass that he failed to notice had morphed since Tobacco Road. Like other white progressives he thought himself a great friend of blacks. But he hadn't kept up with them. To the tough militants who gathered around Baldwin, his friendship seemed patronizing. One of them picked up Algren's latest book, brought along as a gift, pointed to his photo on the back, and said, "That man's dead."

Words became heated. Baldwin's people wouldn't hear disparagement of Malcolm X. But Algren had no time for black nationalism or the idea that he as a white American shared responsibility for the predicament of American blacks. He insisted he was colorblind. More than angry, he was astonished. Hadn't he encouraged Richard Wright in their salad days? In a rejoinder he called one of the young men "boy." Afterward Algren ridiculed Baldwin's violent reaction to the word, but actually it confirmed Algren as a relic of another time. Baldwin saw Algren out with a sneer calling him "an honorable, well-meaning white square."

Bob Dylan was right just then to sing The Times They Are a-Changin'. Alan Lomax's lifelong contact with Afro-Americans had been prodigiously productive. At times he seemed like a fly on the wall of their segregated America. But he was caught in the same time warp as Algren. At his death in 2002, the obituaries routinely sealed his tomb and saw Lomax off into history. Dylan's disingenuous sendoff calling Lomax the "missionary of folklore" had a double edge. Missionaries in their altruistic guise are manipulating agents of foreign power. The thumbs down on Lomax was incapsulated in the heading of a piece in Counterpunch, July 21, 2002: "Mr. Big Stuff, Alan Lomax: Great White Hunter or Thief, Plagiarist and Bigot?"

Alan's father John was a Texan who described his family as "the upper crust of po' white trash." A teacher, John's interest in cowboy ballads brought him friends among Harvard folklorists. Alan spent a year at Harvard but had to withdraw, sick, short of money, and in trouble for supporting radical causes. The depression had hit the family hard. John relied on giving lectures about material he collected in the field.

In the summer of 1932 Alan joined his father on a collecting tour. It was the beginning of their close collaboration that would never be free of tension. John was old-school southern, frugal, conservative, and demanding high standards -- his standards -- of his son. Alan, a boy socialist and less rigid in temperament, would nevertheless spend a good part of his life unable to stand up to his father. From this point on, in his late teens, he would follow John's lead and be a recorder of folklore.

John Lomax had established a loose connection with the Library of Congress. Father and son set off with a windup office Ediphone that made approximate recordings on cylinders. In no time they had to add a 315-pound disc-cutting recorder that worked from two 75-pound batteries requiring a portable generator. All this went with camping gear into the back of their Model A Ford. They would travel Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky recording black music where they found it. This would be an On the Road intent on the roadside, not on what happened inside the car. They often stopped at prisons. In the penitentiary at Angola in Louisiana they met Huddie Ledbetter, the charismatic "King of the Twelve-String Guitar," and better known as Lead Belly. He was serving time for violent crime.

Bidding the Lomaxes goodbye, Lead Belly told them to get him out and he would travel with them as chauffeur and servant. Here began the Lomax-Leadbelly intimacy that would end in imbroglio and furnish another emblematic anecdote of race in America pre-1960s. They made an odd threesome. Up front strode the southern gentleman with his underside of "po' white" prejudice. Then came his liberal, semi-rebellious son tinged with east-coast radicalism. Trailing behind, but sometimes leap-frogging both of them, alternately slouching or prancing, was Huddie Ledbetter, musical genius and veteran of chain gangs. His eyes were on a better life.

The Lomaxes returned to Angola in 1934. They recorded a song in which Lead Belly asked the governor for his freedom and left a copy with the prison secretary before driving on. This laid the groundwork of the legend that they had obtained his release. It was a misunderstanding that they never cared to correct. Lead Belly was in fact released a month after their visit, but simply because he had served a sufficient part of his sentence.

Once free, Lead Belly couldn't find a job and again asked John Lomax to employ him. John took him on as his field assistant and driver. The two of them set out on a collecting trip with many prison stops. Lead Belly, though uneasy once more inside high walls, was a great help as a knowledgeable ex-con who could get the inmates singing. But neither man was happy on the trip. John watched 44-year-old Lead Belly as if he were a wayward teenager. They had one spat after another. Lead Belly missed his friends and especially his girlfriend.

All the same, when John was booked to lecture and sing for the Modern Language Society in Philadelphia, Lead Belly went along. He got into the act and was a huge success, deftly passing the hat afterwards. In another appearance at Bryn Mawr College the dean objected to Lead Belly's antics. John was also having doubts. Contradictions were sprouting for the Lomaxes. John saw himself as a serious scholar, but earned his living by playing the cowboy on the lecture circuit. Worse, as an entertainer he was being eclipsed on stage by Lead Belly, the human raw material he had collected. This prefigured young Alan's growing preoccupation that would be lifelong. He was obsessed with keeping folk art pure, free of commercialization, which in the circumstances also meant free of development.

Such were not Lead Belly's worries, which centered on survival. A Philadelphia newspaper had come up with the headline, "Two Time Dixie Murderer Sings Way to Freedom." This enticed Greenwich Village intellectuals and they invited Lead Belly along with the Lomaxes to a party. Afterwards he slipped his leash and spent a wild night in Harlem. The next morning he was in the papers. The Brooklyn Eagle called him "a virtuoso of knife and guitar"; The Herald Tribune said he was "here to do a few tunes between homicides."

The notoriety dismayed John, who feared his factotum had become an "entertainer." Lead Belly, however, saw no reason not to loosen the folklore straitjacket and mix in some jazz and pop. As usual John tempered his scholarly idealism with business smarts. He signed Lead Belly to a five-year contract with himself as "exclusive manager, personal representative and advisor." Profits were to be split three ways between Lead Belly and the two Lomaxes. In no time John signed a contract with a publisher for a book on Lead Belly's life and songs. Though this meant giving up the copyright to his songs, Lead Belly agreed, accepting $250.

Alan, who never stopped recording Lead Belly, then set to work with him on the book. Their relationship was a strange one. Alan, in good liberal fashion, wanted to be Lead Belly's friend. When Alan caught gonorrhea, he feared to tell his father but heard Lead Belly's advice on the healing power of turpentine. For Lead Belly, however, Alan remained "Little Boss" while John was "Big Boss." Was he thinking of Alan's thralldom to his father or simply making a distinction between the plantation owner and an ineffectual do-gooder? There was no doubt of Alan's racial benevolence. But, again in good liberal fashion, he never refused his cut.

John decided that New York City and the Harlem Y.M.C.A. was a dangerous perch for Lead Belly. The ill-matched threesome moved to a friend's house in temptation-free Wilton, Connecticut. Alan worked intensely with Lead Belly polishing his stage persona. If, for instance, he was going to sing a drug song like Take A Whiff On Me, the Lomaxes thought the audience would need an emollient word or two first. Alan also recorded more of Lead Belly's talk and songs as he sketched out the book.

The Wilton idyll soon wilted. Alan would commute to Greenwich Village. Lead Belly found the unrelieved white world dull and took to wandering off. John, inspired by Booker T. Washington, tried to impose a self-improvement plan on his protégé. In the end he was reduced to bringing Lead Belly's girlfriend Martha to Wilton and the couple took on the household chores. A quick marriage had to be arranged to avoid trouble over the Mann Act. With John giving the bride away and Alan as best man, the Lomaxes still called the shots.

They continued to do so, signing off as authors of the Lead Belly book that appeared in November 1936. (The title Negro Sinful Songs was mercifully dropped in favor of Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly.) Alan added a character study of Lead Belly and John embroidered on his experiences with the singer. The book was not a commercial success.

Lead Belly's activities multiplied but none of them paid much. He made a few commercial recordings. He appeared in a March of Time radio show and newsreel. The truth was that a larger public wasn't ready for Lead Belly. He kept working with John on the college circuit and doing banquets and smokers although the two men weren't getting along. The taboo on playing in black bars angered him, and he wanted Martha along on the trips. He also wanted her, not John, to hold his earnings.

Money, not surprisingly, was the crux. Lead Belly's post-chain gang education had progressed. He couldn't square his notoriety with his lack of income and had begun to consult lawyers. Before a performance in Rochester he insisted John pay him on the spot. This awoke an atavistic fear in the southern gentleman, and he asked a judge to have a detective relieve Lead Belly of his knife. It was the end of the partnership, and Lead Belly and Martha were sent back home to the south.

Lawrence Gellert, in 1934, accused John in the New Masses of exploiting Lead Belly. (Richard Wright would make the same charge in the Daily Worker in 1937.) But a careful examination of the numbers shows that all three were in fact exploited by the system that left creative work unprotected. While the Lomaxes made no money to speak of out of Lead Belly they did gain renown. But then so did Lead Belly become known through their activity, which though less creative than his was nevertheless tireless. What can be decried is the manner in which they dealt with Lead Belly.

Patronizing would be an extreme understatement for John's control-freakiness. At times he seemed to be dealing with a domestic animal. Alan's different brand of manipulation was all smiles. He sweat sympathy. However, as the future would show, a constant in Alan's lifetime of accomplishment and discovery was his overbearing presence. He would never let the people he recorded alone to bask in the limelight. It's a temptation to be flippant and conclude that, constrained to silence while recording others, Alan made up for it afterward. His commentaries can get such a chokehold on a text as to drive the speaker off the page. His famous recording of Jelly Roll Morton telling his life story is a case in point. (Lomax, Alan: Mister Jelly Roll: the Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and "Inventor of Jazz" University of California Press, 2001, ISBN:9780520225305, 367 pages.)

John Szwed, a friend of Alan Lomax, has written a new life that's exhaustive and admiring: The Man Who Recorded The World, A Biography of Alan Lomax, Viking Penguin, 2010, ISBN:9781101190340, 438 pages. Szwed guides us year by year through an existence crammed with work and movement. Politics are not his main concern, but it's disappointing that in such a detailed life story we never learn if Lomax was connected to the US Communist Party, but only that membership was never proven. Lomax himself can be excused in the 1950s for keeping mum on his affiliations, but the reader expects more illumination a half century later. His FBI file had 800 pages and agents were still dogging him, Keystone Cop fashion, as late as 1979.

Szwed does tell us that in June 1950 Lomax's name with 150 others was added to the original Hollywood blacklist. Unnerved, he sailed for Europe on September 24. Once there he made a point of never admitting that he had been forced to leave his country. Footloose in Europe, he worked more intensely than ever. Claude Lévi-Strauss welcomed him to Paris, qualifying him a "genius," but Lomax would make the UK his base. The pattern of his work was the same as in his teenage years. He alternated as an entertainer (now radio and TV) and as a serious researcher in the field (now Spain, Italy, Great Britain, and Ireland). Exile had broadened his views and he began to speculate on the underlying structure to be found in the performance of all folklore worldwide.

Returning from abroad in 1958, Lomax kept up his dizzying pace. It makes us sympathize with Szwed and understand why he built his biography on a multitude of detail. How else to tie down his restless, tireless subject? Recently, tramping around the heel of Italy, I discovered a book issued by a tiny, local publisher: Alan Lomax In Salento, Calimera, Edizioni Kurumuny, 2006, ISBN:8890180579, 104 pages. The book is a collection of photographs Lomax took in this out-of-the-way place in 1954. He had been intrigued by the songs people sang in a language derived from Medieval Greek. The photos show workers singing while they string tobacco leaves or break stone for field walls. We are a long way from Texas chain gangs, but Alan Lomax had a mind ample enough to make the connection.

Me and my wife, we pick a bail of cotton.
Me and my wife, we pick a bail a day.
Jump down, turn around, pick a bail of cotton.
Jump down, turn around, pick a bail a day.

—Lead Belly Pick a Bail of Cotton


To e-mail this article


· · · · · ·


If you find Peter Byrne's work valuable, please consider helping us

· · · · · ·



Feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Peter Byrne 2011. All rights reserved.


Have your say

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.


About the Author

Peter Byrne on Swans -- with bio.   (back)


· · · · · ·


Internal Resources

Short Stories

Arts & Culture

Book Reviews

Patterns which Connect

Film Reviews

· · · · · ·


This edition's other articles

Check the front page, where all current articles are listed.



Check our past editions, where the past remains very present.

· · · · · ·


[About]-[Past Issues]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Copyright]



Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art17/pbyrne162.html
Published September 26, 2011