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Alan Lomax 1915-2002
July 20, 2002 11:48 AM   Subscribe

Alan Lomax, the legendary collector of folk music who was the first to record towering figures like Leadbelly, Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie, died yesterday at a nursing home in Sarasota, Fla. He was 87. Mr. Lomax was a musicologist, author, disc jockey, singer, photographer, talent scout, filmmaker, concert and recording producer and television host. He did whatever was necessary to preserve traditional music and take it to a wider audience. (NY Times- Registraion Required) And... Additionally... And this. Also...
posted by y2karl (26 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
am I crazy? absolutely insane? utterly loopy? or is alan lomax also the man in daniel quinn's ishmael?

I am going to go rub my chest in butter now.
posted by Espoo2 at 12:09 PM on July 20, 2002


He did some fantastic work - audiences today might know him best as the field recorder who captured inmate James Carter in 1959 singing the chain-gang song Po' Lazarus - the recording which was featured on the soundtrack to the film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou".
posted by scribblative at 12:12 PM on July 20, 2002


I gotta say it: Without Alan, not only would there would be no Leadbelly, no Big Bill Broonzy, no Woody Guthrie, there would also be no Dylan, no Keith Richards - in other words, our lives would truly SUCK. We were lucky to have him. Rest in peace, baby.
posted by lilboo at 12:56 PM on July 20, 2002


Alan's father, John (and his wife), started the family tradition and made a huge collection of field recordings in 1939 for the Library of Congress that are available online.
posted by euphorb at 2:26 PM on July 20, 2002


Without Alan Lomax, we'd have no Odetta, and no '60s folk revival ... and almost no memory of the American musical past before the advent of electronic recordings.
posted by sheauga at 3:27 PM on July 20, 2002


Well, now, don't forget Harry Smith...
posted by y2karl at 4:40 PM on July 20, 2002


I once worked for Dr. Laura Bolton, an "ethnomusicologist" who spent fifty years travelling the world in search of music, much of which she recorded on reel-to-reel tape (early on, on really big and heavy aluminum records.)
Ironically, I think her collection just mostly sits idle, either at Columbia or Arizona State (the link is U of A). Tragic, in that what she recorded may be the only surviving record to dozens of peoples and cultures destroyed in the 20th Century.
Even visiting her home was a trip. Pictures of her with a half-dozen US Presidents, Stalin, Mao, the Dalai Lama, Hallie Selassie, even Will Rodgers.
One heck of a lady.
posted by kablam at 5:00 PM on July 20, 2002


For those who don't know: Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain was inspired by Alan Lomax field recordings. That's long seemed incredible to me. That detail, and others regarding the impossibly far-reaching Lomax influence, are discussed here.
posted by raysmj at 6:56 PM on July 20, 2002


Rest in peace, Alan, and thanks for thinking ahead. Say hi to Woody.
posted by billder at 9:46 PM on July 20, 2002


euphorb: thanks for that link!

I am a great fan of Alan Lomax and this morning and it was my pleasure to explain to my son this morning why he was so great, after we heard his interview with terry gross (which does not seem available online).
posted by bison at 10:19 PM on July 20, 2002


Does anyone know how the dispute with Moby (over the royalties for the Lomax recordings he used on Play) turned out?
posted by Grangousier at 5:39 AM on July 21, 2002


This column by rock critic Dave Marsh was posted to the Pho list, but doesn't seem to be anywhere on the Web. I'm reposting it here, since nobody else here has questioned Lomax' credibility.
MR. BIG STUFF

Seeing Alan Lomax's obituary on the front page of the New York Times irked the hell out of me. Harry Smith syndrome all over again-the Great White "Discoverer" as the axis of cultural genesis. Lomax, wrote Jon Pareles, "advocated what he called 'cultural equity: the right of every culture to have equal time on the air and equal time in the classroom.'"

He did?

In 1993, when Lomax published The Land Where the Blues Began, his memoir of blues research in the deep South, Peter Bochan invited him to do a WBAI interview. Bochan ventured to Lomax that Elvis Presley stood as a great product of the Southern folk cultures. Lomax firmly denied this, and said that Bochan couldn't even know that Presley had listened as a boy to Sister Rosetta Tharpe's gospel radio show because "You weren't there." He said this so persistently and adamantly-with all the stupid "folklorist" purism that ruined the folk music revival-that Bochan went home and intercut Lomax's prissy voice and dumb assertions with excerpts from Beavis and Butthead. It aired that way.

Even sticking to the blues, Lomax cut a dubious figure. As a veteran blues observer wrote me, "Don't get too caught up in grieving for Alan Lomax. For every fine musical contribution that he made, there was an evil venal manipulation of copyright, publishing and ownership of the collected material."

The most notorious concerns "Goodnight Irene." Lomax and his father recorded Leadbelly's song first, so when the song needed to be formally copyrighted because the Weavers were about to have a huge hit with it, representatives of the Ledbetter family approached him. Lomax agreed that this copyright should be established. He adamantly refused to take his name off the song, or to surrender income from it, even though Leadbelly's family was impoverished in the wake of his death two years earlier.

Lomax believed folk culture needed guidance from superior beings like himself. Lomax told Bochan what he believed; nothing in poor people's culture truly happened unless someone like him documented it. He hated rock'n'roll-down to instigating the assault against Bob Dylan's sound system at Newport in '65-because it had no need of mediation by experts like himself.

The nature of the expert mattered, too. Lomax's obit made the front page mainly because he "discovered" Son House and Muddy Waters. But in Can't Be Satisfied, his new Muddy Waters biography, Gordon shows that Lomax's discoveries weren't the serendipitous events the great white hunter portrayed. Lomax was led to House and then Waters by the great Negro scholar, John Work III of Fisk University. Gordon even shows Lomax plagiarizing Work, and not on a minor point. (See page 51) In his book, Lomax offers precisely one sentence about Work. He eliminated Work from his second Mississippi trip. He also burned Muddy Waters for the $20 he promised for making the records.

Maybe the fact that Lomax served as a folk music "missionary" (to use Bob Dylan's term) offsets all this. Provided that it doesn't turn out that Lomax used and discarded ethnic workers worldwide the way he used Work, I guess there's a case to be made. But I do hope that people understand that when Pareles says that "Mr. Lomax wasn't interested in simply discovering stars," part of the meaning is that he didn't want them to get in the way of his self-importance.

Sometime soon, we need to figure out why it is that, when it comes to cultures like those of Mississippi black people, we celebrate the milkman more than the milk. Meanwhile, every sentence that will be uttered about Lomax this week-including these-would be better used to describe the great musicians he recorded in the U.S., the Bahamas, and elsewhere. Reading Gordon's book serves as a good corrective.
posted by waxpancake at 1:18 PM on July 21, 2002 [1 favorite]


waxpancake, I said the some of the same things Dave Marsh says about Alan Lomax about Harry Smith (in this thread, and y2karl yelled at me. Is that fair?
posted by Faze at 4:42 PM on July 21, 2002


Good post wax.

As you said, Lomax almost completely erased Professor Work's contributions. It was John Works who saw the need to record the blues artists of Mississippi, not Lomax. He turned to Lomax to help finance the trip. In turn, Lomax rarely credited anyone who helped him reach his achievements.

Also, as you said, Lomax ingored Muddy's letters regarding the twenty dollars for months.

As it says in 'Can't be Satisfied':

"Lomax recorded the blues culture, but did not absorb the spirit of cooperation that made the culture thrive."

I gotta say it: Without Alan, not only would there would be no Leadbelly, no Big Bill Broonzy, no Woody Guthrie, there would also be no Dylan, no Keith Richards - in other words, our lives would truly SUCK.

That's simply not true. Muddy Waters was headed to Chicago regardless. The Rolling Stones are around because of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, etc, not because of Lomax.

I'm not saying that Lomax's contributions should be ignored. We just have to remember that sometimes we have to dig a little to get the whole picture.
posted by justgary at 5:19 PM on July 21, 2002


What kind of "spirit of cooperation" is Gordon talking about, exactly? He mentions toward the end of his book that Muddy didn't pay his band much to speak of, even when doing better. Robert Gordon doesn't keep his own name off the front cover of his book, and the endless, David Foster Wallace-style footnotes and whatnot seem to be rather pretentious, a way of making his book look academic and "serious," thus garnering Gordon more respect in certain literary and music criticism circles. The thing is, though, that he doesn't delve into what he's talking about with the "spirit of cooperation" bit, consequently proving that he's not an academic but a guy spouting off what just happens to be his opinion.

Certainly the blues was the music of a culture, and not any particular individual or group of them, but if you don't think there was hot competition, even in the Delta of decades past, you're not the worldly sort of person that all the best blues singers were or have been. Instead, you're being a romantic. Lomax may have done something wrong here, and Gordon has what appears to be some fairly strong evidence, but I don't totally trust him because of his holier-than-thou crap, which showed up before in It Came From Memphis. In that book, he discusses his telling a PBS documentary that he had to pay a bluesman to have him play for PBS. Who decided this? Gordon, white hero, better of course than white heroes of the recent past, such as Lomax.

It might do everyone a little good to be at least a little humble and - like, oh, Robert Johnson - remember that the capacity for wrongdoing and avarice, etc., is in us all. This doesn't mean letting people off the hook, it just means declining to speak as an anointed one.
posted by raysmj at 5:43 PM on July 21, 2002


Ok, I take it all back, the slithery Alan Lomax was a walking piece of putrid pond scum, who would rip off his own mother, if it helped him make the billions of dollars he had in an off-shore bank account, securing a standing invitation to the Playboy mansion, where his celebrity allowed him to frolic with Hef and the Bunnies on the weekends, when he wasn't sipping cocktails poolside at the Tupelo Ritz-Carleton.

I'm sure their were plenty of other more well intentioned, hell, even saintly archivists out there, waiting in the wings, toiling away, silently, selflessly. Dime a dozen.

I'm sure that the impact of his recordings are negligible anyway. Let's burn 'em.
posted by lilboo at 8:22 PM on July 21, 2002


I said the some of the same things Dave Marsh says about Alan Lomax about Harry Smith...

Um, like...

Really, in every respect except that of having preserved and presented this great, great music, Smith was a failure. A kind of dirty, drunk California beatnik who stumbled around and played at different things, and just happened to luck into this one precious vein of art.

(Not that all the songs are profound. Smith was not much of an editor, and the collection could have been significantly pruned. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the inclusion of so much banal and repetitive material suggests that Smith didn't really have all that great taste. In fact, he may have had no taste whatsoever, being nothing more than a second-rate collage artist who happened to stumble upon a trunkful of great clippings.)

Let's face it, Smith knew he had a cultural gold mine, and being an egotist, like all artists, he wanted to slather his name on it for a cheap kind of immortality.

--Harry Smith was a total fraud and drunken faliure and the Anthology really really sucked? Such a reasoned argument!
posted by y2karl at 9:38 PM on July 21, 2002


Truth be told, Lomax is fair game for taking the copyrights & his part in the creation of folk music as concept--After all, this approach to folk/traditional music where The People are more important than the people is well over a century old and still thriving. Lomax was firmly of that mind-set. But, then again, Gordon rather sounds like Stephen Calt. From here are some quotes from his biography of Skip James, I'd Rather Be The Devil...

STEPHEN CALT ON:

SON HOUSE: "...a hapless derelict..." pg 300
JAMES MCKUNE: "...a forlorn, irrelevant figure....a semi-derelict...." pg 217
AL WILSON: "...a high school nerd..." pg 269
COLLEGE BLUES FANS: " ...strange misfits...commited suicide..." pg 260
DICK WATERMAN: "...virtually a mental case..." pg 299
NICK PERLS: "...petulant and abrasive." pg 299
MABEL JAMES: "...the sort of woman to plunge an icepick into a Delta Sharecropper, leave the body in a plantation ditch..." pg 294
REV. E.D. JAMES: "...a man of primitive anger." pg 166
ROBERT PETE WILLIAMS: "...a caricature of a pimp." pg 267
ANNIE MCDOWELL: "...had a pop-eyed deranged look..." pg 268
FRED MCDOWELL: "... musical piety did not blend well with his purple shirt." pg 268
JOHN FAHEY: " ...avariciously attached [himself] to blues singers.." pg 268
BANANA ED DENSON: "...knew nothing about blues music...a hanger-on..." pg 278
TACOMA RECORDS: "...two -bit label...inept ambitious schemers..." pg 281

This bitter-to-the-point-of-slander exposing of the feet of clay du jour seems to be a bit of a cottage industry in blues circles... I think raysmj hit it on the head: This doesn't mean letting people off the hook, it just means declining to speak as an anointed one. We all have our opinions but all the same: Amen.
posted by y2karl at 10:18 PM on July 21, 2002 [1 favorite]


The thing is, though, that he doesn't delve into what he's talking about with the "spirit of cooperation" bit, consequently proving that he's not an academic but a guy spouting off what just happens to be his opinion.

Gordan should have given examples. Not including them was a mistake, however, saying it proves he's 'a guy spouting off his opinion' is a bit of an overstatement.

What kind of "spirit of cooperation" is Gordon talking about, exactly?

During Muddy's interview, he's quick to give credit to those he learned from and admired, even admitting that one song was taken from Robert Johnson. Even today, Eric Clapton, regardless of what you may think of his music, is quick to give credit to those before him. Years later Lomax still seemed unable to give credit where due.

"He mentions toward the end of his book that Muddy didn't pay his band much to speak of, even when doing better."

If you're comparing this to Lomax not paying Muddy his 20 dollars, you're talking about apples and oranges. I'm not going to go too deep into this but Muddy's, coming from nothing, refusal to pay his band better cannot be compared to Lomax, in his position, not sending the 20 bucks. (kind of relates to people living during the depression being very thrifty even when times were better) And no one forced anyone to play for Muddy's band, but it was a good way to make a name for yourself, despite what you got paid.

Certainly the blues was the music of a culture, and not any particular individual or group of them, but if you don't think there was hot competition, even in the Delta of decades past, you're not the worldly sort of person that all the best blues singers were or have been.

Of course there was competition. But as I said before, most blues artists have had little problem crediting others. Lomax had trouble with this concept even years after any competition should have vanished.

By basic point was that when I listen to Muddy Waters I am amazed by his talent and admire what he had to overcome. I don't thank Lomax for 'discovering' him. THAT would be the 'romatic' view, and a disservice to Muddy.

Ok, I take it all back, the slithery Alan Lomax was a walking piece of putrid pond scum, who would rip off his own mother, if it helped him make the billions of dollars he had in an off-shore bank account, securing a standing invitation to the Playboy mansion, where his celebrity allowed him to frolic with Hef and the Bunnies on the weekends, when he wasn't sipping cocktails poolside at the Tupelo Ritz-Carleton.

I'm sure that the impact of his recordings are negligible anyway. Let's burn 'em.

Your words. Nothing said here comes near to what you said. There is a middle ground here. Lomax was not the devil, and deserves credit. He simply wasn't the person described at the beginning of this thread. Who is?

This doesn't mean letting people off the hook, it just means declining to speak as an anointed one. We all have our opinions but all the same: Amen.

I agree. But there is nothing wrong with searching for the truth, which is more often than not near the middle. There is nothing wrong with hearing both sides of a story.

The exclusion of John Work's contributions, including having the original idea of recording the music, is not opinion. It's a fact that should not be ignored, and has nothing to do with any 'bitterness'.
posted by justgary at 12:47 AM on July 22, 2002


Your words. Nothing said here comes near to what you said. There is a middle ground here. Lomax was not the devil, and deserves credit. He simply wasn't the person described at the beginning of this thread. Who is?

I know, I was exaggerating to make a point. Those statements at the front, much like the obit, were simply a tribute. Yet here those sentiments are under attack. A good reason not to invite any metafiltarians to your funeral. Your mother really shouldn't be subjected to the subsequent critique of the eulogy.
posted by lilboo at 5:45 AM on July 22, 2002


The exclusion of John Work's contributions, including having the original idea of recording the music, is not opinion. It's a fact that should not be ignored, and has nothing to do with any 'bitterness'.

And a good thing to have brought up. As a listener wrote to me last night--

I have heard some unflattering things about Mr. Lomax too. I mean, he had Huddie Ledbetter as his chauffeur, and he made him wear Prison clothes onstage...what more do you have to say, really? But, of course, flawed people always tend to be the ones who accomplish great things (after all, Leadbelly WAS a murderer). Or maybe everyone is flawed. That would explain a lot of things...

Of course, I would tend to agree with him here...

...But Harry Smith--who can say anything bad about him? He was clearly a genius, and he never sold out. You can't fault him. Some people are beyond reproach. It's depressing for me to think about him, because he used at least 5000% more of his brain than I do. I really love pre-war music, but I can't understand it like he understood it. I think I understand it better than Greil Marcus though.

Exvept to make any claims or comparisons re Greil Marcus, perhaps... As to Harry Smith, opinions aside, screwing the people who made the music in the Anthology he created is simply not a charge that can be leveled against him. Apples and oranges, Lomax and Smith.
posted by y2karl at 7:14 AM on July 22, 2002


justgary: So people who grew up poor or during the Depression are excused for being chintzy with employees? I could point you to people who'd bite your head off about that, although two of them I know are deceased now. In any case, it's a little something I could see as a small thing in the larger Muddy context there, but you're making excuses. Being chintzy, especially with those below, is not something that would happen in a world that's defined by its "spirit of cooperation." (And what about, say, someone calling himself Sonny Boy Williamson, even when there was already a famous Sonny Boy Williamson? He didn't give credit where credit was due? Oh my.) If giving credit has become a traditional thing over time, then say so, but you don't make such a statement in a supposedly scholarly work, in the midst of presenting a highly negative portrait of a major figure in the field of blues and folk recording and scholarship, even if said negativity is deserved.

(And I meant to say earlier that Gordon placed himself in the role of saintly appointed agent and earthly protector of bluesmen in dealing with a frickin' PBS documentary director. He demanded that the director pay before talking to a blues singer, contrary to all basic rules of American journalism. That was obnoxious. Yeah, bet PBS was going to make a bundle off a blues documentary. For performance, they probably should pay, but the decision shouldn't be left to individuals like Gordon, and they most certainly shouldn't be taking it upon themselves to act as middlemen. Suggesting a non-profit agency, say, to handle the job might've been another matter.)
posted by raysmj at 9:06 AM on July 22, 2002


oh, justgary: And if the Lomax/Work early recording of Waters wasn't a big deal, then Gordon himself wouldn't have kicked off his mostly very good bio of Waters with the story (then goes back to it later).
posted by raysmj at 9:27 AM on July 22, 2002


RIP Alan Lomax, 1915-2002
posted by muckster at 10:17 AM on July 23, 2002


Thanks muckster-- and if I may excerpt the pertinent sentences:

Watch one of the videos in his "American Patchwork" series and you'll see. But you'll also see great music and amazing insight. The volume on "Cajun Country" contains footage of zydeco musicians juxtaposed with two musicians from (I think) Cape Verde: one playing a button accordion and one strumming a roasting pan with a fork. This is great footage of great music. We can see it because Lomax was, as Dave Marsh calls him in his snotty anti-obit, Mr. Big Stuff. He had the funding, the resources and the juice to go and film two guys on some barren rock off the coast of Africa. Who really cares, in the year 2002, about Dylan "going electric"? Lomax recorded thousands of hours of music that would have otherwise been lost. Great musicians: Hobart Smith, Marcus Martin, the black stringband of Lusk, Gribble and York, Texas Gladden, the Italian tuna fisherman of Calabria and countless other musicians that Dave Marsh never heard of and wouldn't listen to if he had.

Of course, I had to hand tweak the ���¢��������'s that keep replacing the quotation marks when one cuts and pastes, grr....
posted by y2karl at 11:45 AM on July 23, 2002


Those statements at the front, much like the obit, were simply a tribute. Yet here those sentiments are under attack. A good reason not to invite any metafiltarians to your funeral. Your mother really shouldn't be subjected to the subsequent critique of the eulogy.

Oh please, you have got to be kidding. Metafilter is a haven for interesting links, not an 'obit' site, nor a tribute site. I couldn't care less how this link was presented, nor should I.

How dare we try to deal with the facts rather than the legend.

So people who grew up poor or during the Depression are excused for being chintzy with employees? I could point you to people who'd bite your head off about that, although two of them I know are deceased now. In any case, it's a little something I could see as a small thing in the larger Muddy context there, but you're making excuses. Being chintzy, especially with those below, is not something that would happen in a world that's defined by its "spirit of cooperation."

I'm not making excuses. I'm just trying to understand the situation from their points of view. That doesn't mean I think it's right. I can sympathize, however, despite anyone wanting to 'bite' my head off. I still feel there was more cooperation in blues than in Lomax's ability to give others credit. We'll just have to agree to disagree.

And if the Lomax/Work early recording of Waters wasn't a big deal, then Gordon himself wouldn't have kicked off his mostly very good bio of Waters with the story (then goes back to it later).

I never said it wasn't a big deal. I fall in love with it everytime I listen to it, which is often. What I said was I don't think the future recordings of muddy when he moved to chicago were dependent on Lomax.

Obviously, Lomax was an amazing man, who spent his life finding and recording rare music. Finding out who Lomax was, both the good and bad, helps us find who the real man was. I fail to see how this is a bad thing.
posted by justgary at 12:52 AM on August 15, 2002


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