Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World. A Biography- John Szwed
My interest on Alan Lomax's figure comes from one of this rare cinematographic experiences were one enters to a theatre with little-to-zero expectations and then leaves the venue almost in tears, deeply moved by what has seen. The film, better said documentary, was "Lomax , the Songhunter" written and directed by Rogier Kappiers. What an impact. Since then I've been looking for something to read about the man and his work. Now, after reading this biography, I can say I'm still impressed and amazed by his story, but also a bit confused, dubious to some extent, about his motivations. Damn, I have to find the film and watch it again...
"The Man Who Recorded the World" is an immaculate, scrupulous and fine biography, at least on its surface. Informative and argumentative, rich in statistics, facts, figures and complete, even to the point of saturation sometimes, in what regards to explain with detail every book, play, recording and field work Alan Lomax did (add letters too). And he did many (and I mean MANY). His task was so gigantic that becomes scary. That's not a relentless passion but probably also a worrying obsession. A feeling I was confirming while reading John Szwed's book.
The depth of the biography in Lomax's activities provides a rich account of a work life that really escapes from just one categorization and had several sides. Lomax was a musicologist, folklorist, filmmaker, music producer, television & radio host, writer, actor, singer, lecturer, ethnomusicologist (he's recognised as the father of the discipline by many), anthropologist, political activist (among the most interesting for me is the People's Song platform or being accused and surveyed for being a communist)... He tried everything for folk music, to restore its legacy, to make it known and popular... but in his very own terms, something that also involved him in several controversies. Was he a purist or a popularizer? The book doesn't hide the contradictions and the heated debate around his figure and role in music's history, although Szwed take a clear side at the end.
But unfortunately, and despite being very informative, "The Man Who Recorded the World" has some regrettable misses. Lomax's family is neglected from the book. Wives, daughter and sentimental partners are getting in and out at Szwed's will, while the extremely peculiar relation with his father and mentor John Lomax is almost left behind after Alan's goes on his own. Even worse is the lack of interest of Szwed in providing some space to the artists that Lomax recorded, and in several cases, discovered. Legendary musicians like Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger or Muddy Waters (or the thousands of unknown performers) don't anything to say in Lomax's story? That's a serious flaw.
In that sense, I certainly believe that Kappiers film pays a better tribute to Lomax's figure going to the places he visited to meet the folk singers he recorded and how they remember that peculiar song collector. I'm sorry but I don't care that much about cantometrics (to be honest, that will to measure and categorize folk music is as ambitious as questionable, to be polite, music doesn't need to be constrained by artificial definitions) or the dollars he received from every foundation or government institution he reached for his music investigations. The man and the music he discovered should have been more than enough for a fascinating biography. But we have an incomplete picture of the first, and even way less about the second. Interesting, but rather flat.