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It seems odd that no biography of Alan Lomax was written before now, especially given that many of the folk music performers whom Lomax discovered have had biographies of their own. True, Lomax was not a well known performer like Pete Seeger. He never held an academic post or a high government position, nor did he receive international or even national awards for his work until the very end of his life. But he was arguably one of the most influential Americans of the twentieth century, a man who changed how everyone heard music and even how they viewed America. When he died, newspaper and TV news reporters pointed out that he had been a musicologist, archivist, singer, DJ, filmmaker, photographer, author of 19 books, producer of dozens of radio, TV, video, and concert programs and hundreds of recordings, in addition to being the world's most famous folklorist. They might have added that he was also an anthropologist, political activist, lobbyist, and in his later years, something of a social theorist in the grand tradition of the nineteenth century.
Lomax began his career with an early 20th century folklorist's aesthetic, the belief that a song was a thing, an object to be collected, labeled, and put on display as evidence of collective cultural creation. Yet as he tramped through parched cane fields and sat in cabins lit by oil lamps, he became aware of the astonishing creativity and artistry of individual folk performers, something not visible in the frozen words of song books. The songs he collected, he believed, could be put to work, not as relics of the old worlds of Europe and Africa, but as proof of the creativity and the richness of the living traditions of a new breed of people. Folklore could show what it meant to be an authentic American. At the same time, Lomax was convinced that each village and town had its own stars, singers who captured the spirit of its people. If these performers could be presented properly, they could attract an audience as large as America itself. Folk culture could become pop culture. When he moved to New York City he transported the Southern idea of the local music festival there, filling Town Hall with an eclectic mix of black and white folk singers. Thereafter, nothing excited him more than acting as impresario for the whole country, bringing unknown rustics to Newport or Carnegie Hall, and seeing them win over crowds of urban sophisticates.
As the poet laureate of the folk, he was a kindly, benign guide to a nostalgic return trip to simpler times. But he was also the pied piper of the Other America, the common people, the forgotten and excluded, the ethnic, those who always came to life in troubled times — in the Great Depression, in the rising tide towards World War II, during the post-war anti-Communist hysteria, and inside the chaos of the era of civil rights and counter-culturalism — those who could evoke deep fears of their resentment and unpredictability. At such times folk songs seemed not so much charming souvenirs as ominous and threatening portents.
Alan was a complex person, rife with contradictions, but also a shrewd and savvy judge of individuals and the media. He could curse the potential of recording technology and electronic transmission to obliterate the small traditions of the earth, but also use those very media to spread the music he discovered. He understood how to build his own public persona as a conservator, even at the same time as he was promoting those he discovered in the backwoods of America in their own careers as recording artists. Lomax's politics were convoluted and unpredictable, and one could find him courting senators or standing alongside Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson at political rallies for Henry Wallace. He was an ardent supporter of civil rights, and could often be found at public protests such as the Poor People’s March on Washington in 1968.
In later years, travel abroad exposed him to a greater variety of song and cultural styles, and set him to wondering about the deeper functions of song in all societies. Eventually he virtually stopped collecting altogether. He turned to the cross-cultural techniques used by anthropologists, and insights derived from his own experience with psychotherapy and micro-cultural studies, to work out a complex vision of song (and later, dance and speech) as part of the apparatus of cultural adaptation. Unlike anthropologists and psychologists who studied the microbehavioral level of communication primarily in terms of social interaction, Lomax went one step further, seeing these behaviors as the basis of all art.
Lomax came to see musical diversity akin to biodiversity: every song style that disappeared was potentially as big a tragedy as that of a lost species. By the time of his death, all of his work and passions were coming together in plans for the Global Jukebox, a multi-media program — an "exploratorium," he called it — that would use his 5,000 hours of sound recording and thousands of hours of film and video to enable the peoples of the world to understand how their own societies' approaches to music interlocked with the ways in which they moved and worked and danced, and how all of these modes of behavior correlated with other elements of their culture throughout human history.
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.
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event archive >> botkin lecture archive >> lecture flyer for john szwed 2010