With the end of 2010 came the publication of John Szwed’s biography of Alan Lomax, the legendary folk song curator who dragged recording equipment across the Depression-era Deep South and brought America’s forgotten folklore to the mainstream. In the history of American culture Lomax is a major figure. Famously, in Angola prison, Louisiana, he recorded the blues of Lead Belly, which Tom Waits described as “the Rosetta stone for much of what was to follow.”
But his ubiquitous footstep became a symbol of many things to many people: to critic Dave Marsh, Lomax was a “Great White Fraud,” a paternalist copyrighter of ethnic music; to Bob Dylan, he was “a missionary of American folklore.” If his legacy splits opinion, his relationship to modern music culture is nothing short of paradoxical. Reading about Lomax dragging his portable recording studio across continents, it is hard not to be thankful that today’s music lover can simply download whole genres at the push of a button. And yet it is also hard to avoid the sense that, while ours may be a culture of convenience, it is a shallow and fragmented landscape in comparison to Lomax’s rich American narrative.
Should we celebrate this triumph of easy access over hard graft and interaction? Is Lomax’s impressive biography little more than a vestige of a pre-digital, restricted and elitist music culture? In his denunciation of the cult of Lomax, Marsh wrote: “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.” He has a point, but perhaps sometimes we take the milkman for granted. It is not enough that we simply get our milk, regardless of how it’s delivered.
The culture surrounding music, and indeed music itself, has become so personal, so fragmented and atomised, that the sense of context in Lomax’s great anthologies has been eroded. Szwed cites passages from Lomax’s notebooks that testify to the power of physical interaction; of witnessing prisoners on a plantation farm singing “under the red hot sun of Texas.” ‘Zine culture and the rock-snob sales clerk are just two casualties in our culture of private indulgence. We may amass an impressive library of songs, but it will be a soulless and solitary pursuit.
Szwed hyperbolically describes Lomax as the man who recorded the world; in fact, he recorded a world—a particular American narrative. But it was a world with a common purpose. In 1940 he saw songbooks and antifascist war ballads as a means of boosting morale as Uncle Sam sent its troops abroad. With America’s frontiers no longer intercontinental but extraterrestrial, the two Voyagers sent into orbit in 1977 were equipped by Lomax with the blues of Louis Armstrong and Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground).’ Who would we now consult to lift our spirits and represent the shared experience of a community? Simon Cowell and a download chart?
In a digitised culture of opportunity and abundance, we can each amass a music collection to match that of Lomax. But we do so without the collecting—without the prisons, plantation farms and personalities. We are Alan Lomax without the history, and who wants to read about that?