Alan Lomax, Catcher of Songs

The Wall Street Journal has a nice review of John Szwed’s biography of Alan Lomax, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World. (I can’t link to it because the WSJ just makes it too difficult.) In that weird version of journalism where the review is really a summary, here are some of the highlights (the good):

Capturing such performances and the stories they told was a lifelong obsession for Lomax, who wandered America and the globe in search of the sounds of traditional music endangered by the very technology he used to record them for posterity. His travels took him from his native American South to remote outposts of the Caribbean and across the ocean to the British Isles and the fishing villages of Italy and the mountains of Spanish Basque country. His work spanned six decades, from the Depression all the way to the 1990s. (Lomax died in 2002.) He began his career gathering songs with a 300-pound disc-cutter in the back of a Model A and ended it using hand-held video cameras for backwoods documentaries. No matter what the gear, Lomax never wavered from his mission—to find evidence that the world’s poorest places offered some of the richest cultural treasures.

and (the bad):

The staggering output came with a heavy cost, dooming Lomax’s first marriage and other relationships as he followed his collecting compulsion, often working himself to the point of physical collapse. A charmer and a bully, an antiacademic who depended on educational funding, a man equally at home in a straw hut in Haiti and at a White House reception, Lomax was a controversial figure, often accused of exploitation and grandstanding. He made enemies well beyond the field of folklore, not least the FBI agents who trailed him for years on account of his radical politics. An early file report depicts “a very peculiar individual in that he is only interested in folklore music, being very temperamental and ornery. . . . He has no sense of money values, handling his own and Government property in a neglectful manner.” Even so, Lomax had fiercely loyal supporters in high places, ranging from Margaret Mead to filmmaker Nicholas Ray, and he has been a revered mentor to several generations of historians, including Mr. Szwed.

The review is by Eddie Dean, who himself is co-author of the biography of Ralph Stanley’s Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times.