Sometimes book projects go better than you could have ever expected (The Day-Glo Brothers, Shark Vs. Train), and sometimes they don’t.
One of mine that didn’t — or, optimistically, hasn’t been going so well for a while — was a YA biography of Alan Lomax, which fell into contractual limbo when my editor’s job disappeared.
Alan Lomax was a giant in our culture — and by “our” I mean “your,” especially if you live on this planet and even more particularly if you have an interest in music.
Starting when he was a teenager in the 1930s and continuing well into the 1990s, Lomax traveled the United States and eventually the world recording (and inspiring countless others to record) indigenous music, folk music, made-everyday-by-everyday-people music before the sounds of mass media crowded out those voices.
It was no easy task. Lomax started back when portable recording devices weighed hundreds of pounds rather than just a few ounces, and my appreciation of the efforts he spent finding and preserving those singers and songs — long before YouTube allowed each of us to do the same in seconds — just grows and grows.
Along the way, Lomax crossed paths with Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll Morton, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Margaret Mead, Carl Sagan, Moby (yes, Moby), Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the King and Queen of England, and so on. He got blacklisted and was hounded by the FBI. He ruffled feathers, and still does, nearly a decade after his death.
He’s also the subject of an impressive biography just published for the adult market, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World by John Szwed (Viking).
How I wish I had written this book, but oh, how happy I am that this book simply exists at all. There’s never been a better opportunity for folks to appreciate the impact that Lomax had on our musical landscape — or to appreciate the legacy that any person can leave behind when they start early and work like a dog for several decades.
Alan Lomax had astounding energy and enthusiasm. He was both an exhaustive and exhausting force in American music for almost 70 years. When he died in 2002, he left behind at least the following, which Mr. Szwed has dauntlessly tackled as source material: 5,000 hours of sound recordings; 400,000 feet of film; 2,450 videotapes; 2,000 books and journals; numerous prints, documents and databases; and more than 120 linear feet of paperwork.
Sufficiently recovered from his researching and writing, Szwed took the time to answer a few questions from me via email:
Considering that you knew Alan Lomax personally, what did you learn in researching and writing his biography that most surprised you?
I suppose the most surprising thing is the sheer amount of work that Alan got done in so many areas once he got to Washington and then NYC at such an early age. Radio, the recording business, Haiti, the trip south, the books, his work as a script writer and DJ — it’s hard to see how he could have done so much so fast, and while he was in the army, too.
Given the scope and significance of his life and work, why aren’t Alan and his accomplishments more widely known?
He was extraordinarily well known in the 40s. I think his time in Europe made him seem to have disappeared, and then later when he was working through Columbia University he was satisfied to be known as an academic and work in a much smaller framework.
Among those who are familiar with Alan, opinions of him seem to be rather strong, one way or the other. What do you think accounts for that?
There was always a certain degree of tension in the folknik world, with many differing political and social opinions. Alan was a single-minded, hard-driving individual, one who considered most other people to be slow and uninspired. His persistence and drive bothered some. … I discovered that far from being a person who made money off his sources, he often paid them more than he could afford, worked for them to help them get attention, and he was always short of money and underpaid. He had no steady work except for the army from 1943 until he died.. And then most people don’t know how copyright works, and assumed that he was claiming authorship,of songs, which he wasn’t.
What role do you see for Alan’s recorded legacy today — and in the future — when even people in poverty have the ability to record and widely distribute their musical creations, and when consumers have a near-infinite array of very, very inexpensive music to choose from and repurpose?
First off, no one ever recorded as much as Alan did, and no one is likely to ever do so again, I’d think. He also recorded at a time when there was a great diversity of music in the world. As he predicted, mass media would reduce that diversity. But we still have the recordings, and with luck they’ll continue to offer inspiration for many.
Where do you see Alan’s most lasting impact on and contribution to American and global culture? Is it his actual recordings, his demonstration of the need to preserve vulnerable cultures, or something else?
His actual recordings, yes, that’s a real monumental achievement. But I think that sooner or later someone will understand and appreciate what he was doing with cantometrics and choreometrics, and will refine and develop the work he wasn’t able to complete.