Having previously trained his biographer's eye on those shadowy, messianic figures of jazz music, Sun Ra and Miles Davis, John Szwed turns to what seems at first a less mysterious and thus less intriguing subject: Alan Lomax, the author, music producer and archivist who died in 2002 at 87 after a lifetime gathering folk songs around the globe and helping shed light on such treasures of American music as Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton, Pete Seeger, Muddy Waters and Huddie Ledbetter, aka "Leadbelly."
Yet Lomax, in his way, proves as elusive and complex as Davis and Ra. Through almost a whole 20th century of social upheaval and cultural awakening, Lomax's personality remains just out of the reader's grasp. Even his comparably legendary father, John Lomax, a onetime Texas banker and college professor who blazed trails for folk-music collecting that his son and other musicologists would follow, comes across here as a more vivid character (blustery, grandiloquent, farsighted, if somewhat patronizing toward people of color).
The younger Lomax, meanwhile, is depicted throughout as someone almost completely defined by his work. Other than that, the only features of Lomax's personal life emerging with any vividness in Szwed's account are a disorderly romantic life (you can't tell the wives and lovers without a scorecard — or an index), a nomadic existence that found him living on more than one continent for extended periods (and being stalked by American and foreign intelligence agencies vainly looking for subversive leftist connections) and infrequent references to long-term psychoanalysis in which he dealt with various unresolved family-related issues before heading off on another archival expedition to backwater regions here and abroad. If his good friend, filmmaker Nicholas Ray, had ever been given the challenge of making a movie about Lomax's life, one wonders if the director of jittery American masterworks such as "Rebel Without a Cause" could even cast a lead, much less fashion a compelling movie.
Ray would have to do what Szwed does here: Place the work in the foreground. And what this leaves you with is, for the most part, a fairly compelling intellectual adventure story that finds our protagonist not only seeking, finding and recording previously unsung balladeers and blues masters in hills, cotton fields and shotgun shacks, but promoting and producing concerts for such music on glittering stages, publishing cubic yards of anthologies, essays and oral histories and even performing some of his discovered songs on record.
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The book hits some gluey patches when trying to explicate some of Lomax's complex theories about song's relationship to the psyche. But, as with any good folk narrative, it's the human elements — people like Guthrie, Leadbelly, Seeger, Bob Dylan, Burl Ives, Carl Sandburg, the incomparable Zora Neale Hurston, even J. Edgar Hoover — that give "Alan Lomax" its flavor, color and, at times, zest.
"Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World" by John Szwed; Viking (438 pages, $29.95)