Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax

The Man Who Recorded the World

Book - 2010
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Folklorist, archivist, anthropologist, singer, political activist, talent scout, ethnomusicologist, filmmaker, concert and record producer, Alan Lomax is best remembered as the man who introduced folk music to the masses. Lomax began his career making field recordings of rural music for the Library of Congress and by the late 1930s brought his discoveries to radio, including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Burl Ives. By the 1940s he was producing concerts that brought white and black performers together, and in the 1950s he set out to record the whole world. Lomax was also controversial. When he worked for the government he was tracked by the FBI, and when he worked in Britain, MI5 continued the surveillance. In his last years he turned to digital media and developed technologies that anticipated today's breakthroughs. Featuring a cast of characters from Eleanor Roosevelt to Leadbelly, Carl Sagan to Bob Dylan, Szwed's biography provides an account of an era seen through the life of one extraordinary man.--From publisher description.
Publisher: New York : Viking Penguin, 2010.
ISBN: 9780670021994
Characteristics: 438 p. ; 25 cm.


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Mar 26, 2018

Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World will be of interest to those with a strong interest in folk or traditional music and blues, and their relationship with popular music. Alan Lomax was a largely-untrained folklore collector and analyst, who started collecting American folk music with his father, and went on to collect in both the US and other countries, as well as amassing music recorded by others around the world. He was a complex man, whom a number of acquaintances described as a "genius", ambitious and driven, but often failing in his tasks. He had a great impact on popular culture.
Szwed, a professor of music and jazz studies, left no stone unturned in creating this biography. Yet, for a scholarly book, Alan Lomax: The Man... is short on analysis and criticism. This is sometimes good, as the reader is able to take facts we are given, and make our own conclusions. Yet, Lomax's work needs more questioning. Szwed implies, for instance, that Lomax's system of "cantometrics", using song and movement to analyze culture, was largely ignored by folklorists and anthropologists due to professional jealousy. As both a folklorist and anthropologist, I beg to differ. Many of us have read Lomax's writing on cantometrics, but not found it helpful, partly because the system leans heavily not on observations but on Freudian psychology, which in turn leans heavily on misinterpretations of anthropology and folklore. This is a minor quibble about a well-researched book.
Lomax's tale is tragic in a similar fashion to Henry Ford's. Ford had a major part in creating an America he hated, full of huge factories, with automobiles everywhere. Lomax tried to lead people to understand and celebrate "folk music" from the subcultures and hinterlands of the USA and elsewhere. Despite his intentions, he had a major influence on the gentrification of folk music and in creating the image of contemporary, educated, urban singer/songwriters as "folk musicians". Readers with a strong interest in the development of folklore studies or in folk and popular music will be intrigued by Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World. Others may find it a "yawner".

Mar 14, 2016

Exhustive bio of a man who recorded a history of music before it was swallowed by the tide of globalization. Oddly enough by exposing the world to this library of "folk" music he in turn helped shape popular music.
The book is dense with the trials and tribulations of his life but is an informative read. I came away feeling I knew him and his motivations. Packed as it is with details I found it a slow read.
As with many pioneers he died penniless but in later years received his just accolades.
Look in the liner notes of any classic blues or rock album and his name is probably somewhere in the fine print, maybe in the "wishes to thank" portion.
A true music giant.
If you are interested in the history of music this is a book to put on your list.

May 12, 2013

This biography provides a lot of information about Lomax, based on reliable and well researched data. However, Szwed provides so much detail that the reader is overwhelmed. He also makes too much effort to present every side of every issue. Overall, the book is disappointing for such an interesting figure.


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