michael naimark
Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World
by John Szwed

Brief review by Michael Naimark
June 2011

The book begins in the mid 1800s in a west Texas valley, cattle country, where Alan Lomax 's father John was born. The cowboy songs he heard as a child, from real cowboys, set his life's trajectory collecting folk songs, and this is how Alan was raised. John and Alan traveled around the US with a "portable" (500 lb) audio recorder given to them by Thomas Edison's widow, and their story continues interwoven with characters like Carl Sandberg, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Hoodie "Leadbelly" Leadbetter. John and Alan helped established the US Library of Congress Archive of Folk Songs.

Alan continued collecting song, then dance, from around the world. He was first to record Jelly Roll Morton, urged Pete Seeger as a child to take up banjo (both Pete's parents worked at the Archive), brought Woody Guthrie to DC to record him in a studio (where they met future MIT President Jerry Wiesner), and let young "Bobby" Dylan crash in his Greenwich Village apartment. Alan's BBC radio programs inspired Clapton, Jagger, and Lennon, and his BBC TV folksongs show, with amateur musicians, included the first (and possibly only) known puking into the camera on live television.

Lomax continued working at a frenzied pace through the turbulent 60s as an activist, academic, and impresario, and by the 70s and 80s had developed an intriguing, romantic, and seductive "unifying theory" of music and human expression. In the 1990s he was a contributor to the origins of multimedia and the concept of metadata with his "Global Jukebox" project (on which I had the good fortune to work, and collaborators Gideon D'Arcangelo, Mike Del Rio, and I get mentions in the book).

Szwed had a lot to work with, since Alan always kept diaries, field notes, and letters. And though his life was plenty spicy, Szwed's account keeps a distance (though he himself was a young colleague and friend of Alan's). The result is a highly grounded account of how "new media" is a historic continuum, and how one brilliant, obsessed, crazy guy can make a difference. Though Alan died in 2002, he was a 2010 Grammy nominee for his 1937 Haiti recordings. He lost to the Beatles.

Back to Alan Lomax's Global Jukebox Project