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Alan Lomax: Recording The World

Alan Lomax (Getty Images)

Alan Lomax wanted to create a record of world sound. From 1933 until he stopped working in 2002, two years before his death, Lomax devoted his life to preserving the folk songs of the past.

He traveled everywhere from Mississippi to Japan searching for folk music, collecting thousands of songs and recording musicians such as Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie, Vera Hall and Leadbelly, whom he met in a prison.

"[Lomax was] in Angola prison and they ran into one guy who was singer par excellence," says John Szwed, professor of music and jazz studies at Columbia University and the author of the new biography, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World.

Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World
By John Szwed
Hardcover, 352 pages
Penguin Group
List price: $29.95

Read An Excerpt

Szwed tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz, "Everything about him radiated confidence and security in what he was doing."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

In 1964, the British rock band The Animals made this song a classic.

(Soundbite of song, "House of the Rising Sun")

THE ANIMALS (Music Group): (Singing) There is a house in New Orleans they call the rising sun...

RAZ: But this song, "The House of the Rising Sun," is much, much older, and it was first recorded in 1937. It was sung by a 16-year-old girl named Georgia Turner, the daughter of a coal miner. And the person manning the recorder was Alan Lomax.

(Soundbite of song, "House of the Rising Sun")

Ms. GEORGIA TURNER: (Singing) They call the rising sun. And it's been the ruin of many a poor girl, and me, oh God, for one.

RAZ: Amazing to hear that, isn't it? Alan Lomax, who died in 2002, was quite possibly the greatest archivist of American folk music.

Mr. TODD HARVEY (Curator, Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center): He wanted to create a real record of world sound.

RAZ: That's Todd Harvey. He's the curator of the Alan Lomax collection at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress here in Washington, D.C. The Folklife Center holds Alan Lomax's recorded work; work that dates from 1933 to 2000.

Mr. HARVEY: Alan's father ran this archive from 1932 to 1942. His father was the honorary curator and spent a great deal of his time on the road collecting materials for the Library of Congress, and Alan accompanied him sometimes. But they realized by the mid-1930s that it was becoming a substantial collection of material, and so they hired Alan as the assistant in charge in 1937.

RAZ: A few days ago, Todd Harvey took us on a tour of the archive.

(Soundbite of clicking)

Mr. HARVEY: Keys to the stairs, keys to the highway.

RAZ: Deep down in the basement of the Library of Congress is where the largest archive of recorded folk music in the world is located.

Mr. HARVEY: So this is Alan Lomax's tape collection.

RAZ: And what a collection.

Mr. HARVEY: Two hundred and fifty linear feet of manuscripts, 10,000 folders of paper, more than 15,000 sound recordings, 6,000 photographic images, 5,000 videos and films and several hundred artifacts.

RAZ: It is a breathtaking sight.

Mr. HARVEY: These are tapes mainly from Alan's field recordings. Here's Spain in the 1950s. Alan immigrated to Europe and did major field work in Spain and Italy and the British Isles, the U.S. - this is the famed "Southern Journey" trip of 1959.

RAZ: Todd Harvey pulls out a reel for us to hear.

Mr. HARVEY: This tape's about 40, 50 years old, but it still plays like the day it was made.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

RAZ: John Szwed is a professor of music and jazz at Columbia University, and he's just released a new biography of Alan Lomax. It's called "The Man Who Recorded the World."

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Professor JOHN SZWED (Music, Jazz Studies, Columbia University): This is something he recorded after he came out of the service and picked up a Guggenheim fellowship that allowed him to travel. And he went back South to parchment farms in Mississippi and he found this particular recording by a group of men cutting down a tree. Four men - two on one side, two on the other forming a square - and the two who were facing each other, or would be if they could see through the tree, were hitting at the same time and the others at the other time.

This was a work song. And it's quite an astonishing piece because it's got all the glorious features of African-American style, which is to say call and response with a leader who's passionate and breathless and huffing and puffing on the beat.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Mr. SZWED: Multiple melodies going - one melody behind the other - a backbeat, like a pre-rock and roll thing.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

RAZ: One of the better-known musicians Alan Lomax and his father John are credited with discovering was somebody they found in a prison was Leadbelly. He eventually became very important in Lomax's life. Let's hear one of those recordings for a moment.

(Soundbite of song, "Midnight Special")

LEADBELLY (Singer): (Singing) Well, I'm calling that Captain. He turn a-loose my man. Let the midnight special shine her light on me.

RAZ: That's Leadbelly singing "Midnight Special." How did Alan and John Lomax come across him?

Mr. SZWED: They were in Angola Prison, which was not as full of singers as they thought they would find. And they ran into one guy who was singer par excellence. Everything about him radiated confidence, security in what he was doing.

(Soundbite of song, "Midnight Special")

LEADBELLY: (Singing) And if you say a thing about it, you have a trouble with the man. Let the midnight special...

Mr. SZWED: And...

RAZ: What was he in prison for?

Mr. SZWED: Murder and attempted murder. He had already gotten out of one prison by writing a song for the governor in Louisiana, and he thought this would work again and asked the Lomaxes to deliver one of his songs aimed to the governor to get him out. And he did get out, but it turns out not for that song but for good time. But it made a great story, and the press ate it up. Everywhere he went, there were stories about this. Some of them were brutal in their headlines, you know: Sings a Few Songs between Murders and that kind of thing.

(Soundbite of song, "Midnight Special")

LEADBELLY: (Singing) (Unintelligible) penitentiary bound. Let the midnight special shine her light on me.

RAZ: I think it was in the late 1930s when Alan Lomax ran into a man named Ferdinand Morton, better known as Jellyroll Morton, of course, who is today recognized as one of the originators of jazz. At that time, Jellyroll Morton was holding court at a place in Washington, D.C. called The Jungle Inn. He would serve champagne to people who would come in but was kind of forgotten. Did Alan Lomax kind of rediscover him?

Mr. SZWED: He was forgotten and was trying everything at the point that Alan found him.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SZWED: And he was encouraged by local journalists and so forth to go to Lomax and ask him to record his story. And he had a not-too-deeply-concealed reason for this: his songs were being pirated by other people and big hits being made by Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway and other people, so he thought this would help. And Alan was suspicious of doing this and wound up recording him for a month and a half.

RAZ: And I want to play one of Jellyroll Morton's songs. This is called "Dr. Jazz."

(Soundbite of music, "Dr. Jazz")

RAZ: That's incredible music. John Szwed, what would you say Alan Lomax's legacy is? I mean, some people say he brought about a musical revolution. Is that going too far or is that true?

Mr. SZWED: Well, it's true. And it would take a time to make the case fully, but he was certainly the key figure in two folk revivals in the United States. But he was also basic to the British folk revival, which produced the music called skiffle.

(Soundbite of song, "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor")

Mr. LONNIE DONEGAN (Singer): (Singing) Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight? If your mother said don't chew it, do you swallow it in spite?

Mr. SZWED: Which originally every superstar in rock and roll played at the time and every one of them knows his name. Dylan has sung his praises, Van Morrison, any number of other people, even The Beatles and The Stones.

So, I suppose you had to put down something into all these since it would be that he made folk music popular music.

RAZ: That's John Szwed. He's a professor of music and jazz studies at Columbia University and the author of the new book, "Alan Lomax." He joined us from New York.

John Szwed, thank you so much.

Mr. SZWED: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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