The Word MARCH 2011 - by Paul Du Noyer


Throughout the last century John Lomax and his son Alan set off with their recording machinery down the back roads of America and further afield. They captured the sound of blues-singing convicts, Appalachian fiddlers and Spanish fishermen. In the process they invented what we now call roots music. Without them there would be no Rolling Stones, no Sketches Of Spain, no Americana and no Buena Vista Social Club. Rock music would be a far more inward-looking thing than it is today. Paul Du Noyer traces the story of the Lomaxes and talks to members of the family keeping their work alive.

Looking back on the jazz age of the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald traced its musical revolution to the decade before, when Europe was embroiled in World War I. During those years, America freed itself from cultural subservience to the Old World and awakened to its own heritage - especially to African-American music. That tradition has now given us jazz, blues, gospel, soul, hip hop and nearly everything we understand by rock and roll.

Without black America, you have to wonder what the hell we'd all be listening to these days.

The Lomax family wondered a lot about music, whether black or white, and they took their curiosity on the road. Hauling huge, unwieldy and primitive recording machines, they took the paths less travelled, to backwoods liquor parties and state penitentiaries, to barber-shops and Baptist churches, and they captured for all time the richness of American song. They ignored the tunes cooked up in the urban dream factories of New York and Los Angeles. What they looked for was folk music made by actual folks. And their discoveries would transform popular music.

Without the Lomaxes, indeed, you have to wonder what the hell we'd all be listening to these days.

Who were they, the family team who practically invented the idea of American roots music? John Lomax was a Southern gentleman, born just after the Civil War, whose definition of literature extended to the cowboy songs of the old West, still sung in his time but fast disappearing under the onslaught of modern life. Later, with his sons John Jr and Alan Lomax, he travelled the Deep South, finding nuggets in the dirt. For Alan in particular it became the quest of a lifetime. He never stopped, and by the end of his life he'd collected songs from Haiti to Russia, from Senegal to Suffolk. Above all, he turned people on to the blues of the Mississippi Delta - without which there would be no John Lennon, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or much of anything else.

John's grandson, John Lomax III, himself a well-known music writer and Nashville-based manager, puts it like this: "What do Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, The Kingston Trio, Townes Van Zandt, Leadbelly, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Lightnin' Hopkins, Steve Earle, Blind Willie McTell, Guy Clark, Ewan MacColl, Jelly Roll Morton, Kasev Chambers, Pete Seeger and Doug Supernaw have in common? A Lomax." The real list of Lomax protégés is even longer, but it clearly straddles the racial divide: the Lomaxes, says John III, are about "giving a voice to the voiceless. We have always been colour blind."

When Alan Lomax was born, in 1915, his Father John was almost fifty. The wide generation gap would deepen tensions between them, but in the years before World War II they travelled as a two-man expeditionary force.

The younger Lomax sometimes fretted he was in his father's shadow; eventually, though, his own work was more wide-ranging and posterity tends to give him the headline billing. A new biography of Alan Lomax, The Man Who Recorded The World by John Szwed, portrays a prickly, idealistic man who went his own way and saw scant reward for his colossal labours.

When Lomax Sr began collecting folk music he had to fight the scepticism of academics who saw no value in the everyday songs of American life. When Alan joined him on field trips their enemies might extend to the racist cops and town mayors who couldn't see what two white men were doing on the wrong side of the tracks.

Stirring up trouble? In fact, if their mission had an agenda it was to claim respect - "cultural equity" as we now call it - for the art of the working people, and to squash racial stereotypes. Through the Library of Congress there was even some government support for their work: America, as yet, had no sure sense of itself as a cultural force; enlightened elements in Washington saw the value in building a national archive.

So the Lomaxes toiled on, through the shotgun shacks and secretive hills, finding white farmers who sang the Anglo-Celtic ballads of their ancestors, and black labourers whose songs preserved the flavour of slavery days and something even older. They would set up a wax cylinder machine and coax performances from people who had never heard recorded sound: "Stop that ghost!" cried one.

Their adventures in blues country, especially the extraordinarily productive area around Clarksdale, Mississippi, inspired the younger Lomax to make several return journeys, summarised in his masterly book The Land Where The Blues Began. On their travels the father and his son came across a powerful convict singer named Leadbelly, whom they would make into a kind of star. Later on, in 1941, Alan met a young tractor driver called Muddy Waters, with whom he recorded the song that gave The Rolling Stones their name. While the Lomaxes weren't alone in such discoveries, for there were plenty of record companies already combing the South for material, they were evangelists for this music, took it to new levels of scholarship and introduced it to a wider world.

Alan especially grew fascinated by the roots of the blues. The term "African-American" has been standard for only a few decades, but through the story of the blues we glimpse how deeply that connection lies. Late at night in out-of-the-way places, in a land where segregation was still the norm, he found African-American parties that preserved an ancient culture, not as a "heritage" but as a living presence. From the core-of-body dance movements to the percussive and slide effects of a Mississippi guitarist, Lomax discerned a culture informed by distant centuries and a different continent. Explaining those connections now became the focus of his life.

Not everything in the blues, or jazz, came from Africa. Apart from the English language and the Christian religion, slaves taken to North America would absorb a vast amount of new data and adapt it to their needs. I was once amazed to hear the crotchety bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson (alias Rice Miller, of Helena, Arkansas) sing a number I only knew as The Seven Drunken Night a by The Dubliners: its age-old comic tale of adultery and deceit has leapt all boundaries of time and space. Black musicians of the old South formed "fife and drum" acts, after the flute-and-percussion marching bands of colonial times. (Even "band" itself originates in military formations: a ribbon of musicians would line the main body of troops. "Band" as a term was archaic until the mid-1960s, when psychedelic pop groups began to borrow it in a tongue-in-cheek way that has stuck ever since.)

Along the way the Lomaxes heard songs that were sometimes unique to the situation of Delta people and sometimes not - but their deepest appeal is always universal. There were story songs of lynch mobs and jealous lovers, heroic feats of physical labour and the disastrous, crop-eating boll weevil. It was an oral culture that relied on songs to a high degree; people led constrained daily lives with few other ways to transmit tales and cultural information: "Well I don't know but I've been told..."

There was a whole genre of Negro super-hero songs, drawn from folklore, of "the Travellin' Man", of John Henry, Po'Shine or Stagolee; semi-magical characters who could out-run, out-work, out-fight or out-wit any rival or white master.

Sex was at the core of much blues music, in constant tension with the spiritual songs of any respectable black community. Yet, before there was sex, there was work. Work was what slaves were intended for, and working for survival is about as basic as human existence gets. The most eye-opening facet of Alan Lomax's research is the role played by sheer toil in shaping black music - and, by extension, our own lazily hedonistic pop. At one point he suggests that "rock" itself comes not from dancing or copulation, but from the rhythmic swaying of riverboat labourers, lightening their inhuman loads. Their movements were both graceful and practical, and descended from the everyday necessities of transport on the vast African continent. They gave rise to particular dance forms, feet apart, rooted to the floor... Now regard the earliest on-stage film of Elvis Presley, a white boy from Mississippi who had done his cultural homework, shuffling from the hips downward.

In the nineteenth century riverboats were everything to the Delta, carrying passengers and cargo through the cotton-fields that enforced labour had won from swamplands. Their romance endures through film and literature and, not least, the songs of Creedence Clearwater Revival. But the boats were eventually surpassed by railroads, which now became the great commercial arteries of the Deep South and a potent source of musical mythology in their own right. In the lurching clang of Muddy Waters' Mannish Boy we hear steel spikes being pounded into the ground. In Chuck Berry's Let It Rock, a recording that is the whole compressed essence of rock and roll in less than two minutes, the perilous purgatory of the railroad building gang is brilliantly immortalised.

After railroads came the highways, and between them they carried countless Southern blacks to industrial northern cities like Detroit and Chicago, where country blues turned electric and became something else entirely. Factory life was no picnic, but there was a relative freedom after the South, where rural slavery had been replaced by a share-cropping system that was scarcely better. On the other hand, as Lomax noted, even the bad old plantation days had some consolations of family and community: now the worker was an uprooted figure, drifting in search of his pay packet and brief, cheap pleasures. The blues, however, was still at hand to capture that lonesome labourers feelings.

Work songs, from sea shanties to soldiers' drill chants (and Lomax played a part in spreading the latter, from black soldiers to white, during World War II), were not just morale builders; they also evolved to co-ordinate complex group activities. A lot of them came from that gargantuan construction, the Mississippi levee. Led Zeppelin's thundering juggernaut. When The Levee Breaks, goes back to Memphis Minnie's song of 1929, itself based on a 1927 catastrophe. The fragile eco-structure of reclaimed swamps depended upon the massive earthworks built by men and mules along the river's banks. The lawless levee camps had their own music, naturally, and Lomax captured it before it disappeared in our age of mechanisation.

Penitentiary labour was usually the toughest of all. Prison farms, such as the infamous Parchman, preserved conditions of slavery and were often located on the old plantations themselves. By the same token, such places offered evidence of the older ways of communal singing, their inmates being cut off from developments outside. (Lomax material prowled the core soundtrack to the Coen brothers' jail-break romp O Brother, Where Art Thou?.) At Louisiana's Angola prison, whose very name bears witness to its origins in the African trade, they recorded Leadbelly, among whose best-known songs was Midnight Special.

It was a poignant number, this one, because the Southern railroads stood tor a notion of freedom, of escape from servitude, and to a cell-bound man the sound of passing trains was cruelly evocative. "For the blues poets of the Delta," wrote Alan, "the railroad ranked next to women as a subject." In the same vein was a prison favourite, Rock Island Line, once described as "a celebration of speed... by men who could go nowhere". Among the young white disciples who would seize upon such Lomax revelations was Britain's Lonnie Donegan, whose skiffle version of Rock Island Line kick-started rock and roll outside of America. Teenagers like Lennon and McCartney might have dreamed of being Elvis Presley, but their first practical step as musicians was to imitate Donegan imitating Leadbelly.

Where the elder Lomax was born just after Abolition (indeed his own father had once owned slaves), his son Alan was the product of a radicalised age; his political leanings were left-wing and, after World War II, towards a more assertive brand of civil rights, which chimed with other folk activists like Pete Seeger and Ewan MacColl. Though it seems he never joined the Communist Party, as many folkies did, the FBI kept tabs on him for decades. In a flash of biographical insight, one of J. Edgar Hoover's agents reported to his superiors: "Neighbourhood investigation shows him [Alan] to be a very peculiar individual in that he is only interested in folklore music, being very temperamental and ornery... He has no sense of money values, handling his own and Government property in a neglectful manner, and paying practically no attention to his personal appearance... He has a tendency to neglect his work over a period of time and then just before a deadline he produces excellent results."

John's old-fashioned white paternalism was anathema to Alan's generation, and the older man's reputation has suffered from a short film, made in 1935, in which he and Leadbelly re-enact their time together, following the singer's release from prison and stint as a Lomax assistant. As the latest Lomax biographer John Szwed puts it: "There was something in the film to upset everyone." It seemed to romanticise the tale of the outlaw singer who charmed his way to freedom by playing for the authorities and cast Lomax, unfairly, as patronising and opportunist.

But it raised some awkward questions that never quite disappear, such as the borderline between folk authenticity and showbusiness. Left to himself, Leadbelly would wear a good suit when he could afford it. But his urban white public preferred to see him perform in Hollywood prison clothes.

The Lomaxes saw how easily an image can be contrived - they saw a similar process at work with Leadbelly's white but not quite proletarian counterpart Woody Guthrie - and it worried them. Between the moral purity of penniless obscurity and the slow corruptions of celebrity there lay a world of doubt that countless folk entertainers have had to negotiate. Other artists faced a different difficulty: in a 1940 interview with the singer Blind Willie McTell, John Lomax repeatedly asks the bluesman if he knows of any "complaining songs", meaning protests at racial injustice. Warily, McTell denies it, as did other black performers they interviewed. The time had not yet arrived when those subjects could be aired openly in American life.

John Lomax died in 1948, but Alan's fame and influence kept growing, assisted by an avalanche of radio shows, compilation LPs and high-profile concerts. He promoted his records for the Library of Congress, saying these tracks were "plain and unadulterated folk song, usually about death, sweat, hard work, love... Miserable people make the most exciting music I ever heard."

His underdog sympathies now look quite harmless and even noble. But in the suspicious atmosphere of Cold War America it was hard to be Alan Lomax. In 1950 he moved to Britain (it's thought the Lomax family were originally from Bury, in Lancashire), where, in spite of some MI5 attention, he found support from the BBC and the emerging folk scene. Taking his tape machine to country pubs he heard cloth-capped men with foaming tankards, singing material that settlers had taken to the New World some centuries before. You can sense the impact he was having from a 1957 cartoon in Punch, where a yokel is lamenting, "I've got those Alan-Lomax-ain't-been-round-to-record-me blues."

He played in the earliest British skiffle hands, hearing it as a revival of Anglo-Celtic traditions, enriched with African-American vitality. Again, his importance is hard to overstate. As his nephew John Lomax III puts it, "Alan's McCarthy-era years in England helped in the incubation of the English rock scene which ultimately let to the 'British Invasion', in which a few Brit musos took root forms of American music, put hair on it and sent it back here as a 'new' genre!"

He took a tour of Europe, from where his field recordings of Spanish folk music filtered back to New York and caught the ears of Miles Davis and Gil Evans, who were about to make Sketches Of Spain. He thought nothing of a drive from, say, Tuscany to Naples: "To a Texan, used to driving five hundred miles a day, always with the same landscape, Italy seemed quite small," he shrugged. On his return to America in 1959, he was joined by his lover at that time, the young English folk singer Shirley Collins; soon she, too, was travelling with him and capturing on tape the last refrains of the old slave states.

Lomax was a one-man search engine. He gathered data from everywhere he could, anticipating "world music" by several decades. Ultimately, he dreamed, he would map and classify every sort of song and dance that humans have invented, uncover their connections and persuade us that every culture possessed treasures worth cherishing. Brian Eno is among his most fervent admirers: "Alan Lomax is a completely central character in twentieth-century culture. Almost any line you could draw through the whole field of popular musical culture would have him somewhere on it - probably in several places."

In the 1960s Alan befriended Bob Dylan and the Greenwich Village folk scene. But he was at best indifferent to the white-boy rock generation, no matter how much it might revere the Delta. At the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, he had a punch-up with Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, who had taken exception to Alan's supposed dig at his other clients, the highly amplified Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Lomax did not dislike rock and roll on principle, recognising it as the furthest inroad yet made by Negro art into the heart of white America. But, for him, the old songs were always the best, and the closest to Africa's religious resonance.

In 1978 Lomax was a consultant on the NASA Voyager launches that would carry ninety minutes of human music into the depths of outer space. Thanks to his input, alongside Mozart and Beethoven were many more surprising choices, from Chuck Berry to folk music from Bulgaria. He had pushed the idea of "cultural equity" from the fringes to the mainstream. By 1986, despite a medal from President Reagan, Lomax himself was struggling to impose coherence on his vast, transglobal archives. He never quite achieved the grand synthesis of theory that he wanted, but his legacy is evident enough when you look for it. The Association for Cultural Equity offers a tremendous archive of multi-media Lomax materials. Be aware that you might find yourself wanting to spend weeks in there.

Alan Lomax died in 2002, after a long period of poor health and financial anxiety. He might, in his final years, have heard the sampled fragments of his own Mississippi field recordings that drift like ghosts through Moby's Play album: "Oh Lordy, troubles so hard..."; "Why does my heart feel so bad?" He had kept on working as long as he could. After all, if your ambition is to document all the known music of the planet, then the day never comes when you will say, "My work here is done."

It's now a hundred years since John Lomax published his pioneering collection of cowboy songs, and the family remains active. Alan's brother, John Jr, helped in the careers of Guy Clark and Lightnin' Hopkins as well as organising those epoch-making field trips. His son, John Lomax III (whose own son, John Nova Lomax, is an active music writer) has managed Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. But could the age of folk collecting now be over? Electronic media smothers the Earth like a blanket. Folklorists must forever feel they are trying to bottle the morning mist, chasing a thing that is on the verge of extinction.

Alan Lomax once wrote: "The entertainment industry, operating a one-way communication system, now threatens to obliterate national cultures... Unless we take action now, what remains of human cultural variety will vanish."

I asked John Lomax III if he felt that way. Is the age of the great investigators, like his grandfather and uncle, really over? "Insofar as finding songs and music made by people completely untouched by outside cultural influences," he says, "that began to end in 1920 with the beginning of radio. There are still discoveries to be made and extraordinarily talented and unique artists are out there. The trick now is not so much to find and record these people but to break through the barriers built bv the huge broadcasting and publishing empires who wish to limit expression to what they alone deem important, and from which they benefit financially."

Of the USA, he says: "The main radio outlets are now almost all owned by one of the five big conglomerates and playlists have never been tighter. These days it's even hard tor the major labels, who buy the exposure, to crack a new artist through to any kind of mass audience. It's harder than it ever has been to get the voices of the voiceless heard."