Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World

John Szwed, Viking, $29.95 (448p) ISBN 978-0-670-02199-4
In this busy biography, Columbia music professor Szwed (So What: The Life of Miles Davis) recounts Lomax's six decades of field trips seeking out and recording folk music untainted by commercial jazz and pop influences, especially in the American South, where he discovered blues luminaries Muddy Waters and Lead Belly; his radio shows, concerts, lectures, books, and films; and his impecunious bohemian existence with the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Szwed presents Lomax (1915–2002) as a major intellectual force who championed the cultures of impoverished and racially outcast groups against a homogenizing modernity, and developed wildly ambitious sociopsychological "cantometrics" that theorized a Freudian link between a culture's level of sexual repression and the vowel patterns in its songs. Lomax was an indefatigable promoter of music and ideas, but Szwed's breathless, swirling chronicle of his activities can be fatiguing. One also wishes he had probed more deeply into Lomax's problematic notion of a pure, primitive musical culture sprouting organically from the lives of rural people in isolation from urban entertainment elites. (Jan. 3)
Reviewed on: 11/29/2010
Release date: 12/01/2010
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