Alan Lomax was one of the few non-musicians—perhaps the only one—whose influence on American music rivals that of the greatest artists.
He spent the whole of his life studying, collecting, analyzing, and disseminating traditional music, especially that of his own country. Great artists like Muddy Waters might never have gotten their big break if not for Lomax. Other artists, like Bob Dylan, might never have been exposed to formative influences.
Rivers of song flowed through this man, who was never rich, who never held an academic post, who often operated with no institutional backing, and who remains comparatively little known. This is not entirely the public’s fault. Lomax was a genius when it came to finding wellsprings of musical traditions, but he was not so adept at self-promotion. It took him decades, for example, to find a publisher for his writings on blues music, The Land Where the Blues Began—a book that was finally published in 1995, some forty years after the events it describes. (More unfortunately still, the book is ultimately disappointing and disorganized.)
As another pertinent example of Lomax’s troubles with finding backers, there is a gap of twelve years between the release of the pilot of his American Patchwork documentary series (1979) and the rest of the programs (1991). Yet whatever he lacked in persuasiveness, he made up for in perseverance. However long it took, Lomax did eventually complete his documentaries on American music, which are now free to stream on folkstreams.net. And they are a treasure.
The American Patchwork series consists of five episodes. The pilot, which shares its title with Lomax’s book, is about blues in the Mississippi Delta. The other episodes cover jazz parades in New Orleans, Cajun music (also in Louisiana), the folk music of Appalachia, and finally “Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old,” which explores how the elderly serve as the pillars of musical tradition. Each episode is about an hour, and each one is worthwhile. Lomax, as usual, created them on a shoestring budget, with just a single cameraman, and so the documentaries have an almost homemade and unprofessional feeling to them. There is no sophisticated editing, no stunning visuals (indeed the camera work and editing often seems sloppy), and Lomax himself does all of the voiceovers. But what they do have, in abundance, is great music.
Most striking of all, this music is not, for the most part, played by famous professionals. Lomax takes care to find living traditions, and to enter into the communities to record the music as it is enjoyed in its original setting—often played by volunteers and amateurs, or at most by semi-professionals. As a child of the suburbs, I find these sorts of traditions fascinating and even inspiring. This sort of music—local, nonspecialist, communal—is so different from the music of the modern world, written by professional songwriters, performed by groomed superstars, and consumed from headphones or a speaker.
This difference is exemplified most clearly in Lomax’s episode on the “Noble Old.” There, Lomax shows how this music—most of which is not written down—is passed down from generation to generation, through living repositories of song, who accumulate more and more knowledge with each passing year. This could not contrast more sharply with today, where even being in one’s thirties is enough to isolate oneself from the main currents of popular music. (I am speaking from experience!) When music must be transmitted that way, from mother to daughter, from mouth to mouth, then it takes on an entirely different quality. For nothing will survive long in a community’s collective memory if it is not, somehow, vital to the identity of the community, embodying its values and even a sort of wisdom.
Lomax was a champion of this music his entire life. And despite his tendency to make romantic and unconvincing generalizations about peoples and cultures, he ultimately does make a convincing case for the vitality and beauty of these traditions. Of course, there is a certain paradox in people like Lomax and, by extension, myself—people who have traveled widely, read widely, gone to college, live in cosmopolitan cities, and so on—pining for the traditions of those who live in relatively closed, isolated, and often poor communities. In the modern world, we do not know the songs of our elders (if they even have songs to share), but we know a great many other things. And as much as I loved the episode on Appalachia, I will not be moving there anytime soon.
Even so, I found myself moved halfway to tears by each one of these documentaries. Comparing this lovely, haunting music with the formulaic and soulless jingles of the modern world, it is difficult not to feel that we have, somehow, gone badly off course. Nevertheless, the banality of pop culture is probably an inevitable price to pay if you want to live in a cosmopolitan culture. After all, once a society becomes relatively unmoored from traditional values (which is one way to define cosmopolitanism), the only measure of cultural value is what attracts people’s attention, and pop music certainly does that. Ironically, however, this freedom from tradition is what allows us to appreciate the musical traditions of vastly different cultures—within the United States and beyond.
I do not think Alan Lomax ever squared the circle of how to reconcile local tradition with a broad and tolerant perspective—how to have a strong identity and yet appreciate people quite different from oneself. His most ambitious attempt was to create a world-wide database of traditional music, the global jukebox; but rather than create a universal schema that could incorporate all human art, it only showcased the incredible variety in the world. Even so, and even if his loftiest intellectual goals were never reached, Lomax changed American music forever. And he still has much to teach us.