When Alan Lomax published Mister Jelly Roll in 1950, the biography based on oral history interviews with the late Jelly Roll Morton generated a hugely favorable response. Lomax treated the “colored Creoles’” role in early jazz with broad strokes that still stand today. Using Morton’s narrative sensibility in episodes of a spoken past, Lomax wrote intervening chapters that drew on his research in New Orleans in the years after Morton’s death.
The story behind the seminal 1938 interviews between a down-on-his-luck 53-year-old pianist in Washington, D.C., and a folklorist, just 23, at the Library of Congress is one of many inspired strands in John Szwed’s new biography, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (published by Viking Press).
The Texas-bred interviewer had traveled the Southwest with his father, the pioneering John Lomax, collecting cowboy songs and ballads in the Great Depression. Alan Lomax surpassed his father as an influential figure in documenting folk music in far-flung settings by befriending Woody Guthrie, writing a short biography of Lead Belly, raising consciousness about vernacular culture, organizing a White House event for Eleanor Roosevelt and gaining support for his wide-ranging work as he traveled the back roads from Appalachia to Haiti.
But when he met Morton, Lomax saw jazz and its popularity on records as “wiping out the [folk] music I care about.”
Szwed marches Morton onto the stage as one character in Lomax’s life drama: “This broke and largely forgotten man presented himself with dignity, eloquence and grace, dressed in an aging but sharp and carefully preserved suit, with a lavish hand-painted tie of silk, matching shirt, socks and handkerchief, a watch fob and rings of gold, and flashing a half-carat diamond in an incisor when he smiled.”
A professor of music and jazz studies at Columbia University, Szwed has written biographies of Sun Ra and Miles Davis. In the new book, Szwed shows his chops in the toil of matching the biographer’s prose with that of his subject. Lomax had a detective’s zeal for finding music in cultural enclaves off the radar screen of the day; he wrote with poetic zeal. As in his stream-of-consciousness reflections on Morton, mixed metaphors and all: “A gravel voice melting at the edges, not talking, each sentence bowling along like a line from the blues, like an eddy of a big sleepy southern river, weaving a legend, and as the legend grew, the back seat of the hall filled with [ghosts of] ladies in crinolines, listening … There was nothing in front of him but free time. I was there at his disposal.”
So was the whiskey, which helped lubricate the flow of reminiscences.
Lomax was one of those rare public figures so sufficiently well-known in his 20s as to fuel the career of a freelance engine of culture; he worked in radio and documentary film, made thousands of field recordings of songs, wrote articles and books, edited others, moving at a freight-train pace in drawing support from foundations and government even as FBI agents trailed him for suspected Communist involvements, which were never proven. Late in life he published another classic on American culture, The Land Where the Blues Began. As he moved with natural ease from folk music to black poetry to progressive politics and back again, Lomax’s tracks intersected with Zora Neal Hurston, Henry Wallace, Burl Ives, Muddy Waters, Margaret Mead, Hubert Humphrey, Son House, Bill Monroe, Paul Robeson, Bob Dylan and several Mardi Gras Indians. The man gathered the stories and lyrics of culture as some people collect stamps.
On the birth of jazz, he wrote: “Such moments of cultural ecstasy may occur prior to all great cultural movements just as seeding precedes birth.”
Then, biographer Szwed: “These lines may tell more about Lomax than they do about Morton, as they focus on his desire to put art at the center of humanity and return us to the magic of creation. In doing so, he also joined Morton in making New Orleans a magical city and a metaphor for what American might yet become.”
Lomax was a curious fusion of romantic and realist, an intellectual who celebrated the values of working folk and marginalized people who were toughened against injustice; he saw their songs and poetry as a rising voice of hope.
In times such as these, with Congressional demagogues railing against the science on climate change and the commerce in semiautomatic weapons blasting civility in cities, those artists and rebels that the master collector championed stand as potent reminders of the best impulses in American life. Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World is a graceful biography that carries a certain hope in human affairs, which makes for a timely book indeed.