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Book Review: Alan Lomax, Assistant In Charge: The Library of Congress Letters 1935-1945

Alan Lomax, Assistant In Charge: The Library of Congress Letters 1935-1945
Edited by Ronald D. Cohen
[University Press of Mississippi (2010)]

As the Austin, Texas-born son of John Lomax (1867-1948), Alan Lomax (1915-2002) followed in his father’s footsteps as a folklorist, archivist, anthropologist, singer, political activist, talent scout, ethnomusicologist, filmmaker, and concert and record producer. His documenting of traditional songs helped to preserve melodies and balladry that would have otherwise faded into the past and was a major factor in the emerging American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s. His field studies into the music of Haiti, the Bahamas, and Europe paved the way for an increasing appreciation of musical traditions around the globe.

A few months after the publication of John Szwed’s in-depth biography, Alan Lomax, The Man Who Recorded The World: A Bio-Ethnograpy, Indiana University Northwest history professor and author of Rainbow Quest, The History Of Folk Music Festivals In America, and Alan Lomax: Selected Writings 1934-1995, Ronald D. Cohen follows with Alan Lomax, Assistant In Charge: The Library of Congress Letters 1935-1945, focusing on the younger Lomax’s most prolific decade.

While executors of the Lomax Foundation refused permission to quote from letters or use photographs in their possession, Lomax’s voice and sometimes-controversial opinions, taken from letters owned by the Library of Congress, come through in his own words. The difficulties of collecting songs in the years before World War Two, the limitations of the recording equipment of the day, and the on-going financial struggles that Lomax faced are offset by the excitement of uncovering tunes amongst the poor and working people, whether it be in Haiti; the African-American south; Washington, DC; or nearly half the states in the union. Insider’s views of Woody Guthrie, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, and Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, all of whom Lomax recorded in discussion and song sessions at the Library of Congress, as well as Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Josh White, Aunt Molly Jackson, and the Golden Gate Quartet, who appeared on Lomax’s radio shows and concerts, are invaluable.

Much of Lomax’s attention is given to the plight of African Americans in the American south. Recollections of his travels with Dr. John Work of Fisk University, during which they “discovered” Son House and McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfeld, offer a glance at the day-to-day struggles of pre-Civil Rights African Americans. Lomax’s lobbying to the Library of Congress to have them paid is revealing.

Lomax’s interests, though, went much further than the Southland and African America. He found songs in the prisons, logging camps, coalmines, and rural towns across America, discovering keys to cultural awareness along the way. His growing fascination for the diversity of world music is revealed in an ambitious, but unrealized, proposal for incorporating musical traditions into the World’s Fair in 1939 and 1940.

Leaving the Library of Congress to join the Army’s Office of War Information, in 1942, Lomax continued to concentrate on music’s role in bringing information to people in rural areas, using songs to stir support for the war effort.

A recurrent theme is Lomax’s response to copyright infringement as he deals with the rampant non-licensed use of the songs first published in books written with his father.

While the absence of letters to Lomax leaves a one-sided voice, it is that voice that helped to lay the foundations for the folk and world music of today. As such, Alan Lomax, Assistant In Charge: The Library of Congress Letters 1935-1945 provides a glimpse at folk music roots and an essential view of musical growth. [http://www.upress.state.ms.us/books/1310]

—Craig Harris (Chicopee, MA)

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