Bordered by ballads and folksongs

John and Alan Lomax, groundbreaking musicologists

Although there are times when you might wish that songs, like milk, had expiration dates--perhaps right after the DJ says "Say, whatever happened to these guys?" and plays Frankie Goes to Hollywood--music is far more than just a diversion or background accompaniment. It is almost inadvertently a record of a time and the people who lived in it, bearing the imprint of the thousand things that led up to it and providing an insight into the lives of those who make and listen to it.

That attitude, however, is a fairly recent development, an appreciation that owes much to Texans John A. Lomax and his son, Alan, pioneers in fostering an appreciation first for American folk music (John) and then for what we now know as world music (Alan). Now, fittingly, the work of both men is in the spotlight. John Lomax is the subject of the biography The Last Cavalier by Nolan Porterfield (University of Illinois Press). After his father died in 1948, Alan continued field recording and musical research, in many ways perfecting and sharpening his father's process. The first six volumes of Alan Lomax's archival recordings--attempting to document the indigenous musics of the world--have just been released on CD by Rounder.

Both men's reputations have suffered from the current tendency to hold the past accountable to the standards of the present. John Lomax was a holdover from an earlier, stiffer age and not without his share of personal pride. Born in 1867, the stubbornness with which he held to the 19th century attitudes that he grew up with--particularly in the area of race--sometimes obscured the innovations he was making in musical research. Son Alan inherited more than a little of his father's unyielding character, and his strong stand against Bob Dylan's going electric at the 1965 Newport Festival--he gave a declamatory speech the next day that got him into a fistfight with Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman--tends to mark him as a reactionary square.

Both were much more than that. Last Cavalier wrestles with the complete John Lomax, good and bad. "One of the most amazing things about [John] Lomax is that he was in his early 60s, with an entire other life behind him, when he started his folklore research," author Porterfield says. Prior to that, Lomax had basically been an administrator, either in the area of finance or university education; much of his career was intimately bound to the fortunes of Texas' fledgling state college system.

"The first part of the book is a bit heavy," Porterfield admits, and he's right, but a biographer's obligation is not just to the good parts. "Those that know him know him as a folksong collector, and I was just as interested in his banking career." Like Robert Caro's two-volume LBJ biography, Cavalier makes an impressive case for just how hard life was in turn-of-the-century Texas.

Although he had been born in Mississippi, Lomax--who moved with his family to Meridian, Texas, at the age of two--was every inch a Texan by the time he went to Austin. A career that switched between finance and academia never quite provided him with the repute he wanted--despite his attending Harvard--and he settled on documenting the songs of cowboys as an avenue of endeavor that might be new enough for him to excel in. Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads was published in 1911, and presented songs that seem today as though the've always been familiar to Americans--"Git Along Little Dogies," "Sweet Betsy From Pike," and "The Old Chisolm Trial."

Lomax's first book also announced some of the problems that would dog him until the end of his days. "Home on the Range" was another one of the songs he presented in Cowboy Songs, and very quickly involved him in an imbroglio over authorship. "Lomax's personality alienated a lot of people, and his scholarship was sloppy," Porterfield says. "Academics didn't hold him in high esteem because he wrote books that were popular."

Porterfield's previous book was a biography of essential country-blues pioneer Jimmie Rodgers. "The basic difference in working on the Rodgers book and Lomax was that with Rodgers there were thin spots," he explains. "Lomax wrote voluminous letters, anywhere from three to four a day when he was busy, and six to ten when he wasn't. At times I was almost overwhelmed."

A bunch of letters wasn't exactly a free ride into Lomax's life, however. "An illegible scrawl," Porterfield says with something that's both a bit of a sigh and a chuckle. "I worked on the book in the summers, and every time I went back to Lomax after being away, it'd take me a couple days to get back into being able to read what it was he wrote."

Although he was always active in the field of folklore, Lomax had virtually retired when he embarked upon the work for which he's best-known. His health failing, sandbagged financially by the Great Depression, mourning a recently departed wife, and too old for a new career, Lomax seemed at the end of the road in the early '30s when he decided to stake whatever he would leave posterity--family included--on his folklore research.

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