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.

He took to the road, first with son John Jr., then with Alan--always his favorite. Working with the Library of Congress, traveling an America devoid of interstates and often even asphalt, he and Alan traveled thousands of miles, sleeping outdoors, lugging primitive, unreliable recording equipment that weighed hundreds of pounds. Lomax visited ranches, prisons, fields, farms, and churches, gathering the material that would become his next major work--American Ballads and Folksongs. He discovered a black convict in Louisiana with uncommon musical ability. When the man--soon known to the world as Leadbelly--was released, Lomax took him to New York City.

The Leadbelly episode was a summary of much that would bedevil his reputation. He was genuinely interested in black American culture, but seemed to consider blacks childlike, incapable of getting along without more enlightened help. Lomax's association with Leadbelly didn't last long; soon questions about money--the Lomaxes took a healthy cut--arose. Leadbelly split from the folklorist after scarcely three months.

Such events tend to obscure the very real debt that American song owes to the Lomaxes. In American Ballads were found such taken-for-granted classics as "Down in the Valley," "Jesse James," "Cotton-eyed Joe," Yankee Doodle," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Dixie." It's most unlikely that they would be as pervasive now were it not for the efforts of John Lomax, supported by Alan. "He clearly saved a lot of national treasures," Porterfield says. "Whether somebody else would have eventually is a moot point. He was indefatigable in pursuing these songs, and the very fact that he was so active inspired a lot of people to follow his work. Maybe they thought that they could do better--sometimes they were right--but they wouldn't have gone down that road if not for him."

The Lomaxes put up with discomfort, an attitude that their work was little more than a collecting of "itinerant songs," condescension and jealousy from competitors, and outright hostility. "Lomax had this wonderful Victorian attitude, and he stayed true to it, even when it wasn't the thing to do," Porterfield says.

When John Lomax died, Alan was ready to take over. Although quite a bit more liberal--his father often worried about his "Communistic" tendencies--Alan was his father's son. "Alan inherited the mantle from his father, and he could be quite difficult," Porterfield explains. "People often took their cues from that." Armed with a tape deck, Lomax traveled first the country, then the world. In America he discovered Mississippi Fred McDowell and brought the work of Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sonny Boy Williamson to a larger audience, but he was thinking on an even greater scale: He was soon off to the British Isles, Italy, Spain, Indonesia, Venezuela, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria.

Issued on countless LPs during the vinyl age, the archive he established is being re-issued by Rounder. The first seven of a starting 13-disc series are out now. The new Southern Journey contains all of his 12-LP Southern Heritage series, with a third more unreleased material. "Rounder was the only one to see the big picture," says Lomax Collection staff editor Matt Barton. "Other labels were interested, but only in this or that, just the blues or just the folk."

Lomax, debilitated by a series of strokes that started after he signed with Rounder, had to leave the actual assembly to others, including his daughter Anna. "The Southern Journey discs are relatively recent [1959-60] and in stereo," Barton explains. "They represent the last bunch of songs from the TV-less generation who'd grown up with these songs."

Some of the material in the series is pretty raw, and may be a bit hard to take at first, but little revelations await the careful listener: the guiding hand of sacred music and joy of surrender explained in the Sea Island Singers' "Sheep, Sheep, Don'tcha Know the Road"; the beautiful shaped-note singing of the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers; the old children's song "Little Sally Walker," accompanied by simple hand-clapping, with its familiar chorus of "Ride, Sally, Ride"; and Hobart Smith's "Sourwood Mountain," almost a dead ringer for Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright."

Alan Lomax went on to become one of the very first aficionados of world music, and he was no dilettante; sometimes--as when recording in fascist Spain, continually shadowed by the Guardia Civil--his work took real courage. Lomax was one of the first to make larger connections through music, as when he noted the correlation between musical styles and sexual repression in the regions of Spain (the less repressed the attitude, the more relaxed the singing, which makes sense).

Although it's hard to imagine, in an era filled with Cuban salsa, reggae, and multi-album releases devoted to Indonesian gamelan music or the conjuntos of San Antonio in the 1950s, that there was a time not so long ago when music reflected but one--the dominant--culture. That such is no longer the case has much to do with the work of Alan Lomax and his father, John.

Regrettably, the Lomaxes somehow missed the old club owner's field holler "Listings Blues"--"Gonna send a fax to Street Beat (hunh!)/That column of renown (hah!)/But if we don't send another to Jimmy Fowler (hunh!)/The listing won't go down (hah!)"--but you may sing it whenever you contact us at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.

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