Alan Lomax

Seeing Alan Lomax’s obituary on the front page of the New York Times irked the hell out of me. Harry Smith syndrome all over again—-the Great White “Discoverer” as the axis of cultural genesis. Lomax, wrote Jon Pareles, “advocated what he called ‘cultural equity: the right of every culture to have equal time on the air and equal time in the classroom.'”

He did?

In 1993, when Lomax published The Land Where the Blues Began, his memoir of blues research in the deep South, Peter Bochan invited him to do a WBAI interview. Bochan ventured to Lomax that Elvis Presley stood as a great product of the Southern folk cultures. Lomax firmly denied this, and said that Bochan couldn’t even know that Presley had listened as a boy to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s gospel radio show because “You weren’t there.” He said this so persistently and adamantly — with all the stupid “folklorist” purism that ruined the folk music revival–that Bochan went home and intercut Lomax’s prissy voice and dumb assertions with excerpts from Beavis and Butthead. It aired that way.

Even sticking to the blues, Lomax cut a dubious figure. As a veteran blues observer wrote me, “Don’t get too caught up in grieving for Alan Lomax. For every fine musical contribution that he made, there was an evil venal manipulation of copyright, publishing and ownership of the collected material.”

The most notorious concerns “Goodnight Irene.” Lomax and his father recorded Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter’s song first, so when the song needed to be formally copyrighted because the Weavers were about to have a huge hit with it, representatives of the Ledbetter family approached him. Lomax agreed that this copyright should be established. He adamantly refused to take his name off the song, or to surrender income from it, even though Leadbelly’s family was impoverished in the wake of his death two years earlier.

Lomax believed folk culture needed guidance from superior beings like himself. Lomax told Bochan what he believed: nothing in poor people’s culture truly happened unless someone like him documented it. He hated rock’n’roll–down to instigating the assault against Bob Dylan’s sound system at Newport in ’65–because it had no need of mediation by experts like himself.

The nature of the expert mattered, too. Lomax’s obit made the front page mainly because he “discovered” Son House and Muddy Waters. But in Can’t Be Satisfied, his new Muddy Waters biography, Robert Gordon shows that Lomax’s discoveries weren’t the serendipitous events the great white hunter portrayed. Lomax was led to House and then Waters by the great Negro scholar, John Work III of Fisk University. Gordon even shows Lomax plagiarizing Work, and not on a minor point. (See page 51) In his book, Lomax offers precisely one sentence about Work. He eliminated Work from his second Mississippi trip. He also burned Muddy Waters for the $20 he promised for making the records.

Maybe the fact that Lomax served as a folk music “missionary” (to use Bob Dylan’s term) offsets all this. Provided that it doesn’t turn out that Lomax used and discarded ethnic workers worldwide the way he used Work, I guess there’s a case to be made. But I do hope that people understand that when Pareles says that “Mr. Lomax wasn’t interested in simply discovering stars,” part of the meaning is that he didn’t want them to get in the way of his self–importance.

Sometime soon, we need to figure out why it is that, when it comes to cultures like those of Mississippi black people, we celebrate the milkman more than the milk. Meanwhile, every sentence that will be uttered about Lomax this week–including these–would be better used to describe the great musicians he recorded in the U.S., the Bahamas, and elsewhere. Reading Gordon’s book serves as a good corrective.

(what’s playing in my office)

1. “The Rising” (track), Bruce Springsteen (Sony)

2. Watermelon, Chicken and Gritz, Nappy Roots (Atlantic)

3. “Sway” and “Moonlight Mile,” Alvin Youngblood Hart from Songs of the Rolling Stones, All Blues’d Up (Compendia This Ain’t No Tribute series) Hart channels Jagger the way Jagger channels Bobby Womack, further establishing him as the finest of today’s young bluesmen. Other highlights: Junior Wells does “Satisfaction” as “Smokestack Lightnin'”; Luther Allison does “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as autobiography. Forget the rest of the series–volumes devoted to Dylan, Clapton, Zeppelin and Joplin, although every volume has at
least one good performance by Otis Clay.

4. Blazing Arrow, Blackalicious (MCA)

5. Try Again, Mike Ireland and Holler

6. Adult World, Wayne Kramer (MuscleTone)

7. Dreamland, Robert Plant (Universal)

8. Little By Little, The Stevens Sisters (Rounder)

9. 1000 Kisses, Patty Griffin, (ATO)

10. Living in a New World, Willie King and the
Liberators (Rooster Blues)

11. The Better Part of Me, Clifford Coulter (Sony, Jpn) This 1980 album might be the last stand of disco as art form. Producer/songwriter Bill
Withers and soul veteran Clifford Coulter combined for a blend neo–soul never quite reaches: Polished, funky, heartfelt, driving.

12. Down the Road, Van Morrison (Universal)

13. The Shed Sessions, Bhundu Boys (Sadza, Ger.)

14. Millionaire, Kevin Welch (Dead Reckoning)

15. Keep on Burning, Bob Frank (Bowstring.

Dave Marsh coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. Marsh is the author of The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles.

He can be reached at: marsh6@optonline.net


More articles by:

Dave Marsh edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: rockrap@aol.com. Dave blogs at http://davemarsh.us/

Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South