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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.'”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org