Alan Lomax: Blues Songbook (Rounder) is a fantastic two disc set featuring 41 great country blues by black and white artists, including Muddy Waters, Dock Boggs, Fred McDowell, Leadbelly and Sonny Boy Williamson.
The title, however, may seem a little misleading, since Lomax claims writing credit on only nine of the tracks. (According to the bmi.com website; the CD shrewdly contains no songwriting or publishing credits, although it otherwise contains very detailed credits.) For the most part, Lomax “wrote” such songs as “Stagolee,” “John Henry,” and “Blind Lemon Blues” in collaboration with his father, John A. Lomax, Sr. In a few instances, he also “collaborated” with artists such as Vera Hall (“Trouble So Hard”), and Bessie Jones (“Beggin’ the Blues”).
Lomax does, however, claim sole responsibility for writing Walter “Tangle Eye” Jackson’s “Tangle Eye Blues.” This is most impressive to anyone who’s ever heard Jackson sing that great and utterly personal song. I think it is equaled only by Lomax and Frank Warner taking credit for Frank Proffit’s great “Tom Dooley.”
I don’t know who in their right mind could believe that Alan Lomax wrote any of these or a dozen important Negro spirituals including “O Freedom,” seizing credit for which ought to win a Nobel Prize for gall. But how does this make Lomax any different from say, from EMI or Universal which take copyright credit for work they didn’t do?
Is there another human in the history of our species who could get away with this kind of robbery-not only of money but of credit and historical recognition-and be acclaimed a hero?
“The blues are songs which stand for the whole system of prejudice, exploitation, terror and rejection, which shaped the lives of Southern Negroes in the period between 1890 and 1940,” Lomax wrote in the early ’50s. His song credits, however, stand for exactly the same thing.
When will we shut up about this? When the notes to “documentary” records like Alan Lomax: Blues Songbook deal with the whole of what he did, not just the nice parts.
DAVE MARSH (along with Lee Ballinger) edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters.From the February Rock & Rap Confidential, For a free copy of the issue, email your postal address to: RRC, Box 341305, LA CA 90034. Marsh’s definitive and monumental biography of Bruce Springsteen has just been reissued, with 12,000 new words, under the title Two Hearts. Marsh can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org