The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax - words, photographs and music

Book by Tom Piazza.  Introduction by William R Ferris

Library of Congress.  Book with 12 track CD

Alan Lomax was one of the most important figures to have been involved with American folk music.  As a teenager he accompanied his father, John Lomax, to Mississippi where the pair discovered the singer Huddie Ledbetter, better known as 'Leadbelly'.  Some years later, in 1941, Alan Lomax returned to Mississippi in search of Robert Johnson.  He didn't find Johnson, who by this time was dead, but he did discover and record a young guitar player called McKinley Morganfield who was later to become world famous as "Muddy Waters".  It was Alan Lomax who spent several days recording people such as Jelly Roll Morton and Woody Guthrie for the Library of Congress - as well as hundreds of less well-known singers and musicians.  In a 1940 radio script he said that "the essence of America lies not in the headlined heroes … but in the everyday folks who live and die unknown, yet leave their dreams as legacies".  How true, how true.  In August 1959, having spent eight years in European exile, Lomax set out once again to the American south in search of more musicians and singers.  He returned again in the following spring and the trips became known as the Southern Journey.

The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax comes in three parts.  There is a short opening foreword by Bill Ferris, who will be known to many for his own field work among southern blues singers, a longer survey of Alan Lomax's life and collecting career by Tom Piazza, and, thirdly, a selection of photographs that Lomax took during this period of his life.

The Ferris piece began life as a keynote address at a 2006 conference, 'The Lomax Legacy: Folklore in a Globalizing Century', that was held at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, where both John and Alan Lomax had worked in the 1930s and '40s.  Ferris is right to point out that, 'no other folklorist in the twentieth century worked with black performers and (black) academic colleagues as Alan Lomax did throughout his career'.  I should, perhaps, add that Lomax's book The Land Where the Blues Began is one of the most important works to have been written on the blues.  Recently, some critics have questioned some of Lomax's chronology in the book, but this is a minor point.  The book was written for the general public and not the specialist academic.  As Lomax once said, "There is an impulsive and romantic streak in my nature that I find difficult to control when I go song hunting".  Another comment, this time against "chair-bound scholars", probably alienated some of the people who should have been supporting him.

Tom Piazza, who calls Alan Lomax 'the greatest folklorist of the twentieth century, and perhaps of all time', begins his essay with these words, 'American culture is nothing if not divided'.  He then goes on to show how Lomax clearly found himself on the side of those 'everyday folk' and how his life was shaped by a passionate belief in the common man.  Like many of his generation, Lomax became involved in radical political ideology, so much so that when his name was listed as a "subversive" in a 1950s pamphlet he felt that he had to leave America.  When he arrived in London Lomax stayed with Peter Kennedy, and I remember Peter telling me how Lomax was in tears as he told his host that he had witnessed his books being burnt on an American University campus just a few days earlier.  I suspect that Lomax must have struggled financially for much of his European years and yet he carried on making recordings, especially in Britain, Spain and Italy, before finally returning home.  Piazza says that this forced exile turned Alan Lomax onto a 'citizen of the world', one who turned his mind to the relationships between folk music and a region's sexual and social mores - in other words, to the study of what came to become known as 'cantometrics'.

When Lomax returned to America in 1958 he no doubt intended to spend time developing his cantometric theories.  But America had changed in the intervening years and Lomax found that he was no longer considered to be the leading light that he once was.  Many criticised his habit of copyrighting collected songs to himself - something that he passed on to Peter Kennedy in England - others disliked his theorizing and moralizing.  According to folklorist John Greenway, 'Alan Lomax goes out of his way to annoy people who want desperately to like him'.  Furthermore, '(He) has explained his need for protection against us pilfering folklorists, but I fear that many of our profession will go on using The Lass of Loch Royal without paying Lomax any fee except a measure of acrimony'.  It seems that the Southern Journey was Lomax's way of countering the critics.  It was his way of showing that he was still a great collector.

Bill Ferris's foreword and Tom Piazza's introduction take up almost a half of this book, the rest being devoted to photographs taken by Alan Lomax during the years 1959 - 60.  However, I should mention that there are quite a few valuable historical photographs scattered throughout the first half of the book.  For example, the picture of the convict James Carter chopping wood at the Mississippi State Penitentiary is interesting, because it was Carter's singing of Po' Lazarus - as recorded by Alan Lomax - that was used on the soundtrack of the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? There are two photographs, one showing a youthful Alan Lomax, taken in 1935 when Lomax made a collecting trip to the Bahamas.  Others show Lomax in Scotland and Spain.  And there are pieces of ephemera, such as a listing of Lomax's possessions and equipment that he took with him on his Southern Journey.  (Did he, I wonder, actually find time to use the two tennis rackets that are listed?)

But, Lomax's Southern Journey photographs make up the bulk of this book.  Here we find, as expected, photographs of singers, such as Almeda Riddle, Neal Morris, Texas Gladden and her brother Hobart Smith, Fred McDowell and the sweet voiced Vera Ward Hall.  There is a splendid colour picture of the ballad singer Horton Barker and a powerful shot of bluesman John Dudley, guitar on knee, sitting in front of Lomax's stereo microphones.  What, I wonder, was Dudley thinking when this photograph was taken.  Some of the most moving pictures were taken in the Mississippi State Penitentiary when the prisoner's families were visiting.  The picture of a crouching inmate talking to, presumably, his young daughter is especially moving.  Some pictures have been seen before.  Others are new to me.  The couple seen at Charlie Houlin's juke joint in Hughes, Arkansas, can also be seen gracing the cover of the CD Alan Lomax: Blues Songbook (Rounder 1866), although on the CD cover we see the man swigging from a whisky bottle beneath a sign that reads 'No Liquor Drinking in Here'.  I also love the photographs of 86 year old Ada Combs, a banjo-playing ballad singer from Whitesburg in Kentucky.  Ada, it seems, was past her best when visited by Alan Lomax.  I wonder if she ever met Cecil Sharp when he was in Kentucky? There are also photographs of Ed Young and Lonnie Young Sr playing their fife and drum.  Lomax clearly saw a connection between their music and that of Africa, but there could also, I suspect, be an input here from the Civil War fife and Drum bands (see Testament Records CD Traveling Through the Jungle - Fife and Drum Music from the Deep South [TCD 5017] for more on this).

There is also a 12 track CD which accompanies the book.  Sadly, some of the tracks are still available elsewhere (assuming that Rounder Records' Southern Journey set of albums is still in print, though this may no longer be the case), although some tracks do seem to be issued here for the first time.  Vera Ward Hall's beautiful Riding in a Buggy/Candy Gal and Wade Ward's Cumberland Gap are new to me, as are the fife & drum piece Church, I Know We Got Another Building (Not Made with Hands) and Fred McDowell's I'm Going Down the Gravel.  Alan Lomax's recordings have, over the years, been issued on various labels and I am glad to see a useful partial discography included at the rear of the book.

In 2010 John Szwed produced The Man Who Recorded the World, a stunning biography of Alan Lomax.  But, there is only one picture, of Alan Lomax, in Szwed's book ("And what is the use of a book without pictures?", as Alice once observed).  The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax now corrects that omission and complements The Man Who Recorded the World.  It is, I think, a beautiful book and one that comes highly recommended.

Mike Yates - 24.12.12

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