Saturday, 31 January 2015

Alan Lomax: Conservation as Revolution

by James Burkinshaw

Alan Lomax (left) recording in the Dominican Republic, 1962
(source: Cultural Equity Centre)

Alan Lomax (born 100 years ago today) helped revolutionise attitudes to music. He was a pioneer of the 'world music' phenomenon, recording the music of thousands of artists around the world whose work might otherwise have been lost to posterity. He was also a passionate and articulate advocate of what he called "cultural equity" - the right of folk musicians, from Cajun fishermen to Bulgarian shepherdesses, to be accorded the same respect and significance as Mozart or Sinatra. His vision was realised when, in 1977, the Voyager probe was sent into outer space with its "Golden Record" featuring recordings selected to represent the Earth's music that included (thanks to Lomax's personal advocacy) not just Beethoven and Stravinsky but
Blind Willie Johnson and Azerbaijani bagpipe music. Legendary producer Brian Eno argues that Lomax "secured for many kinds of music a dignity and status they had not previously been accorded."

A white Southerner, Lomax began frequenting black night clubs during his teenage years in Texas, in a period when music in America was still primarily segregated; recordings by African-American artists were categorised as "race records" and exclusively marketed to African-Americans. Although some of the artists he later discovered (Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly) would become big names, Lomax himself was less interested in creating stars than in finding authentic self-expression rooted in local traditions - whether in an Alabaman prison or a Zairean village. He began his career by recording thousands of songs by musicians throughout the American South, preserving musical traditions and individual performances that might otherwise have been lost forever (thousands of his recordings are now available free online at both the American Folklife Centre and Lomax's own Association for Cultural Equity). The influence of this music over the next half century (via artists from Bob Dylan - a protege of Lomax - to the Rolling Stones) was revolutionary. Lomax himself dedicated his memoir, The Land Where Blues Began, to "the black people of the Delta, who created a Mississippi of song that now flows through the music of the whole world". 

Perhaps his greatest legacy was his advocacy of "cultural equity - the right of every culture to have equal time on the air”. Before Lomax, "race" (Southern black) and "hillbilly" (Southern white) music were commonly dismissed as primitive and unsophisticated, not worthy of broadcast on mainstream radio and TV. Lomax helped change all that, most notably by organising high-profile concerts at the prestigious Carnegie Hall, celebrating music from Kentucky bluegrass to Caribbean calypso and Jewish klezmer, establishing their right to stand alongside classical artists. He was also an early supporter of the cultural value of rock music; in 1959, he told a Carnegie Hall audience:the time has come for Americans not to be ashamed of what we go for, musically, from primitive ballads to rock'n'roll songs”. He was roundly booed, but this was a significant moment in American music; as Israel Young recalled, "the point he was trying to make was that Negro and white music were mixing and rock and roll was that thing.” Lomax had been trying to bring white and black musicians and music together for over twenty years, producing one of the first racially integrated shows to be broadcast in America - the Back Where I Came series - as early as 1941.

He fought to preserve folk traditions from the homogenising influence of modern mass media - many decades ahead of his time in seeing the rapid reduction of linguistic and cultural diversity worldwide as just as much of a threat to human survival as the destruction of biodiversity. He was prescient in realising that musical expression was intextricable from not only cultural but social and political identity: "the only way to halt this degradation of man’s culture is to commit ourselves to the principles of political, social and economic justice.” In the 1930s, Lomax was threatened with expulsion from university for "radicalism"; throughout the 1940s, he was harassed by the FBI (who tried to have him fired from his job with the Library of Congress, on several occasions, for being a "subversive"); and he spent the 1950s in exile in Europe rather than face the infamous House UnAmerican Activities committee (only to be placed under surveillance by MI5 while in London). Through such repressive actions, the American (and British) establishment confirmed what Lomax himself was arguing - that “the seemingly incoherent diversity of American folk song (is) an expression of its democratic, inter-racial, international character"  - and a challenge to the bland conformism and reductivism of mainstream musical and political culture.

See a blog tribute to musician and musicologist, Pete Seeger, here.

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