Bright Lights Film Journal

Cultural Equity: On the Documentary Lomax the Songhunter

“Every smallest branch of the human family at one time or another has carved its dreams out of the rock on which it has lived.” – Alan Lomax

It was a remarkable moment, that day in April of 1961 when Leonard Bernstein took the stage at Carnegie Hall before a packed house of upper-middle-class white schoolchildren, their nannies, and the cameras of CBS Television — there to transmit nationally this latest in his long-running series of Young People’s Concerts — and, with great sincerity, asked the musical question, “What is folk music, anyway?” Of course, nothing in the ensuing presentation of what makes Tschaikovsky “sound Russian,” interspersed with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra cranking out two- and three-minute snatches of Mozart and Ravel and Charles Ives, of all people, was particularly revelatory (it was middlebrow working on absurd). The question itself, shorn of context; well, that wasn’t remarkable either. No, what was indeed remarkable was that it represented the first known instance where an eminence in the official culture (albeit one who always knew a good trend when he spotted it) climbed onto an already crowded pop culture bandwagon, right there on TV.

“All music is folk music” Big Bill Broonzy once stated (thereby answering Bernstein’s question, however indirectly); and, I ask you, what twisted soul walks among us who would dare disagree. But as for how folk music got to be an installation in the pop culture gallery? That’s pretty revealing in itself.

In the 1950s a great hunger for authenticity had developed in the land, a need to know where everything came from, how it got here in the first place, where it all went. As the calendar changed and the pages fell off, one after the other, and fewer and fewer Americans could successfully con themselves into believing that the culture they saw and heard every day emerged organically out of anything resembling a human society, the presence of this void — along with every dire thing it implied about where we were heading — only grew. It would have been a distressing moment in American life had it not spawned a commercial dimension that, however inevitable in retrospect, pushed the limits of irony to the breaking point: Somehow this inchoate yearning for a less commodified culture had itself become a commodity, what we now call the Folk Revival; resulting in everything from Bernstein’s kiddy exegesis on CBS to the homogenized, ideologically neutered emanations of million-selling acts like the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four.

Alan Lomax, the subject of Rogier Kappers’ admiring portrait Lomax the Songhunter(2004), existed as a spiritual father to the Folk Revival while remaining largely free from the taint of its more hideous manifestations (an achievement in itself). Part archivist, part impresario, part broadcaster, folklorist, cheerleader, and propagandist, he had done more than anyone in his lifetime to spread the news to a cold, half-lit world obsessed with Modernity that something other than what they were hearing on the radio or the jukebox still existed, much of it right under their noses. He was an advocate for marginalized tradition who saw a mass media growing less interested in indigenous voices by the day; and by the force of his will he used it to make those voices more audible to the wider world. With the thousands of recordings he made of ordinary people the world over, he became a kind of caretaker for the untrammeled expressions of whole societies that had been shoved to the sidelines by the madness and rush of the twentieth century. He called it cultural equity.

Born in 1915, he was the second son of John Avery Lomax, a University of Texas administrator and failed banker whose research in the early part of the last century (as well as his co-founding the Texas Folklore Society) unearthed a vast number of songs — mostly ballads and cowboy songs — that made him an eminent figure among folklorists toiling in the groves of academe. But revered though he was, and still is, it must be noted that John Lomax’s largely invaluable work was nevertheless founded on the imperatives of scholarship. To him (as well as other folk music scholars of his day), the extraordinary wealth of songs drifting through the American ether could only receive such honor as they were due through their captivity in the classroom or the lecture hall. Nobody saw how limited the prevailing values were because no one had ever examined folk culture in an organized, structured manner before this. The intent from beginning to end was scholarly, never musical or even social. And if folklorists like John Lomax had been able to put a song under a microscope, they would have.

In 1932 he embarked on a joint undertaking with the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress (where he would soon be appointed curator) to compile a more or less definitive collection of primordial American song, and he enlisted his son Alan, then a University of Texas undergraduate, as coadjutant to the mission. Setting out in a Ford sedan in early 1933, the two crisscrossed the American South, concentrating their efforts mainly on prisons and work farms. There they collected songs, catalogued them, made recordings in the field of mostly African-American inmate populations using a superannuated Edison wax-cylinder device (later replaced by a state-of-the-art Presto acetate disc recorder that, though far more reliable, weighed some 350 pounds). At first they were just recording small samples almost as a form of note-taking. But the recordings, so galvanizing from the first, assumed primacy; and the journey had only just started.

As with many cultural enterprises of that stripe, however, Lomax the elder’s work was not without its troubling dimension.

There was a reason he found prisoners such an invaluable resource, after all. From his perspective, these inmates — a number of whom had been locked up since the end of the 19th century (some on the most dubious charges anyone can imagine) — were the living embodiments of rusticitas, primitive souls unspoiled by the fleeting enthusiasms of popular culture. Which had the effect of making the correctional facilities in which they were housed by the state into almost perfect centers of musical purity; laboratories of song, if you will. “Thrown on their own resources for entertainment,” he would later write in full antebellum reverie, “they still sing, especially the long-term prisoners who have been confined for years and who have not yet been influenced by jazz and the radio, the distinctive old-time Negro melodies.” (And, of course, one need not have read The Confessions of Nat Turner to figure out what “old-time” he’s referring to.)

During a working visit to the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, John Lomax was so dumbstruck by the song styling of a one-time convicted murderer named Huddie Ledbetter that he petitioned Louisiana’s radiantly corrupt governor, Oscar “O.K.” Allen, for the inmate’s release (which was granted after a transaction whose foulness we can only guess at). Lomax’s sponsorship of the artist who would one day be known to time as Leadbelly did not end there, however. Once released, the old man displayed the native generosity of his class by watching over his money for him, telling him what songs he might sing, lending him a measure of public attention by having him delineate those distinctive old-time Negro melodies before audiences at universities as well as starched gatherings of the American Folklore Society. where, to strike the proper chord of verisimilitude, Lomax always had him perform wearing his old prison stripes.

He even gave Ledbetter steady employment as his chauffeur.

The only hint of this unsanitary legacy in Rogier Kappers’ film (and it’s the only hint anyone could decently want) is culled from a 1935 March of Time Newsreel that has Leadbelly, still in the uniform, giving a sturdy 12-string reading of his “Goodnight, Irene” before a group of similarly-attired extras while John Lomax — looking like the deputy warden almost by default — bears solemn witness. “Why, that’s fine, Leadbelly,” he says, in a tone one might use to acknowledge the dedicated service of one’s footman; whereupon one of the great and mighty singers of the age, so humbled by the endorsement of this schoolteacher, says “Thankye, boss. Yassuh. Thankye, boss.” Several times.

In his 2001 study of “the mixed and mongrel bloodlines” of American music, Where Dead Voices Gather, Nick Tosches makes fast and brutal work of people like the elder Lomax who patronized the folk culture they purported to love; who used it for a narrow purpose, ghoulishly romanticized underclass suffering, raised it to an exalted state, and turned it into another, more sinister form of minstrelsy. He doesn’t mention John Lomax — saving his most withering condemnation for the young, white America of the 1960s, “seeking escape from vacuousness through the delusive pseudo-negritude of the ‘raw, hard truth’ of the blues” — though it would not be hard to slot him into Tosches’ indictment, since the imperatives of scholarship are often no less squalid (and no more different) than those of class. But if his attitude toward the folklore around which he built his work was at best limited and condescending — and at worst one huge gesture of upper-class paternalism — it would be horribly wrong to describe his son’s attitude as such.

Alan Lomax’s passion for the music he and his father were recording was immediate and genuine. In an archival interview from 1991, he recalls how, before going out into the field in ’33, he thought he’d heard all the best music Western culture had to offer: orchestral music, chamber music, jazz, you name it. But from the moment he heard an inmate at some fetid Texas gulag sing “Go Down, Old Hannah” (which he proceeds to sing in his own remarkable voice), he knew he was hearing “the most wonderful song I’d ever heard” — an almost pallid designation in light of what it wrought in him.

Despite his later, misguided bid for academic acceptance of his work through the construction of something called cantometrics (a form of automated scholarship that lives in the high-rent district of self-parody), Lomax was never cut out for the role of ethnomusicologist, disinterring the primeval residue of ancient civilizations and then dissecting them like dead frogs in a 10th grade biology class. He was far too excited about this music at every stage of his adult life to let it die in the schoolroom. You can’t teach it. Like all art worthy of the term, the sound that so stirred him on that long ago day — a sound no doubt beautiful and calamitous at once — resisted (and still resists) all reason, all theory, all sentimental reverie and easy familiarity. In even the scratchiest, most carelessly-preserved folk recordings, these songs, good and bad, these singers, black and white, male and female, hurl themselves on the ears of the listener with joy and sorrow and loss and a poetry which is the final sundering of everything at the heart of the con job of Western rationalism. If Lomax didn’t know this in 1933, then surely he sensed it.

In 1937 Alan Lomax was appointed assistant to the curator of the Folk Song archive at the Library of Congress. Nominally this made him a subordinate, but he was in fact running the place. The old man was heading for retirement, and it would have been foolish for anyone to even try to exert authority over him, so boundless was his energy and enthusiasm. Under the auspices of the archive, Lomax continued the work his father had begun, but now with a far greater intent (and with far less disgraceful underpinnings). He expanded the scope of the archive’s holdings, he promoted concerts, produced broadcasts for the CBS and Mutual radio networks (later for the BBC), “discovered” Woody Guthrie in 1940, and, of course, continued his field recording mission. In the 1950s he produced the groundbreaking (if somewhat unfortunately titled) World Library of Folk and Primitive Music series for the Columbia label; each volume devoted to indigenous music from a specific area of the world.

His method of gathering the material for these LPs was outwardly simple. He’d travel, usually to some distant spot that industrial capital had left behind, and just start looking. He’d ask people he met what songs they knew, what songs they grew up hearing, what songs they heard others sing. He’d record them all: songs of love and hate, horror, absurdity, and toil; songs that emerged out of a dire past, or out of nothing other than a determination to get through the day’s work. The more songs one could find in a given region, his thinking went, the more one would understand about the people who knew and sang them.

The regional voices Lomax preserved are, it turns out, as central to Lomax the Songhunter as Lomax himself, and it’s Kappers’ singular accomplishment that his film avoids all temptation to paint these people as noble peasants. Though for someone who was such a folk culture omnivore and whose work over six decades was so multivaried, the documentary’s intense focus on his international field recordings of the 1950s appears, at first, a trifle narrow. Other elements of his life and career are glanced at, yes, but little more than that (some are not addressed at all). Lomax accomplished so much, one thinks, why confine the film to this?

Part of it was a matter of unfortunate circumstance. Kappers’ original intention, he admits early on, was to have Lomax discuss his life and work just as any subject in any prosaic documentary would. But he had been felled by a terrible stroke sometime before the filmmaker’s visit to his Florida home in 2001, and while he could still understand everything he was asked, he could articulate little (the ravages of his illness are also, as we see too often in the film, painfully visible). So Kappers turned instead to those around the globe whose voices Lomax had recorded half a century before (in some cases their descendants); people in remote areas of Scotland and Spain, in Sicily, whose memory of this rather intense yet affable American who rode into their lives in a funky VW caravanette stuffed with recording equipment remains undimmed, indeed almost brighter with the accumulation of time.

In retracing only a part of Lomax’s journey, Rogier Kappers doesn’t seem to be trying to recreate these moments, or even celebrate them. His intention is to live within them to the degree anyone can from this many years’ remove. In their brief transit with Alan Lomax, after all, these people were given an opportunity they never knew could be theirs. And through them he preserved errant shards of what was, even then, a vast wealth of ongoing musical tradition residing in every corner of the earth; setting down for generations who might otherwise have forgotten it the ways in which a common experience rises and speaks through a language of song.

“Every smallest branch of the human family at one time or another has carved its dreams out of the rock on which it has lived,” he once wrote. “True, and sometimes pain-filled dreams, but still wholly appropriate to their particular bit of earth.” As Kappers’ film beautifully demonstrates, nothing else that Alan Lomax did in his 82 years of life (he passed away in 2002) — not his recordings of Woody Guthrie or Jelly Roll Morton or Aunt Molly Jackson, not his numerous books and essays; not his own documentaries or the folly of cantometrics — had a greater resonance or more directly touched people’s lives than this, the deceptively simple act of lighting out into the world, recording people’s true and pain-filled dreams through the songs that they knew, and putting it on a record that anybody anywhere could listen to.