Sunday, July 22, 2012

Alan Lomax: Producer of the people. Part 1

A long post that I have split into two parts to make it a bit more manageable.

I have just finished reading John Szwed’s biography of the great American folklorist Alan Lomax. It’s an excellent, but albeit curious book in many ways. The subject is intensely fascinating and given the incredible activity of Lomax throughout his life, the 400 pages of text seems somehow too short without ever feeling overburdened with facts and figures. If anything, there is perhaps a lack of prose at certain times, in particular describing the atmosphere or some of the more personal events during some of the road trips to the Mississippi Delta region and small town America in the 30s,  or the European trip in the 50s. As described in one of the videos below, Szwed himself confesses the original text was cut by around a quarter which may account for these kinds of omissions. But as well as a lack of prose, there is at times a certain lack of analysis or deeper interpretation of the significance of Lomax’s work

One reason for this could be reading it as a non-American, my lack of knowledge of 20th Century American history and politics leaves me exposed and unable to join the dots myself. The other more practical reason is that Lomax’s contributions to society, not just American society, are perhaps too great even for an excellent and efficient author like Szwed to tackle in one comfortable volume. Indeed, comparing “The man who recorded the world” against Szwed’s great biography of Sun Ra, “Space is the place”, suggests just this: Sun Ra’s equal rights philosophy and plan for salvation of the black race in outer space is a complicated idea, but is essentially the only one running through the book and Szwed unravels the code with ease. Lomax instead builds himself as a champion not only of race politics, but workers’ rights and socialism, anthropology and the broader implications of art, as well as being a writer of books, radio and television programs and an international folk song collector. A lot of themes and a lot of context to supply. Nonetheless, the introduction to Lomax’s life and work provided by the book are resonant and easily build him to be a titan and deeply admirable figure of the 20th Century.

One of four videos of John Szwed talking about his book:

There are plenty of other internet sources for rounding up a brief summary of Lomax’s life, so I won’t double-up here, but instead focus on some of the more interesting aspects from an outsider’s point of view.

The DNA of folk music

Lomax’s archive consists of around 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 2,450 videotapes, 2,000 books and journals, numerous prints, documents and databases, and more than 120 linear feet of paperwork. The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) is custodian of the Alan Lomax Archive, and in March this year, they in association with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress have made much of this material available in digital form. In many ways, this represents the culmination of what Lomax had wanted to achieve in establishing a “Global Jukebox.” Lomax had developed the idea in the late 80s, having wanted to create an “intelligent museum” where uses could search the database for music and dance styles they were interested in from all over the world. However, the computing power at the time was not capable of such feats, whereas that moment now seems to have arrived.

Click here for the related Alan Lomax Youtube channel

Lomax’s ideas for this Global Jukebox had been permeating since the 50s however. In a letter to his family in 1954 he first sets out the philosophical ideas that he would go on to develop for the rest of his life:

 “The primary function of music is to remind the listener that he belongs to one certain part of the human race, comes from a certain region, belongs to a certain generation. The music of your place stands for everything that has ever happened to you when you were a kid, reminds you of what your family was like, what it was like when you fell in love – in fact is a quick and immediate symbol for all the deepest emotions that people of your part of the world share…. Naturally the musical style is only the outward manifestations of the deep river of feeling that produces it. This is shown by [the] fact that musical style tends not to alter because of musical reasons, but because of important changes in the lives of people who make the music.”

However, the Global Jukebox bore earlier fruit in Pandora (click here if you are in the US, but licencing restrictions apply outside) a project which aimed to develop the Music Genome. Here, four hundred “musical measures” similar to Lomax’s cantometrics, choreometrics, parlametrics and phonotactics are used to analyse songs in a database and see where they fit together. By entering several parameters of personal taste, one can find related songs based on inherent musical identity.

This is not to be confused with composer Todd Barton’s genomic compositions. Here, different pitch and instrumentation are assigned to different bases of the genetic code and the individual sequence can be obtained and the translated into a unique song. Barton has also transcribed protein amino acid sequences into song form.

Barton is not the only one to try and make music from DNA or protein sequences. An article in The Guardian  from 2010 also details another genomic composition by Michael Zev Gordon under the sponsorship of The Wellcome Trust which can be heard at the official site.

For a list of other examples of where DNA and genetic or protein information have been converted to music or compared with musical notation click here, though unless you really have a lot of money to burn, I would stay away from Your DNA Song. This company will sequence your own genome and make a unique song for you, for a nominal fee. One can already imagine the TV commercial: “…and that’s not all, we’ll also clone your DNA so that future generations will be able to listen to your song. Don’t wait. Call NOW!”

The legacy of Lomax’s ideas on the importance of maintaining the diversity of the DNA of music and culture will be discussed a bit more in the second part of this post.

Lomax on race, socialism and unionist policies.

Undoubtedly the highlight of the book is Lomax’s continued struggle to improve race relations in a segregated America and his sympathy and support of workers, sympathies that would end up getting his name on the FBIs black list of communist supporters for most of his life.

There are many interesting anecdotes of Lomax’s struggle with race politics. Szwed recounts here one of his first trips at age 17 in which Lomax broke all the rules in the deeply segregated south, travelling not only with a mature white woman, but a black one as well.

Lomax’s most significant work in this period was undoubtedly made with his father, John Lomax, also a celebrated folk song collector, in their trips to several of the more fearsome prisons of the time where they discovered many of the characters who would later exert an extraordinary influence on American popular music. One of the greatest of these was of course Lead Belly or Huddie William Ledbetter who the Lomaxes found and recorded in the fearful Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana in 1933 where he was serving time for attempted homicide. Some doubt exists over whether the Lomaxes really influenced his release or not, or if Lead Belly truly sang his way to freedom, but certainly Alan Lomax maintained a close relationship with him until his death in 1949 recording him on several occasions, writing books about him and including him in several of his radio programs.

An original newsreel with John Lomax and Lead Belly singing “Goodnight Irene”

The life of Lead belly in two parts.

Alan differed greatly from his father John about many social issues including “the black question” and his association with black people and musicians in the years before the Civil Rights movement would often lead him into trouble. One anecdote accounts Lomax punching a patron of a restaurant who had complained to the waiter that he didn’t want to sit next to a “nigger”, meaning Lomax, which has frightening resonance.

The prisons that John and Alan visited together also left a scar on his psyche. Writing many years later he said:

“The prison farms of the American South were living hells of violence, evil and despair. They were American Dachaus, where inmates worked from before sunrise to dark of night, supervised by trusties with shotguns. A surly look or even a reluctant move could get you killed by the guards, no questions asked. The existence of these prisons inspired a terror that kept the population in line throughout the South.”

Before becoming popularised in the later folk revival of the 60s, American folk music had also been heavily linked with the Union movement. Szwed explains at length:

“Lomax introduced Aunt Molly Jackson, the “pistol packing mama” to a wider and more city-based public. Jackson had made her name in the coal miners struggles of the time. She was bought in to sing with the Composers Collective who included within their members Aaron Copland, Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford amongst others. However, the clash of styles was not immediately fruitful. Jackson’s rough and natural approach did not sit easily with the more academic strains of the Composers Collective or other like-minded groups such as the Degeyter Club. Here the influence was set principally by Hans Eisler, a protégé of Arnold Schoenberg who had suggested that more traditional workers songs “like “The Ballad of Joe Hill”, were bourgeois products of the past and only put workers to sleep, the way they had always done.  “Modern life and its tensions demand dissonance,” Eisler insisted.”

But as should be well known, the American political landscape at the time was intensely anti-Communist as becomes subtly evident in this video. Here, Lomax is addressing a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) hearing:

Perhaps the take away phrase is Republican Sidney Yates, Illinois sub-committee chairman, who quotes someone [in the house of congress?] as saying

“That’s the most communistic art that we ever had.”

These tales of racial segregation, anti-unionism and anti-communism (of course leading up to McCarthyism) seem genuinely frightening to me as a non-American. The origins of racism in slavery are obvious, but still unjustified, whereas political repression is harder to fathom. I don’t understand how it is that Americans managed to convince themselves, whilst simultaneously selling to the outside world, of the idea of their country being a bastion of freedom and human rights when quite clearly it is not.

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