Friday, July 27, 2012

Alan Lomax: Producer of the people. Part 2

Alan Lomax in space

It seems somehow fitting that as the Civil Rights took off, so did the Space Race. Sun Ra in particular, was convinced that the salvation of the black race lay in the new lands of other planets, something that John Szwed of course touched on extensively in his biography of Herman Blount. Similarly, many of the black musicians who would pioneer electronic music would also return to future and space imagery as a way of advancing black society and equal rights, in particular Detroit techno artists like Juan Atkins, Underground Resistance and Drexciya whose Atlantean world of drowned slaves bears many similarities.

It is thus a curious and somehow poetic addendum to the Lomax story that he should be involved with Carl Sagan in choosing the music that would go with the Voyager Golden Record on the mythical 1977 Voyager expedition. Szwed elaborates a little here.

In the interview, Szwed mentions an album of Voyager remixes, the “Scrambles of earth remix” which is, apparently, a remix of the Voyager music by aliens.

Alan Lomax in Spain

Lomax arrived in Spain in 1952, arriving by train from Paris, first changing at Port Bou on the border, as everyone still does, and then driving down to Barcelona prior heading to Mallorca and a state-sponsored folk festival. Although the festival was a disappointment, largely from being rehearsed and manipulated to uphold Franco’s cultural ideas and soured by the omnipresence of police, Lomax was undeterred and went on to record some of the most beautiful music of the entire archive and at the same time undergo many cultural epiphanies.

“This is a great country. Day hot. The sea near. Figs, oranges, plums, pears ripening. The houses old and simple. The towns old and beautiful. The people the most pleasant I have met anywhere, I decided to settle for life in every town and marry every young señorita I see… For a month or so, I wandered erratically, sunstruck by grave beauty of the land, faint and sick at the sight of this noble people, ground down by poverty and a police state. I saw that in Spain, folklore was not mere fantasy and entertainment. Each Spanish village was a self-contained cultural system with tradition penetrating every aspect of life; and it was in their inherited folklore that the peasant, the fisherman, the muleteers and the shepherds I met found their models for that noble behaviour and sense of the beautiful which made them such satisfactory friends.”

Throughout his trip, Lomax was followed by the Guardia Civil essentially working as Franco’s secret police, which had been tipped off by the FBI as to his “potential threat.”

“The black-hatted and dreadful Guardia Civil had me on their lists - I will never know why, for they never arrested me. But apparently they always knew where I was. No matter in what God-forsaken, unlikely spot in the mountains I would set up my gear, they would appear like so many buzzards carrying with them their stink of fear.”

It was not only the police who Lomax had to contend with, but the priests (curas) who wielded their own influence in different regions and feared the corrupting influence of an outsider who could give a voice to the people. As always, there was also a distinct lack of money. However, the results of Lomax’s work are extraordinary.

There are several commercially available recordings of Lomax’s trip in Spain and the diversity of the music within is astounding, as is the quality and naturalness of the recordings with coughing and ambient sounds often entering into the mix. He relates one story

“I remember the night I spent in the straw hut of a shepherd on the moonlit plains of Extramadura. He played the one-string vihuela, the instrument of the medieval minstrels, and sang ballads of the wars of Charlemagne, while his two ancient cronies sighed over the woes of courtly lovers now five hundred years in the dust.”

Lomax represents Spanish folk music as more than just the obvious Flamenco sound, recording songs accompanied only by bells, drumming, tambourine, bagpipes, as well as children’s songs, group singing and poetry. But what Lomax’s recordings give back to Flamenco is a sense of the Orient. Many of them sound far more Gypsy than modern Flamenco, meaning that they sound like they still had their living roots sunk into Indian music with obvious traces of Moorish influences on many songs. Listening now to this music, it somehow seems to transform the whole country into a more exotic panorama.

Lomax and media – Cultural equity

As a man who recorded and produced music, who wrote books and academic papers, educational shows for radio in many countries and eventually evolved into studies of dance, Lomax understandably had many strong ideas about the medium of TV when it finally emerged. When trying to find cinematographers for the 1975 Smithsonian Folk Festival Lomax wrote in an open letter:

“One of the central problems of our culture, a source of sickness and of anomie in our culture and in the world, is that everything these days happens at the centre and is broadcast put from the centre to the periphery, to the small places. This makes anyone who is not from megalopolis a hick by inference… we have to make culture again grow on the periphery – where culture has always grown.”

In the ensuing years, Lomax went on to criticise television more closely. Lomax’s one time assistant and journalist friend Pete Seeger wrote to Lomax and other like-minded people in 1978 about his growing concern of American cultural imperialism being spread by “exporting reruns of soaps, teen music shows, sports events, political news, and advertising” (Szwed’s writing) including even Sesame Street. Lomax would contest that:

The puppets are great, but the people in it are terrible, and they’re teaching the world to be poker-faced Americans or square, clownish Americans.”

Lomax agreed whole heartedly with Seeger and suggested, again in Szwed’s words, that

“it was more than content that was the problem with television, it was the nature and use of the technology. It was a one-way, simultaneous, glitzy, loud assault that destroyed cultural styles, exported alien and inappropriate values, and forced people everywhere in the world into passive and potentially hostile and violent reaction. Lomax wrote “The result is, in the country where TV operates around the clock, America, we have a rising tide of evil. Evil is absolutely everywhere, in every part of the country and there is an awful feeling that has developed in the country… The best thing, of course, would be to turn television clear off, for good.”

Earlier in his career, Lomax had already expressed concerns about “the greying out” of culture by the centralised entertainment industries and part of the fears had already gone into his anthropological ideas of folk music. It is not surprising that Lomax should fear so much for the well spring of cultural creativity as he had been a man who had travelled well into the ill-defined realms of the periphery and drunk heartily from the well springs of cultural sources. Indeed, in the book “Mister Jelly Roll” written by Lomax and published in 1950 about another famous son of the divided south, Jelly Roll Morton.

Lomax perhaps best summed up his ideas about art, culture and society and the inherent dangers of cultural machines. Lomaxes words are passionate and naked, coming from a deep place within himself as well as the cultural in which he swam.

“Jazz was the hybrid of hybrids and so it appealed to a nation of lonely immigrants. In a divided world struggling blindly toward unity, it became a cosmopolitan musical argot. This new musical language owes its emotional power to the human triumph accomplished at the moment of its origin in New Orleans – a moment of cultural ecstasy. Two neighbourhoods, disjoined by all the sordid fears of our time, were forced to make a common cause. This musical union demanded that there be not merely acceptance and understanding, but respect and love on both sides. In this moment of ecstasy an interracial marriage was consummated, and the child of this union still jumps for joy wherever jazz is hot. Perhaps it is so wherever people share their treasures and a truly fresh stream of culture begins to flow. Such moments of cultural ecstasy may occur prior to all great cultural movements just as seeding precedes birth.”

Szwed analyses that “These lines may tell more about Lomax than they do about Morton, as they focus on his desire to put art at the centre of humanity and return us to the magic of creation.”

It is not surprising then, that one of Alan Lomax’s legacies has been to establish the idea of “Cultural Equity” to the point of founding a foundation, the Association for Cultural Equity, based on the principle of preserving and respecting cultural and linguistic differences.

“Scientific study of cultures, notably of their languages and their musics, shows that all are equally expressive and equally communicative, even though they may symbolize technologies of different levels… With the disappearance of each of these systems, the human species not only loses a way of viewing, thinking, and feeling but also a way of adjusting to some zone on the planet which fits it and makes it liveable; not only that, but we throw away a system of interaction, of fantasy and symbolizing which, in the future, the human race may sorely need. The only way to halt this degradation of man's culture is to commit ourselves to the principles of political, social, and economic justice."

Lomax’s ideas are not unique, but still their importance cannot be underestimated in the internet age, where access to the wealth of information is seemingly limited by the use of personal preferences and algorithms. The impact of globalisation and the continuing dominance of the cultural centre by big companies is still a threat despite the promises of easier and broader access to more peripheral cultural centres, a threat as dangerous as extinction in the Amazon or a coral sea. The legacy of Lomax stands tall and has much to teach and should serve to empower us to defend our differences.

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