Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Songhunter

Saw a wonderful show on PBS last night, called Lomax, The Songhunter; it was on the POV series and is a documentary well worth watching. It is, of course, about Alan Lomax, the famous, (Or supposedly infamous), recorder of rural, folk, and ‘primitive’ music. Austin, Texas lost this native son in 2002. I’ve long been fond of Alan, since much of the folk, blues and world music that is seminal to my own musical roots were things that he brought to light.

So, let’s deal with the negative first, shall we? I say infamous only because some have castigated Lomax for his claims to have discovered so much of the music he helped make famous. To me, the issue is moot and silly. Alan’s dad, the Musicologist John Lomax, was said to have discovered Huddy Ledbetter, (Ledbelly), in a Texas prison when Alan was young: Sure, I understand the controversy – It’s akin to white explorers discovering native tribes in the Amazon jungle – So, granted, indigenous people were certainly there and weren’t discovered, per se, and Ledbelly was playing music before Lomax father and son heard him. Does this mean Lomax usurped and stole music, and marginalized the real creators thereof, as his detractors have accused? Not for a minute, as far as I’m concerned… All this argument really illustrates is that the man had a whoppin’ ego, which he did: Hell, he was a Texan, born and raised, whataya expect? He was magnetic, charismatic, and larger than life. Frankly, to do what he did, to draw out and record for posterity as much as he was able to, you needed a whopping ego. When you take over the Oral History project at the Library of Congress from your famous dad, are asked your intensions and answer, “Oh, just to record the whole world,” do you think the guy’s not gonna have some major stones? Would players put down their tools and pick up instruments if he hadn’t been such a man? Would the institutions that supported and paid for all this work have done so if he were not such a man? I can pretty much guarantee you that the answer to both questions is a resounding, NO! Heck, Jelly Roll Morton proudly proclaimed himself the “Inventor of Jazz;” does that make him a bad guy? I think not… Did Lomax do what he did to gain personal fame and fortune? He answered that question: He said he recorded the things he did because it was, “Simply the most beautiful music I’d ever heard.”

Enough of that tomfoolery, anyway... The show was poignant, indeed. The creator of the documentary, Rogier Kappers, is a huge Lomax fan, and his fondness is evident throughout. He met with Lomax at his daughter’s home in Florida, after Lomax had a debilitating stroke in 2001. Lomax couldn’t answer questions, but shots of the man’s face, headphones on, listening to his old recordings, is simply beautiful, and very touching. Many of the people Lomax touched are featured, including Folklorist Peter Kennedy, who just passed away this June.

The most amazing facet of the film is Kappers retracing some of Lomax’ travels, in Scotland, and Spain, and Italy. In each place, he finds some of the people Lomax recorded so many years earlier. Not all these people still sing the songs they performed for Lomax, and had he not recorded them, they may well have disappeared forever. In a small Spanish village, Kappers finds some villagers who listen with obvious joy to their voices coming through fifty years of time; one man points fondly at the CD player and says, over and over, “That is me singing!” Eventually, the aged bagpiper who still lives nearby is rounded up, and comes to the local store, where his companions whirl in dance as he plays.

In Italy, the son of a man Lomax recorded long ago blinks and nods instantly at the keening sound of his Father’s voice singing a lament, the song of the hard, hard life of a miner. Holding back tears, he takes a picture of his father from the wall and sets it beside the CD player, looking almost helpless in remembrance.

Lomax appears throughout, younger, articulate, and full of the life energy that leads him around the world in search of song. At one point, speaking to an unseen interviewer, he points out that a fundamental disparity is caused by the fact that “Transmitters are so expensive, they cost a million dollars, so only a few of you can afford them, but receivers only cost a few bucks, so even the poorest can have one.” His point speaks to the heart of why he did what he did – Because he wanted everyone to know what this music was, and to hear it whenever they wanted to. Maybe Pete Seeger said it best:

“Throughout the world, folksong collectors tend to dig up old bones from one graveyard and put them into another graveyard – Their filing cabinets. But Alan Lomax and his father John wanted the American people to once again sing the wonderful old songs of this country which they never heard on the radio. So you who read this should know where you can get them – The American Folklife Center – And they’ll live again.”

1 comment:

David C. said...


Thanks for the review. Sorry I missed that show. I first became acquainted with Alan Lomax when I first went away to college and bought the vinyl(what else was there?) box set of his Library of Congress recordings of Woody Guthrie. More recently, I read Lomax's book The Land Where the Blues Began. Very good stuff. And the Muddy Waters Plantation Recordings blow me away every time.