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April 14, 2003, Monday


CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK; Honoring Alan Lomax, Folk-Music Crusader


One Monday morning in August 1942, the Mississippi Delta bluesman David Honeyboy Edwards was sleeping off a weekend of playing and drinking when a big car -- a brand-new Hudson Super 6 -- roared up to his house. It wasn't a bill collector; it was the folklorist Alan Lomax.

At a makeshift studio in a schoolroom, Lomax recorded a dozen songs that would eventually put Mr. Edwards on the international blues circuit. ''He gave me a $20 bill,'' Mr. Edwards recalled, ''and that was more money than I ever had in my life.'' On that Delta trip Mr. Lomax would also record blues from Muddy Waters and Son House.

Mr. Edwards was reminiscing as part of An Alan Lomax Tribute, a two-day program of conferences and performances that concentrated on the first decades of Lomax's career; he died in 2002. At the conference he was compared to the Han dynasty Chinese emperor Wu, whose music bureau started collecting songs in 117 B.C., and to Walt Whitman, for the poetic tone of his manifestoes, promising that folk-song recordings could give ''a voice to the voiceless.'' A collection, ''Alan Lomax: Selected Writings 1934-1997,'' has just been published by Routledge.

Lomax was a backwoods researcher and a mass-media crusader for folk music. Panelists examined his recording trips to Texas (where he recorded cowboy songs with his father, John A. Lomax, in the 1930's), the South, the Midwest (where he found music from 12 nationalities), Haiti, the eastern Caribbean, Britain, Spain and Italy. A panel called ''I Recorded for Alan Lomax'' brought together Mr. Edwards and Jean Ritchie, the Kentucky ballad singer who recorded for him in New York; Spencer Moore, a Virginia tobacco farmer and guitar picker; and Solomon Carey, also from Virginia, who was recorded in 1960 with the Belleville a Cappella Choir. On Saturday Mr. Carey sang richly harmonized spirituals with his two sons.

Lomax carried recording equipment to out-of-the-way places, then made sure people heard what he brought back through concerts, radio broadcasts, films and an urban folk movement using his songbooks. Even as Lomax preserved traditional performances, he endorsed protest and organizing songs that made the old melodies carry new lyrics. In Spain and Italy, researchers said, younger people interested in folk music are now using Lomax's recordings to relearn the songs of their grandparents. Irwin Silber, who edited Sing Out! magazine, said, ''When the folk music scholars denounced Alan as a popularizer, he took the charge as a badge of honor.''

Nick Spitzer, a folklorist who is the host of the Public Radio International program ''American Routes,'' alluded to two of Lomax's less admired aspects: his distaste for Bob Dylan going electric and his practice, though it was considered ethical at the time, of taking a share of publishing credit (and royalties) on his recordings to support his work. Mr. Spitzer played excerpts from a Lomax broadcast that covered 20 countries in 30 minutes, rejecting the latter-day image of Lomax as overly purist. ''One could argue over what Alan Lomax was looking for,'' Mr. Spitzer said, ''but it's absolutely immutable what he found.''

This tribute's finale, a concert at Cooper Union, could almost have been a 1950's Newport Folk Festival lineup, with Pete Seeger (whom Mr. Lomax hired as his assistant at the Library of Congress), Mr. Edwards, Ms. Ritchie, Mr. Moore, Odetta, the New Lost City Ramblers and an appropriate ringer, Arlo Guthrie.

The performers were still in strong voice. Ms. Ritchie introduced a pure, plaintive ballad, ''Loving Hannah,'' as ''one of the songs I forgot to sing for Alan.'' The New Lost City Ramblers played old mountain songs and an early Cajun tune, citing what they had learned from Lomax's recordings for the Library of Congress in the 1940's.

Mr. Guthrie's set included the antiwar song ''Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream'' (with a politically corrected verse adding women to the line ''the room was filled with men'') and a rarely heard song by his father, Woody Guthrie: an early attempt to write a commercial cowboy ballad. He went on to talk about his father's rewriting of old tunes to ''say whatever was on his mind.'' People used to call it stealing and plagiarism, he said, ''until Pete Seeger came along and renamed it 'the folk process.' ''

In his later decades Lomax sought to build an overarching system called Cantometrics that connected musical style to local social structures. It was largely dismissed by fellow scholars in the 1960's and 1970's, although some are now re-examining it. One of the conference's organizers, Ray Allen, the acting director of the Institute for Studies in American Music at Brooklyn College, said that Lomax's later work would require ''a conference unto itself.'' The program was also presented by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Cooper Union, City Lore/People's Poetry Gathering and the Alan Lomax Archive/Association for Cultural Equity.

At the concert Mr. Seeger picked his long-necked banjo and said, ''Alan will live on in the people who learned songs from him, and that's millions of people.'' Mr. Seeger was, as usual, leading a singalong, and he returned to a chorus the whole audience knew. ''He's a good old hobo,'' the full house sang, ''but he's dead and gone.''

Published: 04 - 14 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 1 , Page 3

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