Alan Lomax: “The Man who Recorded the World”

The Takeaway

This story was originally broadcast by PRI’s The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.

Before most people had access to recording equipment, Alan Lomax explored the country in his beat-up Ford station wagon with 60 pounds of equipment in the trunk. John Szwed’s biography, “The Man who Recorded the World,” explores that journey and Lomax’s life.

Lomax and his father set off on their quest to document the sounds of the country because of unemployment during the Great Depression. Szwed explains: “His father and he were out of work — the whole family was out of work — and they were lucky enough to get the Library of Congress to back them to get grants to do this sort of thing. So, basically they were hobos with enough money to live on, barely enough.” The two men hoped to preserve the music from isolated areas before it was diluted by access to radio, and therefore, pop music.

Instead of saving music from pop, his recordings changed popular music. “That’s the paradox of the medium,” Szwed says. “You’re trying to find original things, and as fast as you find them, they’re not original anymore. He became a producer almost immediately — ‘the producer of the people’ as he used to say.”

In his travels, Lomax encountered talents like Woodie Guthrie, Muddy Waters and Jelly Roll Morton. “The first great song that really allied me with the people — made me forget Beethoven and all that — was that in the Texas prison camp,” Lomax once said, “where black men driven from camp to camp under the shotgun had the glorious humanity to make great music.”

The acclaimed ethnomusicologist saw the power of recording, and may have anticipated technologies of today. Lomax explained: “The invention of this equipment changed everything forever.  Out of it has come a new kind of world.  We don’t realize it enough, I think. And things like oral history, and things like phonograph albums that we can now listen to the whole world sing, not just ourselves. A new unity has been created. “

Lomax hoped to establish a “global juke box” to expose people to new sounds. Szwed explains the difference between Lomax’ vision and what exists today: “What we have now is Pandora which operates on a different principal, which is you put in what you’re like and you get yourself back over, and over again, and his, you hook-up with Africa, and Asia and so forth.”

“The Takeaway” is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

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