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Alan Lomax and Harry Smith

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Listening to Alan Lomax’s Sounds of the South box set. Being a compilation of southern US vernacular musical styles, it invites comparisons to Harry Smith’s Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music. It’s a completely different animal, first of all, because Lomax’s collection is all field recordings, most done by Lomax himself with a portable tape or wire recorder, in churches, on front porches, and yes, in actual fields.

The Smith compilation is a collection of commercial 78s from the late 20s and early 30s. The funny thing is that I find the Lomax recordings much slicker and somewhat less exciting than the Smith collection. It seems like the field recordings are a little bit put-on or staged, like the performers are trying to live up to Lomax’s romantic view of them as noble savages. I’ve read Lomax’s writing, and let me tell you, this is not an unfair assessment.

Lomax was a poster boy for white middle-class liberal guilt if there ever was one. He shamelessly romanticized his subjects and the contexts in which they lived. The artists who recorded the sides for Smith’s collection, on the other hand, believed that they were recording for an audience that was much like themselves, and thus did not play up their ‘authenticity’ or play down their essential weirdness and regional identity. Of course, it could be that I’m charmed by the medium, the scratchy 78s that Smith transferred to tape. Insert McLuhan quote here.

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  • Sean

    Your analysis is spot on. Lomax should be applauded for his efforts in getting these people on tape, but I wonder how ‘authentic’ those perfromaces actually are. I read Lomax’s book, “The Land Where the Blues Again,” several years ago. He tells some fascinating stories, but the sense of liberal guilt is overwhelming.

  • ClubhouseCancer

    I agree that the effect is indeed romanticising these folks in a “noble savage’ sort of way, but I’d stop short at applying sociopolitical labels like “liberal guilt” to Lomax. I think he’s at heart a musicologist who, like Smith, was most interested in great music.

    It’s just that, I think, Smith was ONLY interested in the music and the stories, and seemed to have no agenda at all in his collection. Of course, Lomax was getting financial help from the guvment, and may have played up the sociological value of his stuff compared to its musicological import.

  • Eric Olsen

    the fundamental question is where is the line between exploitation and lesser sins like patronizing, and exposure/helping/recognition?

    Obviously fair play on the business side is required, as well as mutal respect and an assumption of dignity.

    It’s potentially highly-charged terrain

  • John Culpepper

    The differences between the Folkways Anthology and the Lomax collection
    are differences in packaging not content. Both are great monuments to American vernacular music.

    Harry Smith’s Anthology was based in large part on a list of folk music artists on commercial recordings compiled in 1941 for the Library of Congress by Alan Lomax and chosen in part by Pete Seeger. Smith himself confirms this in an interview in Sing Out Magazine (c.1960s early 70s?). It had been part of John A. Lomax’s plan from the beginning for the Library to make such a list available. It was published on mimeographed sheets and mays still be available for a small fee, for all I know.

    Many of the artists on Harry Smith’s folkways anthology were also recorded by the Lomaxes, who by no means restricted themselves to artists who had not made recordings.

    John A. Lomax’s 78 album, Smoky Mountain Ballads (1942), also contains many of the same artists as the Folkways Anthology (the Carter Family, etc.) and derives from the same sources (and has beautiful notes, written by John A. Lomax).

    In the interview with Sing Out, Harry Smith says that he first heard of some of these artist in the 1940s at the home of the great ballad scholar Bertrand Bronson at the U of California, so the ballad scholars had always been aware of them and many had collected them in conjunction with their work.

    It was Moe Asch, founder of Folkways, who was responsible for suggesting and producing Smith’s Folkways Anthology, and who, this one time, succeded where all others had failed, namely, in getting Harry Smith to complete a task. There is no evidence whatsoever, pace Greil Marcus, that Smith, Lomax, and Asch had different agendas or attitudes toward folk artists and folk music.

    Folk music on commercial records had a flowering in the 1920s that ended with the depression. For those interested, Yazoo records has just reissued a great new anthology of this music on CD. There is also a great Rounder CD selected by Stephen Wade of folk music collected by the Lomaxes from material deposited at the Library of Congress.

  • Cliff

    I have come across, in my attic, a set of 78′ which contains 3 out of five of the RCA Victor set “Smoky Mountain Ballads” editied and with the jacket notes from John A Lomax. I think someone might be interested in this 0ld (1942?) set of 78’s…. am I wrong and if I’m not how do I make sure that they go to someone who appreciates them.

  • John Culpepper

    Alan Lomax believed in listening to and recording ordinary people. The fact that his detractors term ordinary people “noble savages” shows how deeply American’s still deeply resists facing the racial and economic facts about our history, recent advances in civil rights, notwithstanding.
    Incidentally the term “Noble Savage” was from the first associated with white supremacy, and is not not a “romantic” invention of Rousseau, as myth would have it (See “The Myth of the Noble Savage by anthropologist Ter Ellington).

    “The Noble Savage, long assumed to be the invention of the eighteenth-century
    philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was, in fact, a racist propaganda device of
    British anthropologists to create a climate where slavery and genocide could be mooted.
    The claim that Rousseau created the myth was made by one of the nineteenth
    century’s most notorious racists to give weight to his belief in the notion of
    ‘inferior’ races, according to a new book, The Myth of the Noble Savage .
    Ter Ellingson, associate professor of anthropology at the University of
    Washington, believes the manipulation of the myth was part of a successful
    attempt by a faction of racist anthropologists to take over the anti-racist
    Ethnological Society in London in the late 1850s.
    ‘Rousseau did not promote the idea of the Noble Savage nor did he ever mention
    it. The idea he did is one of the most widespread misbeliefs of all time,’ said
    The term ‘noble savage’ was mentioned a handful of times before Rousseau, most
    notably by the poet and playwright John Dryden, but Ellingson maintains it had
    fallen out of use until reinvoked by the racist anthropologist John Crawfurd in
    By attributing the myth to Rousseau, Crawfurd gave the notion intellectual
    ‘The myth and the attribution of it to Rousseau was reintroduced by a racist
    faction in the Ethnological Society of London as part of a coup which aimed to
    divert the society from its anti-racist, pro-human rights roots,’ said
    Ellingson maintains that the myth was a vital tool which enabled racist
    anthropologists such as Crawfurd to promote the centrality of race as a
    scientific ideology while advocating violently racist modes of ordering society.”

    An unbroken three-month run of racist presentations followed the 1859 coup of
    the society’s board and it was in the first of these lectures that Crawfurd
    demolished the illusion of savage nobility and denied any non-white race any right to equality. ‘Crawfurd’s inaugural address was an announcement of the overthrow of the old ways and the ascendancy of a new anthropological racism and a new supporting mythology,’ said Ellingson.
    In his speech, Crawfurd recited lines from a Dryden play mentioning the noble
    savage and damned such people as ‘miserable beings’. ‘I cannot set much value on [his] freedom of the being [and] nor can I conceive anything noble in the poor naked, crouching creature, trembling with cold and starving from hunger,’ he said.
    ‘Such savages are the men whose condition was envied by a very eloquent but very eccentric philosopher of the last century; but I imagine a week’s residence, even a night’s lodging, with the Fuegians would have brought Jean-Jacques Rousseau to a saner conclusion.’.
    Ellingson believes Crawfurd was so convincing that the original Noble Savage myth was forgotten. ‘The mere repetition of the words Noble Savage sufficed to serve as a devastating weapon against any opposition to the racist agenda. The myth of the Noble Savage became a weapon in the Ethnological Society’s
    scientific-racist project of helping to naturalise a genocidal stance towards
    the “inferior” races.'”
    Guardian Unlimited � Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001

  • David C. Harrison

    If the Lomaxes suffered from “Liberal Guilt,” it is the most profound case on record. One look at the breadth of the Lomax archive ( http://www.alan-lomax.com/archive_audio.html ) suggests such guilt would encompass most of Europe, the Carribean, the Soviet Union, the British Isles and the American West.

    A more likely criticism is that Lomax suffered from an obsessive compulsion to collect and catalog the path of human song as it wound its way through time and geography.