Originally published in June-July 2010 issue of fRoots

When Bob Dylan first hit Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s, he was not just keen to see Woody Guthrie. He also wanted to hang out with the shakers and movers of the folk revival which had been sweeping through America with growing intensity. One of the key people he sought out was Alan Lomax – the towering figure in American ethnomusicology, the man who had recorded Leadbelly with his father John Lomax in the 1930’s and Muddy Waters down at Stovall’s Plantation in Mississippi before he moved to Chicago and transformed the country blues by electrifying it.  For many years, Lomax worked with the Library of Congress. His recording expeditions took him far and wide, from Tory Island off the coast of Donegal to Southern Italy, from the bayous of Louisiana to the villages of Northern Spain. While in the UK, he collaborated with – and inspired – the great collector and archivist Peter Kennedy.

I had the chance to work with Lomax over a couple of years in the late 1980’s – on his “American Patchwork” TV project, and I can imagine the impact he must have had on the brilliant young Jewish folk singer from Duluth. Lomax was an enthusiast who communicated his passion for music and musicians in an extraordinary way. There are few people in my life who have fundamentally changed the way I see (and hear) things, and Lomax was undoubtedly one of them. I shall always remember him breaking into song in his labyrinthine apartment on the Upper West Side of New York City, his eyes flashing and his voice booming as he revisited ballads that had been transplanted from the European Celtic world to the Appalachians.  As we watched footage of an African-American fiddle and banjo duo and step-dancers from both white and black communities in the South, he would bring to life his imagining of the first encounters between poor white settlers and black slaves in the 18th century, and the musical influences that streamed creatively both ways. This was not just academic speculation, but an ability to enter into the spirit of what people must have felt back then, evoking the way that musicians – particularly in an oral tradition where music is not written down – will feed off each other, not just trade licks but listen for other ways of phrasing, intonation, rhythm.

Some of Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress recordings have been re-issued on CD by Rounder. This treasure trove of material was re-discovered and often sampled, not least by Moby. His Haitian recordings – made in 1936 –7 were not so well known. This is a lavish box set, in the tradition of Revenant Records’ Charley Patton and Albert Ayler sets and the equally impressive “Goodbye Babylon” from Dust to Digital. The package includes 10 CD’s with a broad selection from the thousands of songs and instrumentals that Lomax recorded in Haiti, ranging from the trance-inducing music of vodun ceremonies to charming songs for and by children, from immensely bawdy songs to liven up social gatherings to the street processions which the music of rara which features the blowing of eerie bamboo ‘trumpets’ – so reminiscent of the polyphonic blowing of the Banda Linda in Central Africa. The CD’s are accompanied by incredibly thorough notes, song lyrics and translations, all lovingly put together by Gage Averill, one of the world’s scholarly experts on the music of Haiti –as well as a practising musician.  The box also includes a collection of Alan Lomax’s letters and field notes, the former a unique document of the young collector at work, already displaying some of the insecurity that characterised his complicated relationship with the establishment in later years. The notes are often beautifully written, Lomax’s poetic use of words vividly evoking the world he was observing – and being drawn into, such was the power of the music, the dance and no doubt the rum which lubricates Haitian life, spiritual activity and leisure.

This is not a collection designed to entertain: it will, however, be invaluable for anyone seriously interested in discovering in intimate detail the musical world of a culture now under threat. To call it a snapshot would be to undervalue the depth and breadth of Lomax’s work, and yet it does bring Haitian music to life in the 1930’s to life in a way no book has ever done, showing the way in which music is present at every moment of life and varies in form even between villages a few miles apart. It is also a record of a highly idiosyncratic young ethnomusicologist’s work at a specific point in time. Lomax was clearly trying hard to get away from the sensationalist (and racist) journalism of writers like Seabrook who had portrayed the highly sophisticated culture of Haiti as little more than manipulative sorcery with its cast of maleficent sorcerers and scary zombies. Lomax’s fixation on the sexual nature of Haitian dance is very much of its time, the product I would guess of  the collector’s protestant roots. There is an almost lewd interest in what is, in African terms, just an expression of the joy and creativity of the life force, unselfconsciously expressed, often with a good deal of humour.

Lomax was still something of a beginner in the field, as well as being primarily focused on music. We now know and understand so much more, and later writers, such as Alfred Métraux and Maya Deren, have placed the music more firmly (and interestingly) in the context of religious beliefs and practice, while deeply embedded scholars such as Robert Farris Thompson have traced the origins of Haitian music, dance, religion and visual arts very specifically (if at times speculatively) to various parts of West and Central Africa.  But this is not to detract from the sheer luxury that this box set represents. It is something of a treasure, and we can be glad for the passion and hard graft that went into making it available to future generations.