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Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World

3.76  ·  Rating Details ·  300 Ratings  ·  47 Reviews
The definitive biography of Alan Lomax-from John Szwed,"the best music biographer in the business" (L.A. Weekly).

One of the most remarkable figures of the twentieth century, Alan Lomax was best known for bringing legendary musicians like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, and Burl Ives to the radio and introducing folk music to a mass audience. Now Joh
Paperback, 448 pages
Published December 27th 2011 by Penguin Books (first published January 1st 2010)
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Paul Bryant
Jan 10, 2011 Paul Bryant rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: folk-music
If you’re American, Alan Lomax probably recorded your grandma. Alan Lomax was the man, he was an American giant, and he embodied or became embroiled in every twist and turn and up and down of every phase of American folk music in the 20th century. As soon as he heard folk singers he knew it was all pure gold. There was no money in anything he did but it didn’t stop him. He was too impatient for the academics, he attempted gargantuan feats of research with no resources, he lived like a bohemian ...more
Sep 19, 2015 Nick rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The title makes the same outsize claims as its subject did, but Alan Lomax's contribution to the preservation of certain musical traditions is invaluable. His obsessive recording trips, often, as John Szwed points out, with primitive equipment, gave us a record of popular music as it existed across America, Europe and the Caribbean just before technology and mass marketed song vanquished it. To him we owe recordings of African-American fife and drums, laments and lullabies from the far corners o ...more
Jul 04, 2011 Jacob rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This is not so much a biography of the man as one of his career. But it was an incredible and fascinating career which makes this book worth reading for one interested in what he did. So one is left with a feeling for the deeds of Lomax, but despite the many pieces of his writing the reader does not get so much of who he was. Interestingly there is only one photo of Lomax in the book, so you also don't get that view of him.

I knew very little about Lomax going in to this book, and I didn't live t
Ron Davidson
Dec 01, 2012 Ron Davidson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A comprehensive, probably definitive, study of the life and work of Alan Lomax, one of the greatest, most important Americans who has ever lived. The audiobook goes into significant detail of the development of Lomax's views and work on folklore, musicology, and humanity in general, beginning even before he was born, with his family influences and the work of his father, John Lomax, a great musicologist and folklorist in his own right. The author ably describes the ordeals Lomax endured in his q ...more
Ray Dunsmore
May 30, 2013 Ray Dunsmore rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This is an interesting book - a book that attempts to tell the story of a man whose life was dedicated to the art of collecting stories and songs. Interesting in theory for me, though, since in practice this is an exhausting read that is a hell of a slog to plow through. The book is nothing but an endless name-dropping of people that I have never heard of (save Leadbelly and Jelly Roll Morton, the only two names in this book so far that I've seen before). Maybe that's a slight on my intelligence ...more
Ryan Eshleman
Painted in this biography (probably truthfully) as a champion of the disadvantaged genius, Lomax is (was) a refreshing antithesis to the money-seeking prodigy-discoverers of today, such as American Idol. Instead of trying to find artists to fit the mainstream, he tried to find and salvage what the mainstream was working (intentionally and unintentionally) to either destroy or usurp for its own purposes.

Szwed's telling of Lomax's story reads a bit like a laundry list. I would have preferred a col
Feb 20, 2011 Derek rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
3 1/2 star book. Well-written and well-researched, but it really felt like the last 3/4s or so were skimpy on a lot of Lomax's work/life details - as if Szwed was in a hurry to get done or something. Worth reading.
Dec 28, 2015 Palmyrah rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
As a musician and music lover with a strongly developed sense of history, I have great respect for the late Alan Lomax and his work as a musicologist. This one man studied, recorded and preserved an improbably large share of the extant corpus of American folk music. The influence of his recordings and writings on the development of popular music in the late twentieth century is matched by no-one else, not even Bob Dylan. Indeed, without Lomax, Dylan might not even have existed. More broadly stil ...more
Sep 27, 2014 Jeffrey rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Alan Lomax had a profound effect on my young life. My mother was artistically enlightened for the suburbs, and through friends followed the art movements of the 1950s and 1960s. One of the things she brought home was Everybody Sing, Volume 3: Songs for seniors. I wore this disc out. More often than I want, Hand Me Down My Walking Cane, Who Killed Cock Robin, Crows in the Garden,I Shall Not Be Moved and other songs from this album rise up in my memory and I begin to sing. As I probably started to ...more
Jeff Crompton
Jan 10, 2013 Jeff Crompton rated it really liked it
Alan Lomax was a wonder - folklorist, writer, performer, record producer, recording engineer, filmmaker, scholar, but most of all, the world's foremost authority on folk music. He began his career by recording folk songs in the field, and by the end of his life had developed his theory of cantometrics, which was nothing less than an attempt to classify, compare, and relate all of the world's music.

Szwed's biography is full of details about his work; so much so that I found myself skimming passag
Jan 08, 2012 Mark rated it really liked it
Shelves: music, history, biography
Alan Lomax was one of those people without whom, the twentieth C. would have been nearly unlivable. For his energy in collecting the music of North America (first the States, and then, the Caribbean, Europe and beyond) world musical culture owes him a tremendous debt. Consider all the cross pollination which his obsessive collecting would inspire & consider how impoverished the music of the world would be today, had none of that happened.
Lomax fought several battles, not the least of which
Liam Guilar
Sep 10, 2014 Liam Guilar rated it really liked it
Shelves: biographies
A very detailed Look at Lomax's life; if you wanted to know 'where he was when' this book would tell you. It's fascinating to see the way Szwed slurs over some things, and emphasises others. The cast of characters is daunting. If you're interested in Lomax's type of music they are all here. And it all seems to belong to a different world. Disputes over the educational value of radio, the possibility of oral history, the idea of putting a subject in front of a microphone and getting them to talk ...more
Apr 12, 2013 Rebecca rated it it was amazing
Picked this up for the roots music history and boy did Lomax have his hand in every pot and then some. Lead Belly, Zora Neale Hurston, Woody Guthrie, and even Margaret Mead were personal friends, just to name a few. But I quickly became drawn to Lomax as a personality - I mean he was a true Artist, with all the bohemian genius and unstable personal life that suggests. He poured everything into his life's work, with complete disregard to his personal wealth or popular convention. His fight was st ...more
Steve Gillway
A very scholarly book about a scholar who left many letters and documents behind. The book is jammed full of facts. Facts about all kinds of things about the life of Alan Lomax. Yet, it is up to us, the reader, to assess the person and it is hard to see him from 2014. From here he seems like an exploiter - he recorded people transcribed their songs and tried to make a living from this. This included copywriting some songs/ or gaining some credit for it. He seems to me to be like the a collector ...more
Phil Wilkins
Jan 06, 2014 Phil Wilkins rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you've not come across Alan Lomax and his father John Lomax, their contribution to music was the work to captured music initially in the US, but Alan also worked in Europe for a while. Their story starts out in the 1920s and 30s. Alan's influence on music perhaps isn't as widely appreciated, as more recent figures such as Berry Gordy, Jerry Wexler and so on. But actually it is astonishing, from the `discovery' of Lead Belly; to breaking Jelly Roll Morton, setting Muddy Waters onto the road to ...more
Mar 29, 2012 Jennifer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating story, with all kinds of interesting people wandering in and out...Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Shirley Collins, Dylan, Muddy Waters, not to mention Lomax's outsized-personality dad, John Lomax, the big hard-core conservative Texan who nonetheless provided some of the earliest documentation of blues, cowboy music and other traditional styles. Lomax's later-life attempts to systematically categorize folk music and dance, and to extrapolate from that ideas about culture and society are in ...more
Steve Mayer
Aug 14, 2013 Steve Mayer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The title is not an exaggeration. Alan Lomax went everywhere, recorded everyone, and tried to catalog all the world's singing styles. As if that wasn't enough, he wanted to record all the world's dance and conversational styles, too. A man of amazing energy, stamina, and productivity, he started a hundred projects for every one he finished. That wasn't necessarily his fault; he fit uneasily between the commercial and the educational, the popularizer and the academic. Nothing human was alien to h ...more
Adam Tierney-eliot
This is Book is OK. The problems with it are at least somewhat unavoidable. The first few chapters, also about his father John, were great. I would have given 5 stars to a book just about those years.

The rest gets a little dull because life is like that. Basically he would have an idea, raise some money (or fail), succeed with his idea (or fail), have relationship problems (they all failed and some made him seem kinda creepy) then start all over again. Frankly I was left impressed with his work
Jan 10, 2014 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Pretty good summation of one of the great American lives. So much music we take for granted was discovered and saved from oblivion by Alan Lomax and his father John. Other outsized personalities that he discovered and/or nurtured, from Jelly Roll Morton to Leadbelly to Woody Guthrie, dominate the pages they appear on. Lomax's political engagement and activism, complicated personal life, and crucial worldwide efforts to record and classify folk musics occupy most of the book; his misguided sociol ...more
Francesca Forrest
I got a notice from the library that this had come due, and I was going to return it without finishing it, as it's so dense, but just now I was dipping in, and there are so many gems and vignettes, I think I'll renew it and see if I can't read a little more, glean a little more.

...Okay, I did give up on this. Outside of the section on Alan Lomax's friendship with Zora Neale Hurston (which was fascinating), I found the rest of the book too dense with moment-by-moment facts, events, and people; I
Apr 07, 2014 Ridie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book, but I suspect it would only interest a select group of readers. As a folklorist as well as having been a student of the author, Alan Lomax is a major figure in the history of folklore studies and probably one of the most significant folklorists of the twentieth century. So his personal history is, in many ways, the history of folklore studies.

John Szwed is a fabulous biographer and kept it interesting and moving forward the whole time. Again, many might not find this for them
The American Conservative
'Szwed does a fine job of establishing the self-made John Lomax, a great example of the pent-up human genius liberated by the American frontier, as one of the world’s first ethnographers and ethnomusicologists, who transferred to Alan a love for “roots” music of all kinds yet wrangled with his son over Alan’s perceived disloyalty to his own roots...'

Read the full review, "American Folk Hero," on our website:
Apr 11, 2013 Sam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very fine-grained account of the life of a man with one of the coolest careers ever. Full of fascinating detail. It basically made me wonder what I've done with my life. Alan Lomax did more by the time he was 25 than I probably will in my whole life, traveling all over America (and even to Haiti) recording folk music, getting a job at the Library of Congress, meeting and chatting with a series of musical legends. Amazing.
Roman Sonnleitner
Jun 23, 2012 Roman Sonnleitner rated it did not like it
Shelves: stopped-reading
Tedious and longwinded...
As interesting and influential as Alan Lomax' life may have been, this biography totally fails to make his character come alive. This is more like a scholarly account of his actions rather than a literary biography. Really boring to read, frankly, I didn't even bother finishing it - I may pick it up again once in a while to read another chapter, but fun reading it's not!
Samuel Gutterman
May 08, 2013 Samuel Gutterman rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not much in the way of an editorial narrative or dramatic color from Szwed, but that's probably the right approach for such an accomplished and full life as that of Alan Lomax. Definitely makes you reevaluate the time you've spent playing computer solitaire, or as Tom Lehrer said "Why, by the time Mozart was my age he had been dead for 5 years."
Sep 16, 2012 Leigh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Remarkable man for the vastness of his abilities, which went WAY beyond mere recording. I was impressed by the breadth of Alan Lomax's talents, by the numbers of geographic areas of the world in which he plied them, and by how very little money he had his whole life. The subject is not a bit dull, but I found the writing to be less than compelling.
Oct 28, 2012 James rated it liked it
In all honesty, I was not too fascinated by Lomax's life and thought he came across as petulant and selfish. But as a fan of many of Lomax's field recordings (particularly those from his "Southern journey"), I really enjoyed poring over this book for names of performers, record labels, and recordists I hadn't heard of before.
Nathan Koci
Jan 07, 2013 Nathan Koci rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great intro to Lomax, as well as many great musicians along the way: Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and too many others to count. Particularly good when coupled with listening at the Smithsonian archives. Had the fortune to read this while in D.C. for 3 weeks.
Douglas Mccann
Fascinating life, I had trouble getting into the rhythm with this book though, and it read more like a series of facts. Definitely worth the read, mainly because Lomax is such an incredible figure in American history.
Tom Hamrick
Apr 23, 2011 Tom Hamrick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
really intense in depth record nerd type book. I loved it, i found myself taking alot of notes about things. There is alot of info in this book about what became modern music and where it came from and why.
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