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"A very highsounding name, and they were a pretty good group, but they just played things that didn't have any sense to them at all." - Columbia recording scout Frank B. Walker remembers the Leake County Revelers

Author Topic: The Last Cavalier  (Read 1508 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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The Last Cavalier
« on: January 23, 2006, 12:08:28 PM »
As mentioned in the John & Ruby Lomax thread in the main forum:

LAST CAVALIER: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOHN A. LOMAX, 1867-1948
by Nolan Porterfield. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press 1996. 580 pp illus., notes, index. ISBN 0-252-02216-5 $27.95 hb

It is not until half way through the many pages of this biography that John A. Lomax reaches the point that makes him a name known to blues aficionados, by deciding to resume the folksong collecting that he'd sporadically gone in for as a younger man. When he came to this resolve in 1932, he was elderly, unwell, and had just resigned from his job as a banker in the depths of both depression and the Depression. Not the least of the tributes due to Nolan Porterfield is that he makes the preceding 64 years of Lomax's life as interesting as the 16 that remained to him. It helps, of course, that Lomax encountered a range of characters in his careers as university administrator, peripatetic lecturer, and banker who, in their different ways, were just as strange, complex and fascinating as Leadbelly. Governor Jim Ferguson, for instance, the man responsible for Lomax's firing from the University of Texas in 1917, was clearly several longhorns short of a cattle drive, and Professor George Lyman Kittredge, the great authority on Shakespeare and ballads, seems to have made self-parody into a fine art.

In the years before 1932, Lomax had acquired his interest in folk music, married and lost Bess Brown, raised a family, and published 'Cowboy Songs And Other Frontier Ballads', a book which has both the qualities and the defects of Its author. Noting Lomax's slapdash methods, and his failure to provide a scholarly apparatus, Porterfield is nevertheless right to assert that its' ultimate value is measured...in what it gave us all, in those lovely, sad and funny bits of tune and line now embedded in all our lives.' Similar judgements, both negative and positive, can be applied to his later collections, 'American Ballads and Folksongs', 'Our Singing Country', 'Folk Song USA.

John Avery Lomax was born a mere two years after the Civil War ended, and he was steeped In the attitudes of his time and place, which was Texas. Born in Mississippi, he was taken to the Lone Star State as an Infant by a father who among other things 'did not want my family raised in contact with the Negro either as slave or 'freedman'.' All his life, Lomax remained politically conservative, convinced of the inherent inferiority of black people, and paternalistic in his attitude towards them. There's no need to elaborate on the ironies involved in his being one of the most significant collectors of black folk music but it is sad that he never understood, for instance, why his relationships with Leadbelly and James 'Iron Head' Baker were doomed to end bitterly, nor perceived his own part in their doing so.

If John Lomax was unquestionably a great collector of folk music, he was also frequently a distorter of it, dismissing Jazz - and Woody Guthrie and the Golden Gate Quartet - as trash out of hand, compiling 'best versions' for print, teaching convicts to exhale at the ends of lines In worksongs, and instructing performers to 'sing that again,' as may be heard on Ain't No More Cane On This Brazos' (on AAFS L3), for instance. He was, of course, concerned from the earliest days of his research among cowboys to document the older music of what he saw as dying traditions, but his approach to fieldwork was also imbued with and conditioned by his paternalism. A correspondent once wrote that he had 'gotten a great kick out of your experience with the Negro you took out of jail and tried to teach to sing.' Probably even Lomax would have seen that as a misreading of his role vis-a-vis Leadbelly, but it speaks volumes about the way people of his time and station saw relations between the races.

Nevertheless, he evidently had a remarkable talent for getting on with, and drawing out, his informants; in an eightieth birthday tribute, the Alabama songster Dock Reed described Lomax as 'a mighty nice man, and the best white friend I ever had .'My own first encounter with Lomax was hearing him on disc, pressing Blind Willie McTell, whom he'd only just met, for 'songs about colored people havin' hard times in the South.' McTell, not surprisingly, professed not to know any, but perhaps it's a measure of how good a fieldworker Lomax was that he got anything at all out of McTell after that!

From his earliest days, John Lomax seems to have been convinced that he was destined to do something great, worthy of his name and that of Texas, and that getting an education was the key to achievement. His early life is thus a fascinating bildungsroman, in the sense both that education features largely in It, and that he was - as he remained - prone to rewriting himself according to his audience. Entering university at the late age of 28, he took to knocking time off his true age, so that when he graduated two years later, he was three years younger than when he had enrolled. In polite company he would act the cowboy, referring to 'my father's ranch,' and keeping his hat on except when saluting ladies. At other times he would expect everything he deemed due to an alumnus of the University of Texas and a postgraduate of Harvard.

One shouldn't judge this sort of behaviour unduly harshly; for all his insecurities, about being unable to read music, about not having academic training in folklore research, and so on, Lomax was a man of tremendous achievements, in which he succeeded thanks to his own energy and unflagging hard work. Although prone to self-doubt, he had much of the undaunted, challenge-relishing, 'cando' spirit of turn of the century America, epitomised by Theodore Roosevelt. (In 1910, Lomax asked Roosevelt to write an introduction to 'Cowboy Songs', and one feels that the energy in the room where they met would have powered a small factory.) A downside of all this vim and vigour was that It was all too often expressed in quarrels, with people and institutions ranging from the Archive of American Folksong and Macmillan, his long-suffering publishers, to folklorists, musicians, academics, and his own family. (Mind you, between being John Lomax's son and being Alan Lomax's father, it would be hard to say who had the tougher job.)

John Lomax's life spanned a period of epochal change, from just after the Civil War to just after the Second World War, and his greatest achievements came at a time when most men would have been retired; instead of putting his feet up, Lomax - and his admirable second wife, Ruby Terrill, who had hitherto devoted her considerable abilities to being Dean of Women at the University of Texas - embarked on fieldwork involving thousands of miles of travel, wrestling with recalcitrant recording machines, and winning the trust at short notice of people from radically different cultures and environments. Porterfield's biography admirably captures all of this, although I would have liked more note taken of Lomax and Miss Terrill's encounter with Blind Willie McTell than 'they spent two days in the Atlanta area.'

The book also paints a vivid portrait of the man, in all his complexities and contradictions, and equally important, of his times, as promised in the subtitle. Porterfield neither ducks nor seeks to excuse his subject?s less likeable characteristics, In particular his racism, but equally he does not settle for shallow, unhistorical condemnation. It should be added that, unlike Lomax, Porterfield supplies an impeccable scholarly apparatus. He also provides a witty and apposite set of chapter titles, mostly drawn from the songs which Lomax collected. When I am world dictator it will be made a capital offence for authors to thank their cats in acknowledgements, but that apart, 'Last Cavalier' is a magnificent success.     Chris Smith
(from Blues & Rythmn 116, Feb 1997, p.45)

 


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