by C. P. Lee


Guthrie, Ledford and Lomax

My “father reminded us on various occasions that the world seems to require what’s right and what’s wrong. He thanked those willing to be assholes noting that if they were to stop, well, maybe some of us would have to take their places and maintain the balance of the world.”
                                                                                                   Arlo Guthrie, July 24th 2002

… I come to lay Caesar out – Not to hip you to him! Sorry, can’t resist leaping into Lord Buckley again, because in this month’s piece I’m going to look at the careers of two dead men. The first of the late greats being Ewan MacColl, the writer, singer and broadcaster, and secondly, the recently deceased American musicologist, Alan Lomax. Both of these were profoundly influential on the young Bob Dylan. Both of them intensely disliked him, MacColl until his death in 1989, and Lomax at least until the 1980s. In the early 1990s he attended a Dylan concert and was feted from the stage by Dylan, so we can probably assume that some sort of rapprochement had been reached by then.

I’ve already written about the MacColl/Dylan relationship at some length in several other publications (see The North West Labour History Journal, 2001; ‘Like The Night – Bob Dylan & The Free Trade Hall’; and ‘Isis, A Bob Dylan Anthology’), and the whole Folk revival thing is put into perspective in that essential volume by Dave Harker, published in the 1980s and entitled Fakesong. This is a kind of companion volume to Georgina Boyce’s wonderful The Imagined Village, and is an examination of the first British Folk revival from the turn of the 19th century and throughout the 20th. But what really struck me when I first read Fakesong was Harker’s uncompromising analysis of the Revivalists’ ‘mediation of the texts’ – that is to say, how much they buggered about with the raw material.

Now, we know and cherish the stories of Baring Gould and Cecil Sharp wandering around the countryside on their bikes with cylinder recorders attached to the handlebars and picnic hampers strapped to the back mud-flap, but what became less charming and more insidious was the way they tampered with the material they’d recorded in the field. Sitting in church rectories, parlours and the back rooms of pubs, they recorded, notated and transcribed performances by what all common sense at the time would dictate as being the last contemporary performers of a dying folk art form. It’s what they did with these recordings and notes after they returned to their studies that is so worrying and annoying. Not content with the verbatim performance they would seek ways of making them ‘better’. If Cecil Sharp thought that a rhyme or a descant was ‘too primitive’, he would alter it with one of his own. Often the singers were considered ‘primitively vulgar’ and in need of correction And so it was that many extant performances of ballads and songs were altered for a more public consumption by these arbiters of taste.

In the 1940s and 50s when attempts were being made to kick-start a second Folk revival, principally through the auspices of the Communist Party of Great Britain, the same kind of thing happened to contemporary song writers who were encouraged to enter competitions to find new material more relevant to the post-war world. Among the judges were Ewan MacColl and a guy called Bert Lloyd. Lloyd was an intriguing figure who’d worked as a sheep shearer in Australia and on a whaling boat before the Second World War. He was an ardent socialist and it was his political practices that came to the fore when he was judging songs for inclusion in a volume of labour songs that were going to be published by the Workers Music Association (founders of Topic Records). Once again, where lyrics were judged as being too primitive or in need of a left leaning slant, out came the red pen, and the songs were ‘nudged’ in the right (or Left) direction. Extant folk material (the Childe Ballads, Etc) was also subjected to a ‘makeover’ of Pop Idol proportions, more of which, later in this essay.

I don’t want to sound too negative about this second revival, but when I look back at the situation that existed before it happened, I might argue that it was a wholly good thing (and if all things are cyclical I look forward to the next one). For decades throughout the 20th Century folk music was held prisoner in the domain of the English Folk Dance & Song Society. In fact, the very word ‘folk’ itself was a label invented by German ethnomusicologists in the late 19th century. It was used to describe much more than a genre of music and was associated with the establishment of a kind of racial identity inherent within the idea of some sort of ‘pure’ Volk, or people. These ideas were eagerly adopted by British researchers, who, by and large, tended to be middle-class and male. Song was just a part of what they were engaged in cataloguing and preserving. ‘Folk Art’ is probably the best description of their catch-all phrase, which included activities as varied as basket making and Morris Dancing. The actual ‘Volk’ themselves would never have called a tune ‘a folk song’, it was simply – a tune.

In spirit, the concept behind the EFDSS, was an honourable one – to preserve and disseminate the ‘folk culture’ of this country. In practice it was a different matter. The organisation became too hidebound within its middle-class origins, too academic, too exclusive, too twee. And so it remained in its pre-eminent position as arbiter and curator of all things folk, organising Maypole dance classes for school children, allowing access to its archives for visiting professors, etc. In the 1940s it hosted ‘recitals’ at its Hampstead headquarters by performers such as the genuine farm labourer, Harry Cox from Ludlow. Here we begin to see a parallel with Alan Lomax emerge (as we shall see later). Harry, who would sing in the pubs of Ludlow on a Saturday night, would go out to the Feathers or The Portcullis wearing his suit. The concert organisers at the EFDSS felt he would be more ‘authentic’ if he wore his labouring clothes, cap, collarless shirt, moleskin trousers, etc. And so it was that Harry was re-modelled by the guardians of veracity.

As communists MacColl and Lloyd saw beyond the blinkered confines of the EFDSS, and realised, as they said, that England (and Scotland, Ireland and Wales) had a rich seam of traditional music that was as vibrant and in many cases, better, than the mindless pap being offered by the top twenty. If these songs could be introduced to the young people of these isles then folk music could be regenerated. This was their avowed objective and they were highly successful in their mission.

But where had MacColl come from? It’s no secret that he was born Jimmy Miller in Salford. His parents were Scottish and both his father and mother would sing traditional Scottish songs around the house and at social gatherings. MacColl heard them and stored them away in his memory. He could have no idea how useful they’d become in later life. Leaving school right in the middle of the Depression meant that essentially he became one of the army of the unemployed. Rather than laze about he became actively involved in street theatre and was a founder member of the Red Megaphones Agit-Prop troupe. This small band of politically committed entertainers would perform outside football matches, factory gates and dole queues. Occasionally MacColl would make up relevant song ditties appropriate to whatever sketch they were performing. He seldom sang the songs he’d learned from his parents and wouldn’t have known what the phrase ‘folk song’ referred to anyway.

He continued to be involved in the field of experimental drama until he was in his early forties. During that time he’d composed a number of songs that are now legendary – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Dirty Old Town being two of his most famous. They were written for inclusion in his plays, Dirty Old Town, in particular, to facilitate a scene change (it took him, he claimed, twenty minutes to write). Again, he was never aware of writing ‘folk songs’.

Then, one day in 1951 the phone rang – it was Alan Lomax.

Lomax, who died on Friday the 19th July 2002, was the son of American ethnomusicologist Alan (John) Lomax, a contemporary of Cecil Sharp, founder of the EFDSS. While Sharp was touring the Appalachian Mountains collecting songs of British origin, Lomax senior was travelling the prairies of Texas and New Mexico compiling his 1910 volume Cowboy Songs, one of the first serious attempts to record and transcribe ‘authentic’ American folk music. From birth the young Lomax was immersed in the sounds of Americana, and in his early teens began accompanying his father on field trips in search of more music to document. This was in the years before magnetic tape and the cumbersome equipment carried by the Lomax’s weighed in at five hundred pounds. It often had to be manhandled into people’s houses and barns so that recording sessions could take place.

Much of their work was funded by the Library of Congress and in the 1930s they were responsible for ‘discovering’ artists such as Leadbelly and Son House. Famously, Alan recorded a young blues player by the name of McKinley Morganfield at Stowell’s Plantation in Mississippi. McKinley couldn’t believe it when he heard the aluminium disc played back to him. He recalled years later that he sounded just as good as Big Bill Broonzy or any of the other blues men he knew who’d cut records. He decided there and then to move to Chicago and pursue music as a career. On the way he changed his name to Muddy Waters.

Further sessions for Lomax included Jelly Roll Morton and Woody Guthrie, all recorded for the Library of Congress. But times got hard for Lomax during the McCarthy communist witch hunts and he left America with a Guggenheim grant to research the indigenous music of Europe. When he arrived in London he was given MacColl’s number as a possible contact because he was told that MacColl’s parents would be interesting to record.

They met up and immediately hit it off. Lomax gave MacColl a crash course in his vision of an all-encompassing world of folk music, calling it ‘the only true people’s art form’. The Salfordian, who was already tired of the theatre as a way of artistic expression saw the opportunities offered by music as a way of reaching out and channelling the energies of a nascent revolutionary movement. He literally believed that the world could be changed by song. Lomax introduced him to Bert Lloyd and eventually to his third wife Peggy Seeger, sister of Pete. MacColl devoured everything he could about folk music and, utilising communist dialectical techniques, set about formulating methods and practices that would bring about a ‘purity’ of performance.

What this eventually led to was the formation of ‘the Singers Clubs’ and their infamous ‘policy rules’, and then in 1964, the setting up of the ‘Critics Groups’ whereby constant self analysis and self criticism was viewed as the way forward in folk music. If you were English you could only sing English songs, if you were from America, only American ones, and so forth. Even the pitch and tone of your performance was dictated by a set of rules. All this was to lead to the traditionalists’ purist reaction to Dylan’s adoption of electric instrumentation and the fiasco of the 1966 world tour.

After completing his missionary work in England Lomax returned to the States in 1956. But it’s worth waiting a moment and looking back again at Lomax’s track record before continuing with the latter part of his career. The Lomax’s came across Huddie Leadbetter (aka: Leadbelly) in Louisiana State penitentiary in 1933. A self-taught musician Leadbelly was responsible for the creation of such legendary standards as Midnight Special and Goodnight Irene. They recorded him in jail and petitioned the Governor for his release which came about in 1934. Even though the prison warden stated in 1938 that in no way had the Lomax’s influenced the decision because Huddie was due for parole anyway, John Lomax always took credit for it. He went to work for the Lomax’s as a chauffeur and handyman, and then began to appear in concert promoted by them. Just as the EFDSS had done to Harry Cox, Leadbelly got a makeover from the Lomax’s and when performing it was considered more ‘authentic’ if he wore a prison uniform. Their relationship ended acrimoniously in 1939. Leadbelly died of illness as a pauper in 1949. Shortly after his death, Pete Seeger and The Weavers had a huge hit with Goodnight Irene. Lomax took a one third publishing credit and refused all requests by the Leadbetter family to restore the original copyright. Irene was just one of many songs he claimed co-writing credit for in order to gain the royalties.

Author Robert Gordon, in his new Muddy Waters biography, Can’t Be Satisfied, has thrown doubt on Lomax’s claims to have ‘discovered’ many of the Black musicians they recorded. Gordon states that it was the fieldwork of Afro-American academic John Work III of Fisk University that lead them to many of the performers being recorded. Fisk was then virtually airbrushed out of history in subsequent writings by Lomax. Gordon’s most damning claim is that Lomax ‘forgot’ to pay Waters the $20 he’d promised him for the recordings, subsequently released by Lomax.

As regards Lomax’s relationship with Guthrie, the singer songwriter had already had a successful career on the radio in California and was hardly the mild mannered son-of-the-soil, folkprimitive that either of them would have us believe, who simply happened to wander into Lomax’s studio one day and be ‘discovered’. Myth building in popular music has been going on for a long time.

Lomax operated out of a political spectrum. He was the kind of person like MacColl who believed that scholarship and musical truth came from a ‘chosen few’. That only they, by dint of their intelligence and overview could see the whole picture. At the Newport Festival in 1965, Lomax introduced the Paul Butterfield Blues Band with the following words – “Used to be a time when a farmer would take a box, glue an axe handle to it, put some strings on it, sit down in the shade of a tree and play some blues for himself and his friends. Now here we’ve got these guys, and they need all this fancy hardware to play the blues. Today you’ve heard some of the greatest blues musicians in the world playing their simple music on simple instruments. Let’s find out if these guys can play at all.”

Butterfield’s manager was Albert Grossman. When Lomax came off stage Grossman went straight over to him and asked what kind of a fucking introduction he thought that was. Within a few seconds the two of them were punching it out and rolling in the dust. When Dylan came on later and played with a backing band for the first time, Lomax went apoplectic with rage.

OK – so eventually Lomax attended a Dylan concert in 1992, and Bob called him a ‘missionary’. When he died the other week there were plenty of eulogies praising the work that Lomax had done throughout his lifetime. In much the same way MacColl was eulogised in 1989. I certainly don’t deny the impact that both men have had on popular culture – what I do say is, we should be careful of praising these men too highly. They may be heroes but they most certainly have feet of clay and we should never lose sight of the real people behind the scenes. The ones who have been swept aside in the rush of history. Arlo Guthrie has written since Lomax’s death about how much we owe to people like Lomax. With all due respect – I am left wondering how much more we could have had if he and MacColl hadn’t been so purist and dictatorial in their self-imposed roles of ‘Keepers of the Faith’?


Alan Lomax and friends, 1954
Top: Alan Lomax, Bruce Turner, Jim Bray and Brian Daly
Seated: Peggy Seeger, Ewan MacColl and Shirley Collins (1954)