“John Lomax got Leadbelly out of prison.” That’s the commonly accepted story; you can still see it being bandied about if you do a web search under his name. But as every biblical scholar and IRS auditor knows, the truth is always more complex than the commonly accepted fiction.
Nolan Porterfield, author of the critically acclaimed biography of “singing brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, has done his best to untangle the considerably twisted skein of John A. Lomax’s life. If it’s not as colorful as the Rodgers bio, well, the subject of that book was more colorful and appealing, and his life considerably shorter. Last Cavalier, however, is just as rich in telling detail and sharp observation, and its subject more complicated and multifaceted.
Lomax was a hideously disorganized keeper of records about himself, and in many cases fudged, lied, or forgot important dates and details about his life. Fortunately for his skilled and persistent biographer, Lomax was a prodigious letter-writer, regularly cranking out six or more a day in his personal life, to say nothing of professional correspondence.
What emerges from Last Cavalier is a portrait of a conflicted man of many dualities. Politically he was conservative, sometimes reactionary, but also at times a populist. He was a Harvard master’s graduate and internationally recognized music scholar who mistrusted intellectuals and couldn’t spell even his own sons’ names correctly most of the time. He could be courtly and self-effacing one minute, haughty and imperious the next. He had no formal training in music, but became a world-renowned authority on American folk song. He was a casual racist like most men of his time and place, and admitted that he never understood African-Americans, but he loved their music and did more to preserve it than perhaps any other white American of the 20th century.
He also did nearly all of the work for which he is best known after the age when most men retire. That’s right. He travelled the South and the West with heavy, primitive recording devices, recording folk songs in fields, parlors and prisons. He wrote or co-wrote several important books that were among the first in the world to take folk music seriously as an art form, and American folk music in particular as an important contribution to the world’s folk art. He helped to establish the career of Huddie Ledbetter, or Leadbelly, as one of the country’s leading purveyors of black folk songs. And he began most of this work well beyond the age of 60.
Porterfield freely admits that much of Lomax’s writing about his two favorite subjects, cowboys and Negros, was based on little more than “romantic visions” and racist stereotypes. But in these attitudes he was no worse than most people of his time. Where he was different from most others was in seeing the value of the folk music of these two disparate groups.
Lomax’s definition of “folk” music was quaint by today’s standards, his research and collection methods sloppy. Still, as Porterfield says of Lomax’s first book, *Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads,* its ultimate value “is measured not in scholarly abstractions but in what it gave us all, in those lovely, sad, and funny bits of tune and line now embedded in our lives: ‘Whoopee Ti Yi Yo, Git Along, Little Dogies,’ ‘The Old Chisholm Trail,’ ‘Jesse James,’ ‘Sweet Betsy from Pike,’ and of course ‘Home on the Range,’ among dozens of other American favorites which Lomax saved from doom or otherwise helped preserve and popularize.”
Lomax began his work on folk music as a nearly 40-year-old graduate student at Harvard, and continued it on the side during a career at the University of Texas and its alumni organization. Of necessity, Porterfield provides a detailed account of these years before his great life’s work began; it’s less interesting and at times convoluted as only Texas politics can be, but it’s all crucial to understanding the actions and attitudes of the man John Lomax.
The author injects humor with his sometimes vivid portrayals of key events, including this one of Lomax and his elder son setting off on the first of their great song-collecting trips across the nation in 1932. “There is a mental image of their departure: Casually dressed, Johnny takes the wheel and with a jaunty wave, steps on the gas; beside him, grave as a mortician and wearing his inevitable dark suit, vest, tie, white shirt, and rumpled fedora, Lomax holds on for dear life, clutching his hat, his coattails swirling around him. Away they go.”
Of the Leadbelly episode, Porterfield gives a well-documented account that reveals John Lomax as neither the singer’s savior and father-figure he made himself out to be, nor the unscrupulous, exploitive monster as which he is sometimes cast by Leadbelly’s supporters.
“Both men were complex individuals, beset by social and cultural currents neither could comprehend, much less control, and the question of race plays back and forth in their relationship in strange and sometimes ironic ways,” Porterfield notes. When Lomax describes Leadbelly as “‘an unbelievable combination of a brute, a poet; a shuffling servant and a supreme egomaniac; … an amazing mixture of craft, guile, cunning, deceit, ingratitude, suspicion, fawning, hypocrisy, and at times a charming companion and entertainer,'” Porterfield notes that “Lomax’s harsher critics might have used the same language to describe him.
As do all the best biographers, Porterfield amply portrays his subject in all his contradictions, never glossing over his faults and frailties. But he also helps us to appreciate just what John Lomax accomplished in spite of his faults, and in the end, we admire him and have to acknowledge that without his life, ours would be the poorer.
(University of Illinois Press, 1996)