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Style & Culture

The Red-rumor blues

Newly released files reveal a long-running FBI probe into music chronicler Alan Lomax.

April 23, 2006|Ted Gioia | Special to The Times

WHEN Alan Lomax died in July 2002 at age 87, his reputation as America's preeminent advocate of traditional music seemed above reproach. "His importance in the daily work of our profession cannot be adequately eulogized," folklorist Roger Abrahams wrote at the time. "Lomax was the person most responsible for the great explosion of interest in American folk song throughout the mid-twentieth century." Other commentators chimed in with effusive praise for the man who helped discover or advance the careers of Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton and many other musicians who are now household names.

The range of Lomax's activities was dazzling. He made his mark as an author, record producer, broadcaster, professor, archivist and public advocate, but above all as a field researcher, willing to travel the country, and eventually the globe, in pursuit of the music of the common people. But in the last four years, a more complex story has emerged. Last year Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov, in their book "Lost Delta Found," charged Lomax with taking undue credit for the contributions of his African American collaborators during field work conducted in Mississippi in the early 1940s. In Gordon's words, Lomax "erased" the efforts of John Work, a Fisk University professor who helped him.

Several scholars have come to Lomax's defense, offering a strong rebuttal to these critics, but the widely publicized accusations have cast a pall over the reputation of a man who was once viewed as America's most dedicated advocate of traditional black music.

Now the release of previously classified FBI materials on Lomax adds another twist to the evolving biography. These documents, which came into my possession after I filed a request with the FBI as part of my research for a book on the Delta blues, reveal that the bureau repeatedly investigated the late folk-song collector over a period of 40 years.

The materials track the extraordinary degree of intrusion by the government into the life of a man whose energies were devoted almost exclusively to the insular world of folk songs.

The files, amounting to several hundred pages, show that Lomax was questioned by federal agents at least twice, in 1942 and 1979. In the 1940s, the bureau may have tried to have Lomax disciplined while he was an employee of the Library of Congress. In the 1950s, the FBI redoubled its efforts and advised the attorney general's office on the possible prosecution of Lomax for providing false information to federal agents -- the same statute that recently sent Martha Stewart to prison. As late as 1979, the bureau was still pursuing leads, focusing on a bizarre charge that Lomax had impersonated an FBI agent during a visit to New Hampshire.

Over the years, agents interviewed people who knew Lomax at Harvard, the University of Texas, Columbia University, the Library of Congress, CBS and at his publisher (Macmillan). They also talked to his friends, neighbors and casual acquaintances, checked his credit record, uncovered his traffic violations, noted his hygiene and social habits and even talked to the clerk at his local liquor store to learn about his drinking preferences.

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An overheard remark

A casual comment made at a wedding reception in the 1930s may have triggered the initial investigation. An anonymous informant sent a letter to the St. Louis branch of the FBI in 1941 relating that Lomax's father, the esteemed song collector John Lomax, was heard telling guests that his son had boasted to him of his Communist sympathies, asserting, "I am just as much a Communist as I ever was -- if not a stronger one, but don't say anything about it for you will only get me in trouble." Despite finding insufficient evidence to support prosecution, the probe was periodically renewed, although the charges under consideration varied over the years.

Many of the FBI's early efforts focused on Lomax's activities while he was a freshman at Harvard. Lomax had been arrested as part of a demonstration demanding the release of Edith Berkman, viewed by the FBI as a "Communist agitator" who was facing deportation. Lomax was charged with disturbing the peace and fined $25.

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