J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Narrow PBS POV on Lomax

Does PBS really hate jazz and blues? It sure seems so. Last night I watched Lomax the Songhunter, POV’s documentary on Alan Lomax, the great folklorist and field recorder recorder for the Library of Congress. Lomax made music history when he traveled to the Sherrod plantation to record a bluesman named McKinley Morganfield. Morganfield is now known and beloved as Muddy Waters, an artist whose influence on blues and rock musicians like the Rolling Stones (named after one of his songs) is incalculable. Lomax would describe the session in The Land Where the Blues Began, which was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award. Lomax is the author of Mister Jelly Roll, a book that developed out his celebrated LOC recordings of jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton reminiscing and performing at the piano.

Oddly, even though Lomax’s name is forever intertwined with early blues history, POV focused almost exclusively on Lomax’s work documenting European folk artists, or American folk artists, like Jean Ritchie, whose songs trace their lineage to European forms. The only music from African-American sources POV featured were work songs from Southern prisons (close to the blues). No Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, or Mississippi Fred McDowell, all who were essentially “discovered” by Lomax. Certainly, Lomax documented the folk music of many diverse cultures, but by ignoring the blues, POV excluded many career highpoints. The filmmaker is entitled to his editorial choices, but what he produced will most likely be of minor interest to those who study Lomax and his legacy.

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