Whether you've heard his name or not, Alan Lomax is one of the most prominent cultural influences in US history. From 1933 to his death in 2002, Lomax relentlessly documented the provincial communities of the Southern US, a project so successful and vast as to have left an entire charitable research organization (the Association for Cultural Equity) in his wake, which continues the cause by sharing and disseminating thousands of recordings, videos, and texts. A chunk of these, billed as raw footage from Alan Lomax's American Patchwork 1978-1985, screens in Portland on Saturday.
PUZZLER-IN-CHIEF Alan Lomax assembled unseen pieces of actual Americana.
Lately, and rather suddenly, we've become a culture obsessed with the way we used to live, viewing Americana (or alt-Americana, or whatever) through a sort of utopian lens and generating an aesthetic of stylized nostalgia that largely ignores the actual underlying conditions. Because of this point especially, Lomax's work is extremely important. Unlike so much else today, it pitch-perfectly captures the tone of an era. A philosophy student and lifelong devotee to American ethnography, his films contextualize rare moments of the 20th century in ways most YouTube flotsam could never hope to, offering richly detailed illuminations of our historical fabric and revealing shades of the racial tensions, labor efforts, and lurking violence of the times. Take for example the inherent tension of his 1982 film of New Orleans's old-time Kid Thomas Band: In a cramped, shabby storeroom, eight elderly black men kick out an upbeat, seven-minute rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In" while several white onlookers peer through windows and door jambs.
In the 30 years since Lomax made these recordings (again, many in deeply rural, economically depressed areas of Southern and Middle America), archiving itself has helped our collective self-awareness blow up like a balloon (see: American Idol, Skype, Tumblr, etc.). No doubt there are oldsters out there today pulling off Stanley Hicks's four-minute porch-stomping buck-dance (shot in 1982), but whatever split-second impulse that compels his wife Hattie to join him halfway through, after she'd been sitting in a rocker looking on coolly as though her husband were merely doing the dishes, lives in a moment that today would almost surely seem engineered. I'll stop before claiming that Lomax's films capture an America that's more authentic than our own, but I'd reckon they portray one less obsessed with its reflection.
Moments like Stanley and Hattie's are American Patchwork's strongest knots, and the program is full of them. Take Doodle Thrower and his pals' version of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" (1982): in a Georgia barn, a phalanx of virtually identical bearded guitarists hammer out the tune as the paunchy, middle-aged Doodle leads the verse, alternatingly churning out some harmonica blasts and cordially wrapping his forearm around the neck of the frail, elderly man at his side. Soon it's that man who gains our focus, as the struggle between the limitations of his age and efforts to sing along becomes vividly, ecstatically clear. We get the sense he doesn't do this often, though Doodle's jovial, compassionate lead spurs him louder and louder. The old man finishes a round and cracks some seriously heartwarming smiles as Doodle takes again to the mouth organ. It's a moment of real pathos, almost sucker-punchingly affecting — then suddenly, from off-camera enters this other old guy, a real Archie Bunker-type, and puts his hands on both our boys' shoulders. He's extremely surly and isn't singing a lick. While they size him up, both Doodle and the elderly man let the verse trail off. The song seems suddenly in danger. Over the next ten seconds before the clip ends, the third man's face betrays an affecting stream of emotions, far more powerful and poetic seen than could be written here.