PEOPLE – Goodbye, Alan Lomax

26 Aug 2002

Last month Slow Food lost a great ally in the fight against the standardizing effects of modern culture. Alan Lomax, a music man in the most democratic sense, was the first to record musicians like Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters and Leadbelly. He devoted himself to preserving and bringing to a wider audience some of the most unique, diverse and unknown musical traditions in the world, including songs of cowboys, plantation workers and prisoners. The New York Times (July 20, 2002) reported, ‘In a career that carried him from fishermen’s shacks and prison work farms to television studios and computer consoles, he strove to protect folk traditions from the homogenizing effects of modern media. He advocated what he called “cultural equity: the right for every culture to have equal time on the air and equal time in the classroom”’.

His ideas are not so distant from those of Slow Food. In his words, ‘It is the voiceless people of the planet who really have in their memories the 90,000 years of human life and wisdom … we now have cultural machines so powerful that one singer can reach everybody in the world, and make all the other singers feel inferior because they’re not like him. Once that gets started, he gets backed by so much cash and so much power that he becomes a monstrous invader from outer space, crushing the life out of all the other human possibilities’. This is a song that will be familiar to Slow Food members. What the Red Delicious apple did to the Gravenstein apple, what the Idaho Russet potato did to the Green Mountain potato, what the Broad Breasted White turkey did to the Bourbon Red turkey was to virtually wipe them off the face of the planet.

Historically, Slow Food has a close relationship with the old ways of the slow music that Lomax fought to preserve, and not only because he collected Italian folk songs in 1955, spurring numerous folk revivals in Italy itself. Many people do not know that our founder Carlo Petrini became famous for starting one of the first independent radio stations in Italy (using a discarded radio transmitter from an American tank), featuring the likes of Frank Zappa, Joan Baez, and Jefferson Airplane. Carlo also revived Cante’ j’euv, a tradition medieval fertility rite typical of the Easter in which musicians would travel from house to house and sing for the gift of eggs!

More recently, the connection between ‘slow food’ and folk music can be found in Greg Brown’s song entitled ‘Slow Food’, in Slow Food’s role at
the annual Jazz Fest in New Orleans and in the music of the Italian rock band, Mambassa, whose lead vocalist Stefano Sardo is the artistic
director of the ‘Slow Food on Film’ Festival.

While Alan Lomax recordings are sure to live on thanks to his efforts,
Slow Food has an added obstacle in the fact that the culture we defend does not last. While music can fall back on recordings and videos, food
is temporary and it relies on being touched! Nonetheless, Lomax is a hero
to anyone who believes in fighting against the idea that one size fits all!

Patrick Martins is president of Slow Food USA

Photo: Alan Lomax in 1941

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