Heinemann, £20, 448pp. #163;18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Man Who Recorded the World: A Biography of Alan Lomax, By John Szwed

In 1950, the Weavers, a quartet which included Pete Seeger, took "Goodnight, Irene" to the top of the American "hit parade". With strings and background vocals arranged by Gordon Jenkins, it was a long way from the song as originally recorded – captured on field equipment by the father-and-son team of John and Alan Lomax at the Central Convict Sugar Plantation, Louisiana. The singer was Huddie Ledbetter, nicknamed Lead Belly on account of his toughness – and the bullet lodged in his stomach.

That sweltering day in July 1933, on the banks of the Mississippi, the Lomaxes recorded 11 sides with Lead Belly, among them three versions of the song now known as "Goodnight Irene". Across the Atlantic, Lonnie Donegan would shortly enjoy a string of hits, including "Rock Island Line", introducing the song with Lead Belly's own words – and claiming to have written it.

It's surprising but laudable that, in 2011, a 400-page study of Alan Lomax has emerged from a mainstream British publisher. For without his work – and those who followed him, including Paul Oliver, the brilliant, under-sung Brit - there would have been no Lonnie Donegan and no Bob Dylan, who described Lomax as "a missionary", and no Rolling Stones. Keith and Mick bonded over Muddy Waters, whom Lomax had recorded at Stovall, Mississippi in 1941. It was Lomax who brought the blues out of the prisons and plantations and juke joints of the "Negro" south, preserving it in the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, ripe for discovery by white college kids.

And not just the blues, but also ballads, reels, hymns, work songs, field calls. Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton performed and reminisced for Lomax; so too Woody Guthrie, who also guested on Lomax's American School of the Air radio show. The "Hoe-Down" in Copland's ballet Rodeo was taken from a field recording of Kentucky fiddler William M Stepp's "Bonaparte's Retreat". Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain adapted melodies collected for the Spanish volume of Columbia's World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. And it's a Lomax recording of Mississippi prisoner James Carter singing "Po' Lazarus" that's heard over the opening credits of the Coen Brothers' O Brother Where Art Though?

Szwed, Professor of Music, African-American Studies and Anthropology at Yale, worked with Lomax as a young graduate student of ethnomusicology. Their first encounter was in November 1961; his impression was of a man "well-dressed enough to be a Bible salesman in Alabama, but missing the mark of a successful academic". Lomax was then in his mid-forties, and had returned to New York from London, where he worked with such folklorists as Peter Kennedy and formed a Skiffle group with Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger and Shirley Collins. He also wrote Big Rock Candy Mountain, "a new American folk musical", which Joan Littlewood (Littleton in the book) staged at Stratford East.

The second of four children and a sickly child, Lomax was born in Austin, Texas. His father John was an autodidact, a collector of cowboy songs and other folk music who was determined his boy would have a proper education. Which Alan did, up to a point – private school and then a year at Harvard until money troubles and his mother's sudden death forced him home.

It was the Depression, and he persuaded his father to return to song collecting and lecturing. The two travelled together, camping to save money. They set out in a Model A Ford in summer 1933, stopping off in Dallas to collect a wind-up Ediphone recording machine. Pausing 20 miles south of the city to try it out, they captured a black washerwoman singing as she worked – a defining moment for 17-year-old Alan.

While not unapproachable, Szwed's study is not for the faint-hearted and the author is, rightly, an advocate for Lomax and his work. But he should have engaged with his critics, among them Dave Marsh, who objected to Lomax's self-importance, his "stupid 'folklorist' purism that ruined the folk music revival". Szwed does devote a few paragraphs to arguments between the Lomaxes and Lead Belly over money and copyrights. The bluesman doesn't come out well, and John was frightened by the ex-con.

But were the Lomaxes responsible for his dying in poverty? It doesn't appear they got rich on their work. Like Lomax himself in The Land Where the Blues Began, he gives insufficient credit to Shirley Collins, who accompanied Alan on his 1959 southern field trip, as chronicled in her memoir, America Over the Water. Nevertheless, Lomax was a singular figure without whose "one world" vision (multiculturalism to us) the history of popular music would have been very different.

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