Christian Scheider loves libraries. The Sagaponack-raised son of movie legend Roy Scheider, the late actor remembered for starring in such blockbuster fare as Jaws and The French Connection, reveres local libraries as a unique cultural venue. “I think libraries are the most under-utilized democratic institution in the U.S.,” he says. “They are the site where the commercial and the historical meet, and where history gets a chance to evaluate merit irrespective of commercial viability.”
Scheider is curating and hosting a couple of series at the Amagansett Free Library this summer. One of these, Pre-co-cious Cinema, is a film series exploring children’s cinema, running Wednesday nights at 6 p.m. The other is a series exploring the life and work of Alan Lomax, a figure best known for his work collecting American folk music. The Lomax series, which will combine discussion of Lomax with screenings of archival footage, begins on July 11, running for six Mondays from 10:15 to 11:30 a.m.
Alan Lomax (1915-2002) is a fascinating character who looms large over the world of American roots music. “He started out very young working with his father John, who was the university man, ivory-towered,” says Scheider. “But Alan came up with the concept of Cultural Equity, which was revolutionary for the time.” Cultural Equity was an early iteration of the idea of multiculturalism, an idea that Lomax expressed by staging diverse concerts. “His radical idea was that the Delta blues singer from Memphis might have more to offer than the highly-trained musicians honored by academia.”
It was not an academic institution nor a record company but a library—the Library of Congress, in fact—that employed Lomax. Under the aegis of the Library of Congress, Lomax was able to collect without regard for commercial viability.
In fact, Lomax felt that commercialization was likely to crush the distinct, localized styles that he was discovering collecting music in the field. As Scheider points out, “Lomax recognized that, while a radio receiver could be had for $50, the transmitter cost five million, which meant that big corporations would be culturally dominant.”
The music business worked through the early part of the 20th century, with ever-increasing sophistication, to craft ear candy for the radio. In contrast, many of the rural musicians Lomax recorded had never even heard recordings of themselves. Simply by giving these people a chance to hear themselves through a radio-style speaker, Lomax was helping them to erase the distinction between their own culture and the dominant culture.
Lomax continued to push against the cultural imbalance caused by mass communication by preparing and releasing field recordings of folk music into the commercial market. This time, he worked for record companies that had the means to promote the music. He was a pioneer in the popularization of what we now call “roots music,” and he played a key role in the folk revival of the late ’50s and early ’60s.
Scheider’s interest in Lomax doesn’t begin and end with his Amagansett Library series: an actor and filmmaker himself, he is in the midst of conducting research for a screenplay about Lomax. “I envision a film that focuses on the musicians—I don’t want to do a ‘great man’ treatment of Lomax.” It’s certainly a great story, and we can all get a taste of it at the Amagansett Free Library.
The Lomax series begins on July 11 and runs for six Mondays from 10:15–11:30 a.m. The pre-co-cious Cinema series for children and adults is every Wednesday night at 6 p.m. Both are held at the Amagansett Free Library, 215 Main Street, Amagansett. Call 631-267-3810 or visit amaglibrary.org for more information.