The Archive

Alan Lomax in his New York archive, 1992. Photo by Peter Figlestahler.

The "Orifice." From 1933 to 1942, John A. and Alan Lomax made thousands of recordings in the U.S. and the Caribbean for the Archive of Folk Song of The Library of Congress. From then on, Alan's independent work travelled with him like the shell of a tortoise, growing larger and heavier; but whether by luck or design, keeping remarkably well through many moves and vicissitudes.

Alan was an archivist by default. It would be misleading to describe this magic box as simply the sum of its contents, an archive per se. It was in fact a working office, the busy hub of numerous projects, and a research lab for which the tapes, photos, films and videos, and notes and manuscripts that he had gathered and created over the decades were constantly being mined. Alan jokingly called it "the orifice" because it swallowed so much.

It was in fact the embodiment of the many ways in which Lomax attempted to make known the artistry of local cultures and ordinary people. And it was the setting for the monumental project of comparative musicology, dance, and linguistic anthropology he undertook with Conrad Arensberg, Edith Trager, Norman Markel, Victor Grauer, Forrestine Paulay, and other collaborators over forty years.

The archive-office stuck to Alan through sixty years, migrating between his 1940s New York apartments, his London and Paris flats, and back to Greenwich Village at 121 West Third Street, growing ever more voluminous and dominating his living spaces—until he rented a separate apartment qua office from Columbia University in the 1960s. When the rent for this space doubled in the mid-1980s Joseph Murphy, then Chancellor of CUNY, stepped in at the last moment with an invitation to Hunter College. "The office" and a grateful Alan made their last move together to a spacious set of rooms in Hunter's Fine Arts Building, near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel.

To see what's in the Lomax Archive, click here.

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