The Archive

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

What is now known as the Alan Lomax Archive was once called “the office” and sometimes “the orifice” by Alan, aptly evoking an opening that could swallow one up. It stuck to Alan through sixty years, migrating between his 1940s New York apartments, his London 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-office from Columbia University in the 1960s. hen the rent for this space doubled in the mid-1980s, threatening the very existence of the archive, then-Chancellor of CUNY, Joseph Murphy, stepped in at the last moment with an invitation to Hunter College. Thus “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.

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, a research laboratory, and the hub of numerous projects, about which many people were busy, and for which the recordings and other documentation were constantly being mined. It can be best understood as the embodiment of the many ways in which Alan Lomax attempted to make known the artistic achievements of local cultures and ordinary people. It was also the setting for the monumental project of comparative musicology, dance, and linguistic ethnology carried out by Lomax, Conrad Arensberg, Victor Grauer, Forrestine Paulay, and other collaborators over the course of forty years, as they sought to distinguish the cultural identifiers encoded in the world's performance styles.

In 2004 Alan Lomax's original recordings, media collections, library, and papers were moved to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.


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