Alan Lomax’s Global Jukebox Preserves World Folk Traditions
By Lea Terhune | Staff Writer, IIP Digital | 06 June 2012
Washington — When folklorist Alan Lomax died in 2002 at the age of 87, he left behind a vast cultural legacy, a musical archive that he began collecting with his folklorist father John A. Lomax. The music, photos, film and manuscripts are now being digitized, and hundreds of samples are posted on the Cultural Equity website, devoted to Lomax’s work.
Leading the effort to preserve his legacy is his daughter, Anna Lomax Wood, president of the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE). “My father believed in leaving copies of his recordings in the countries or regions where they were recorded,” Wood replied in an email interview. “It was his desire to create a creative space and greater attraction for the roots music of people from all backgrounds. He called this cultural equity.”
Although she says there are still several thousand hours to add, “I’m basically very happy and amazed that so much is coming from such a small concern as ours.” She adds, “The response to our online archive has been pretty overwhelming.”
John A. Lomax was curator of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress when son Alan, grown into the work he began as a boy helping his father, became the archive’s assistant director in 1937. By then the pair had already recorded more than 3,000 songs.
For decades Alan Lomax visited remote areas of the United States and elsewhere to capture fading folk traditions. He was harassed in Southern states for fraternizing with poor black sharecroppers to record their music. Such behavior was unacceptable for a white person in a segregated South of the 1960s, as he recounts in his book The Land Where the Blues Began.
The ACE online archive went live in early 2012, shortly after the release of The Alan Lomax Collection from the American Folklife Center, a digital download of 16 of his field recordings, by the Library of Congress.
Lomax started the Global Jukebox project in the 1980s. His vision was to make traditional folk music, dance and oral history freely accessible to all. Ideas for a prototype are among his papers retained by the Library of Congress, which possesses most of the Lomax archive.
“It still remains for us to learn how we can put our magnificent mass communications technology at the service of each and every branch of the human family,” Lomax said in 1960, as quoted in the ACE online Lomax Geo-Archive. Modern recording and storage technology makes Lomax’s goal of universal access possible.
The Geo-Archive offers samples of folk music from across the United States and elsewhere: Britain, France, Ireland, Portugal and Spain; Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries; Morocco; and from the Bahamas to Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. Haunting songs from diverse cultures may be compared. Thanks to digital restoration, the quality is exceptional.
Interviews of performers are rich resources for anyone interested in folk traditions. Thousands of photographs document Lomax’s many subjects.
The Lomax recordings of black blues artists greatly influenced 20th-century folk and rock musicians. Lead Belly was among musicians recorded by John and Alan in Southern prisons during the 1930s and 1940s. “Mississippi” Fred McDowell and Muddy Waters were recorded by Alan Lomax well before the Rolling Stones took their name from a Muddy Waters song and incorporated elements of his music into their own.
“House of the Rising Sun” is among many traditional folk tunes that achieved commercial success in rock versions, first recorded by the Lomaxes in humble shacks during the Great Depression. Lomax extensively recorded folk genius Woody Guthrie, whose song “This Land Is Your Land” is known worldwide.
Alan Lomax worried that commercialization and standardization of music would erase the memory of complex harmonies of African folk traditions, which were orally transmitted. To that end he set up a dissemination and repatriation program, which ACE continues, “to connect older traditions and tradition bearers with younger generations,” says Wood.
Recording archives have been established in the United States and at archive sites in the British Isles, Ireland, Guadeloupe, Italy, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, with sites planned in Haiti and the Bahamas, so people may discover the roots of their music.
ACE receives grateful responses from around the world, according to Wood.
Lomax’s films and videos of songs, dances and events as diverse as New Orleans funeral and jazz parades, storytellers from Virginia and Yaqui Indian dancers from Arizona are also being digitized and posted on the ACE website.
“I think my father would be very pleased with what we’ve accomplished,” Anna Lomax Wood says, “but he’d be reaching for something beyond this, as he always did. That’s what made him exasperating and great.”
Article courtesy of the International Information Programs Bureau, U.S. State Department
Originally posted: June 7, 2012