Folklorist’s Global Jukebox Goes Digital–A Great Historical Piece On Recorded Music
The collection of the folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax is being digitized for dissemination. Above, a photo he took at a church in Portsmouth, Va., in 1960.
The folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax was a prodigious collector of traditional music from all over the world and a tireless missionary for that cause. Long before the Internet existed, he envisioned a “global jukebox” to disseminate and analyze the material he had gathered during decades of fieldwork.
A decade after his death technology has finally caught up to Lomax’s imagination. Just as he dreamed, his vast archive — some 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, 5,000 photographs and piles of manuscripts, much of it tucked away in forgotten or inaccessible corners — is being digitized so that the collection can be accessed online. About 17,000 music tracks will be available for free streaming by the end of February, and later some of that music may be for sale as CDs or digital downloads.
Starting in the mid-1930s, when he made his first field recordings in the South, Lomax was the foremost music folklorist in the United States. He was the first to record Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie, and much of what Americans have learned about folk and traditional music stems from his efforts, which were also directly responsible for the folk music and skiffle booms in the United States and Britain that shaped the pop-music revolution of the 1960s and beyond.
Lomax worked both in academic and popular circles, and increased awareness of traditional music by doing radio and television programs, organizing concerts and festivals, and writing books, articles and essays prodigiously. At a time when there was a strict divide between high and low in American culture, and Afro-American and hillbilly music were especially scorned, Lomax argued that such vernacular styles were America’s greatest contribution to music.
“It would be difficult to overstate the importance of what Alan Lomax did over the course of his extraordinary career,” said the writer Tom Piazza, who has written an introductory essay for “The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax,” a book of about 200 of Lomax’s photographs that is to be published in the fall. “He was an epic figure in and of himself, with a musical appetite that was omnivorous and really awe inspiring, who used the new recording technology to go and document musical expression at its most local and least commercial.”