The Unfinished Work of Alan Lomax’s Global Jukebox

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Alan Lomax, the musicologist and musician, with microphone, and Pete Seeger, right, practicing for a performance at Carnegie Hall in 1959. CreditJohn Cohen/Getty Images

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There’s a fundamental contradiction to the life and work of Alan Lomax, the prolific collector of American folk songs. He encouraged Western audiences to appreciate rural and indigenous traditions as true art, on the same level as classical music. Meanwhile, he wanted to help those marginalized societies maintain distinct cultural identities, empowering them against the encroaching influence of mass media.

So how does that work? How can we bring these traditions into a cosmopolitan world without compromising them? When a culture comes under the anthropologist’s gaze, can it still write its own history?

In 1983 Lomax established the Association for Cultural Equity, known as ACE, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing that tension, largely by making sure the communities he had recorded reaped some reward. This spring, the organization unveiled the Global Jukebox, a free, interactive web portal with recordings of more than 6,000 folk songs from around the world that Lomax recorded or acquired. Most have never been publicly available.

It’s still imperfect, but the jukebox is a huge achievement. It will ensure that his work lives on in a single, broadly accessible collection, under the stewardship of an organization whose mission he helped define. Yet there are some questions it still must answer. What is it doing to further the creative life of the communities that created this music? As Lomax put it in a dispatch from 1976, how can the jukebox “make culture again grow on the periphery — where culture has always grown”? And does the Global Jukebox resist the false notion that homegrown expression in nonurban areas is a thing of the past — or does it feed into it?

On the Global Jukebox website, the recordings are plotted on a world map. Using a system called cantometrics, devised by Lomax and the ethnomusicologist Victor Grauer, each song has been analyzed according to 41 variables, such as vocal inflection and ensemble size. Users can sort songs from around the world and sift for commonalities, finding clues to migration patterns, or the ways that societies with similar structures share modes of expression.

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