I first heard of Alan Lomax through a 2011 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, with Terry Gross. It is very exciting to hear that his archive is now available to the public.
He traveled the world through the 20th century, recording folk music wherever he went to build a massive collection of it for future research:
Throughout his career, Lomax was always using the latest technology to record folk music in the field and then share it with anyone who was interested. When he started working with his father, John Lomax, in the ’30s, that meant recording on metal cylinders. Later, Alan Lomax hauled giant tape recorders powered by car batteries out to backwoods shacks and remote villages.
His intent was to one day make his recordings publicly available:
He imagined a tool that would integrate thousands of sound recordings, films, videotapes and photographs made by himself and others. He hoped the Global Jukebox would make it easy to compare music across different cultures and continents using a complex analytical system he devised — kind of like Pandora for grad students. But the basic idea was simple: Make it all available to anyone, anywhere in the world.
What is amazing is that the organization he created has succeeded in making this happen:
“We err on the side of doing the maximum amount possible,” says Don Fleming, executive director of the Association for Cultural Equity, the nonprofit organization Lomax founded in New York in the ’80s. Fleming and a small staff made up mostly of volunteers have digitized and posted some 17,000 sound recordings.
You can find his recordings at the Association for Cultural Equity webpage. The description on their website sums up their achievement:
The Sound Recordings catalog comprises over 17,400 digital audio files, beginning with Lomax’s first recordings onto (newly invented) tape in 1946 and tracing his career into the 1990s. In addition to a wide spectrum of musical performances from around the world, it includes stories, jokes, sermons, personal narratives, interviews conducted by Lomax and his associates, and unique ambient artifacts captured in transit from radio broadcasts, sometimes inadvertently, when Alan left the tape machine running. Not a single piece of recorded sound in Lomax’s audio archive has been omitted: meaning that microphone checks, partial performances, and false starts are also included.
I love this story for many reasons including the history captured by the recordings, the multiple generations of effort to make this happen, the changes in technology that Lomax enountered and used over his years of recording, and the tedious efforts to digitize every last bit of the recordings as they were was recorded.