By LARRY ROHTER
Published: January 30, 2012, The New York Times
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.
Association for Cultural Equity
Alan Lomax/Association for Cultural Equity
Association for Cultural Equity
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.
On Tuesday, to commemorate what would have been Lomax’s 97th birthday, the Global Jukebox label is releasing “The Alan Lomax Collection From the American Folklife Center,” a digital download sampler of 16 field recordings from different locales and stages of Lomax’s career.
“As an archivist you kind of think like Johnny Appleseed,” said Don Fleming, a musician and record producer who is executive director of the Association for Cultural Equity and involved in the project. “You ask yourself, ‘How do I get digital copies of this everywhere?’ ”
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.”
Lomax, a Texan by birth, devoted the last two decades of his life to the Global Jukebox project. Looking for commonalities among musical styles from all over the world, he early on began using personal computers to help develop criteria to identify and classify such similarities, in the process creating something very much like the algorithms used today by Pandora and other music streaming services.
“Alan was doubly utopian, in that he was imagining something like the Internet based on the fact he had all this data and a set of parameters he thought of as predictive,” said John Szwed, a Columbia University music professor and the author of “Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World,” a biography published in 2010. “But he was also saying that the whole world can have all this data too, and it can be done in such a way that you can take it home.”
That is one goal of the Association for Cultural Equity, which oversees Global Jukebox and other Lomax-related initiatives from modest offices at Hunter College in Manhattan, with a budget that was $250,000 last year. The music Lomax collected has been available in 45-second snippets on the Cultural Equity Web site for several years but is now being digitized in its entirety for streaming, a process scheduled to conclude next month; a similar process is under way for his radio shows, lectures and interviews. Some music is also being sold in formats ranging from iTunes and CDs to vinyl LPs. A small proportion of the Lomax material has been made available on commercial labels like Rounder and Atlantic.
“This project has evolved as the technology has evolved,” said Lomax’s daughter, Anna Lomax Wood, who is president of the Association for Cultural Equity.
Lomax’s primary interest was music, and he recorded not just across the United States but also extensively in the Caribbean, Britain, Ireland, Spain, Italy and even the Soviet Union. That led to an interest in comparing global dance styles, and so the archive also has what Ms. Wood said was “the biggest private collection of dance film anywhere, and from everywhere,” much of which will be put online.
Even before digitization of the collection is complete, musicians, educators and others have been dipping into it. Bruce Springsteen’s new album, “Wrecking Ball,” due out in March, uses samples from the archive on two songs, and more than a decade ago Moby drew heavily on Lomax’s field recordings from the South for his hit album “Play,” as did the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” movie and soundtrack.
“We go from the attitude that we just want everyone to use it, whatever their budget is,” Mr. Fleming said. “If it’s educational or for the press, it’s usually no charge, and when someone has a budget, well, then we just want to get roughly what other people are getting.”
Recently Google has come calling, with an interest in setting up a site to preserve endangered languages, Ms. Wood said. Though the recordings Lomax collected himself through fieldwork is enormous, the archive also contains material that he obtained from other researchers around the world, including spoken samples of languages that are now vanishing.
“Because he was so interested in so many different aspects of singing, dancing and speaking around the world, he gathered everything he could find, from disparate cultures,” said Todd Harvey, curator of the Alan Lomax Collection at the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center, which holds much of Lomax’s work.
The Association for Cultural Equity also has what it calls a repatriation program, meant to make Lomax’s work available to the communities where it was obtained and to pay royalties to the heirs of those whose music was recorded. On Friday recordings, photographs, video and documents are to be donated to the public library in Como, Miss., where in September 1959 Lomax made the first recordings of the blues guitarist Fred McDowell, whose songs were later covered by the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Bonnie Raitt and Jack White of the White Stripes.
“My father always felt that part of his job was to give something back to the people whose culture it was,” Ms. Wood said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘What you do is worth something,’ and what we do is an extension of that.”
Ms. Wood has been immersed in her father’s music collection all her life, even accompanying him on some field trips when she was a child. But Mr. Fleming’s route was roundabout: originally a member of the punk band Velvet Monkeys, he has produced records by artists like Sonic Youth, Hole and Teenage Fanclub before succumbing to the beauty of the music Lomax collected and especially the ethos associated with it.
“Alan saw immeasurable worth in something off the radar that everyone else ignored or saw no worth in, and he was against that homogenized Top 40 world that most people live in,” Mr. Fleming said. “Just the idea of him out in the field with his Presto recorder, dusting the thing off as it’s running, it’s all kind of punk rock to me.”