Alan Lomax’s Music Archive Houses Over 17,400 Folk Recordings From 1946 to the 1990s

The work of folk­lorists and musi­col­o­gists like Alan Lomax, Stet­son Kennedy, and Har­ry Smith has long been revered in coun­ter­cul­tur­al com­mu­ni­ties and libraries; and it occa­sion­al­ly reach­es main­stream audi­ences in, for exam­ple, the Coen Brother’s 2000 film Oh Broth­er, Where Art Thou? and its atten­dant sound­track, or the playlists of purists on col­lege radio and NPR. But their record­ings are much more than his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ties.

Archives like Lomax’s Asso­ci­a­tion for Cul­tur­al Equi­ty—which we’ve fea­tured before—help remind us of our ori­gins as much as bot­tom-up accounts like Howard Zinn’s A People’s His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States. Lomax and his col­leagues believed that folk art and music infuse and renew “high” art and pro­vide bul­warks against the cyn­i­cal des­ti­tu­tion of mass-mar­ket com­mer­cial media that can seem so dead­en­ing and inescapable.

That is not to say that notions of authen­tic­i­ty aren’t fraught with their own prob­lems of exploita­tion. Approach­ing folk art as tourists, we can demean it and our­selves. But the prob­lem is less, I think, one of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion than of neglect: it’s sim­ply far too easy to lose touch, a much-remarked-upon irony of the age of social net­work­ing. Lomax under­stood this. He found­ed ACE “to explore and pre­serve the world’s expres­sive tra­di­tions with human­is­tic com­mit­ment and sci­en­tif­ic engage­ment.” The orga­ni­za­tion resides at NYC’s Hunter Col­lege and, since Lomax’s retire­ment in 1996, has been over­seen by his daugh­ter, Anna Lomax Wood. Through an arrange­ment with the Library of Con­gress, which hous­es the orig­i­nals, ACE has access to all of Lomax’s col­lec­tion of field record­ings and can dis­sem­i­nate them online to the pub­lic. Lomax’s asso­ci­a­tion has also long been active in repa­tri­at­ing record­ed arti­facts to libraries and archives in their places of ori­gin, giv­ing local com­mu­ni­ties access to cul­tur­al his­to­ries that may oth­er­wise be lost to them.

Lomax under­scored the sig­nif­i­cance of his organization’s name in a 1972 essay enti­tled “An Appeal for Cul­tur­al Equi­ty,” in which he lays out the impor­tance of pre­serv­ing cul­tur­al diver­si­ty against the “oppres­sive dull­ness and psy­chic dis­tress” imposed upon “those areas where cen­tral­ized music indus­tries, exploit­ing the star sys­tem and con­trol­ling the com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem, put the local musi­cian out of work and silence folk song.” Are we any more improved forty years lat­er for the shock­ing monop­o­liza­tion of mass media in the hands of a few con­glom­er­ates? I’d answer unequiv­o­cal­ly no but for one impor­tant qual­i­fi­ca­tion: mass media in the form of open online archives allows us unprece­dent­ed access to, for exam­ple, the awe­some late-sev­en­ties film of R.L. Burn­side (top), who like many Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta blues­men before him, would only achieve recog­ni­tion much lat­er in life. Or we can see native North Car­olin­ian Cas Wallin (above) sing a ver­sion of folk song “Pret­ty Saro” in 1982, a song Bob Dylan record­ed and only recent­ly released. Then there’s one of my favorites, “Make Me A Pal­let On Your Floor,” picked and sung below by Mis­sis­sip­pi­an Sam Chatmon—a song played and record­ed by count­less black and white blues and coun­try artists like Mis­sis­sip­pi John Hurt and Gillian Welch.

These and thou­sands of oth­er exam­ples from the ACE archive bring musi­col­o­gists, his­to­ri­ans, folk­lorists, activists, edu­ca­tors, and every­one else clos­er to Lomax’s ideal—that we “learn how we can put our mag­nif­i­cent mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­o­gy at the ser­vice of each and every branch of the human fam­i­ly.” The ACE cat­a­log con­tains over 17,400 dig­i­tal files, begin­ning with Lomax’s first tape record­ings in 1946, to his dig­i­tal work in the 90s. The archive includes songs, sto­ries, jokes, ser­mons, inter­views and oth­er audio arti­facts from the Amer­i­can South, Appalachia, the Caribbean, and many more locales. The archive fea­tures record­ings from famous names like Woody Guthrie and Lead Bel­ly but pri­mar­i­ly con­sists of folk music from anony­mous folk, rep­re­sent­ing a vari­ety of lan­guages and eth­nic­i­ties. And the archive is ever-expand­ing as it con­tin­ues to dig­i­tize rare record­ings, and to upload vin­tage film, like the videos above, to its YouTube chan­nel.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leg­endary Folk­lorist Alan Lomax: ‘The Land Where the Blues Began’

Woody Guthrie at 100: Cel­e­brate His Amaz­ing Life with a BBC Film

Hear Zora Neale Hurston Sing the Bawdy Prison Blues Song “Uncle Bud” (1940)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • James Kelly says:

    not only did i redis­cov­er this data­base last night, I watched two of the three post­ed videos. and not only this I thought the thought “wow open­cul­ture should these videos” because you can hear the blood of the land in their voic­es. some­things hap­pen­ing here but i dont know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? nice post

  • HootHoot says:

    Wow. Thanks, so much for this.

  • Travis says:

    i have long been a fan of Lomax’s work. I often order CDs from var­i­ous artists that are now lost through Smith­son­ian, who holds the mas­ters and will burn you a copy for $20. Hav­ing access to folks who nev­er had a record is awe­some and some­thing I hope to add to my own music library

  • Travis says:


  • Steve says:

    We have had many ‘song­catch­ers’ in Amer­i­ca. Taj Mahal comes to mind from my ado­les­cence (when I real­ly got seri­ous about learn­ing folk­songs) but Taj & oth­ers (W. Guthrie, P. Seeger, D. Van Ronk & The Broth­ers Four to name but a few) owe their ease of access to many of the old songs that are part of Amer­i­ca’s her­itage to Alan Lomax. Thank you very much for mak­ing this trib­ute. Let us learn & remem­ber the good­ness of our Amer­i­can Roots music.

  • John Cheeseman says:

    I’m look­ing for the name(s) of the sing(s of the song sweet Roseanne

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