The Digital Lomax Archive Provides Free Access to the Pioneering Recordings of John & Alan Lomax, Compiled Across 7 Decades

The work of eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist father and son team John and Alan Lomax was intend­ed to pre­serve the local musi­cal cul­tures of the Unit­ed States and regions around the world against an encroach­ing mass media threat­en­ing to erase them. But the thou­sands of Lomax record­ings, films, books, arti­cles, and oth­er doc­u­ments not only con­served region­al music; they also helped trans­form mass cul­ture by intro­duc­ing local forms that have since become part of a glob­al musi­cal gram­mar. Lomax and his son Alan — “the man who record­ed the world,” as biog­ra­ph­er John Szwed called him — pop­u­lar­ized folk music thir­ty years before Dylan record­ed his first album and were among the first white lis­ten­ers to rec­og­nize the genius of Robert John­son.

Alan Lomax began trav­el­ing the coun­try with his father in 1933. In 1939, “while doing grad­u­ate work in anthro­pol­o­gy at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty,” notes a biog­ra­phy at Lomax’s Asso­ci­a­tion for Cul­tur­al Equi­ty, “he pro­duced the first of sev­er­al radio series for CBS. Amer­i­can Folk Songs, Well­springs of Music, and the prime-time series, Back Where I Come From, exposed nation­al audi­ences to region­al Amer­i­can music and such home­grown tal­ents as Woody Guthrie, Lead Bel­ly, Aunt Mol­ly Jack­son, Josh White, the Gold­en Gate Quar­tet, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger,” who described Lomax as “more respon­si­ble than any oth­er per­son for the twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry folk song revival.”

Alan Lomax brought blues, fla­men­co, calyp­so, and South­ern bal­lad singing, “all still rel­a­tive­ly unknown gen­res,” to New York in the 1940s with con­cert series like The Mid­night Spe­cial at Town Hall. “The main point of my activ­i­ty,” he once said, “was… to put sound tech­nol­o­gy at the dis­pos­al of The Folk, to bring chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion to all sorts of artists and areas.” A per­former him­self, he coined the term “cul­tur­al equi­ty” to describe this work, a means of advo­cat­ing for musi­cal cul­tures left behind by com­mer­cial­iza­tion, the “cul­tur­al gray-out,” as he called it. From his first field record­ings in 1933 to his 1993 Land Where the Blues Began, which earned a Nation­al Book Crit­ics Award, he stayed true to that mis­sion.

Lomax and his father’s work has been “com­piled across sev­en decades” by the Lomax Dig­i­tal Archive, which pro­vides free and open access to “the entire­ty of Alan’s pho­tographs and open-reel tape record­ings — made between 1946 and 1991… as well as tran­scrip­tions of his 1940s radio pro­grams, and a selec­tion of clips from his film and video-work of the 1970s and 1980s.” This huge, search­able library sup­ple­ments already mas­sive Lomax col­lec­tions online, such as that housed at the Asso­ci­a­tion for Cul­tur­al Equi­ty, and includes “the entire 70 hours of their Ken­tucky record­ings and the 39 hours of Mis­sis­sip­pi record­ings,” notes a press release. “This lat­ter mate­r­i­al includes the first record­ings of Mud­dy Waters, Hon­ey­boy Edwards, and Sid Hemphill.”

Fur­ther­more, the Lomax Dig­i­tal Archive fea­tures online exhibits that “allow for thought­ful, con­text-rich explo­rations into spe­cif­ic aspects of the col­lec­tion.” The first pre­sen­ta­tion, “Trou­ble Won’t Last Always,” com­piles songs from a series launched dur­ing the pan­dem­ic that “speak to themes of lone­li­ness, iso­la­tion, opti­mism, endurance, tran­scen­dence..,” all uni­ver­sal human expe­ri­ences. Lomax believed, his daugh­ter Anna Lomax Wood said, “that all cul­tures should be looked at on an even play­ing field. Not that they’re all alike. But that they should be giv­en the same dig­ni­ty.” His own dig­ni­fied approach helped ensure that we could hear and learn from local his­tor­i­cal voic­es from around the world even as eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal inequities sought to silence them for good. Enter the Lomax Dig­i­tal Archive here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Alan Lomax’s Mas­sive Music Archive Is Online: Fea­tures 17,000 His­toric Blues & Folk Record­ings

New, Inter­ac­tive Web Site Puts Online Thou­sands of Inter­na­tion­al Folk Songs Record­ed by the Great Folk­lorist Alan Lomax

Stream 35 Hours of Clas­sic Blues, Folk, & Blue­grass Record­ings from Smith­son­ian Folk­ways: 837 Tracks Fea­tur­ing Lead Bel­ly, Woody Guthrie & More

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

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