Online Lomax Archive Offers a World of Folk Music

By Chris MorrisThu Apr 28,12:33 AM ET

People who have seen the films “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Gangs of New York” or listened to Moby’s best-selling album “Play” have heard music recorded by Alan Lomax. But they might not have any idea of who Lomax was or what he did.

Those who want to plunge feet first into master folklorist Lomax’s work now have an excellent opportunity to do so: The Alan Lomax Archive has created a new online database, http://www.lomaxarchive.com, that affords a deep look at his pioneering field recording.

Lomax, who died in 2002 at age 87, began his work as a teenager, assisting his father, John A. Lomax, who perambulated the American South with a portable disc-cutter, recording music for the Library of Congress. The Lomaxes discovered bluesman Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter at Angola State Prison in Louisiana in 1933; the younger Lomax would later record Jelly Roll Morton and Muddy Waters.

Perhaps best known for his work in the American South, Alan Lomax traveled widely. Ostracized during the McCarthy era, he moved to England for several years and recorded the folk music of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Spain and Italy. Before his death, he produced an interactive Internet world music database, the Global Jukebox.

His daughter Anna Lomax Wood, who directs the Lomax Archive at Hunter College in New York, says of the new archive database: “I don’t know if the Internet had the capability to do that kind of thing (when he was alive). … He certainly would have done this.”

Wood adds: “He saw the value of feedback and bringing music back to the people who made it. … One of the themes of his career was putting the newest technology to use for the folk.”

SAMPLING THE COLLECTION

The Lomax Database, which went live Friday, documents the archive’s collections of music and spoken-word recordings and photographs from 1946-94. Every recording in the catalog can be heard in partial sample form.

Seven collections of field recordings — a total of 1,600 tracks, including incomplete takes and false starts — are currently live on the site; performers include Virginia balladeers Texas Gladden and Hobart Smith (who were prisoners in Mississippi penitentiaries), bluesman Big Bill Broonzy and Texas folk singer Hally Wood.

Other collections that will soon be available include recordings from Morocco, the former Soviet Union, Romania and the Caribbean; sets recorded at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival; sessions with noted folk performers Jean Ritchie, Vera Hall and Bessie Jones; Mississippi and Texas church recordings; and music and interviews by bluesmen and jazzmen cut in New York and New Orleans. Lomax’s own discussions, interviews and lectures also will be tapped.

Last year the Library of Congress acquired the Lomax collection, and some previously unheard work, like Lomax’s Haitian recordings, eventually will materialize on the archive site. “Those were done in 1937,” Wood says. “It’s 50 hours of recordings, plus he took really detailed notes and drawing and photographs. He was only 21. It wasn’t properly cataloged at all.”

The new Lomax Database opens a door into one of the greatest repositories of folkloric recordings in America. Wood says she hopes visitors will “be able to see what a great imagination there is out there.”

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