Celebrating Alan Lomax on the eve of his Global Jukebox

A young Alan Lomax performing at a traditional music festival in the South. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Suddenly, American media is rising to celebrate Alan Lomax! We say: Hooray! He’s one of the great but largely unsung heroes of global culture—a true world-class Peacemaker. On Sunday, as editor of ReadTheSpirit, I was teaching a class in Ann Arbor near the University of Michigan in our new Blessed Are the Peacemakers project. I introduced a short documentary film about Alan Lomax’s work by asking for a show of hands:
“Who has heard of Alan Lomax before today?”

Only one hand went up—a recently graduated university student who had studied American history. No one else recognized the name.

That’s all about to change. From the New York Times to the Atlantic Magazine to the pages of ReadTheSpirit today, we all are cheering the realization of Alan Lomax’s once-far-fetched dream of creating “A Global Jukebox.” No, this isn’t a news story about iTunes expanding. No, not YouTube, either—although we will share two YouTube videos (below) to illustrate Lomax’s legacy.

Alan Lomax (who died in 2002 at the age of 87) is a legend among journalists, musicians and historians for devoting nearly his entire life to collecting the world’s traditional music. He packed loads of recording equipment into a van and journeyed to remote mountain cabins, Southern chain gangs, wee islands off the coast of Scotland—anywhere people would sing or play a song that represented their community.

Without Alan Lomax, it’s safe to say we’d never have a contemporary movie like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” or a “Down from the Mountain” revival in old-time Southern music. Without Alan Lomax, work songs from places like stone quarries and Scottish fishing villages—now a rich legacy in our diverse global culture—would have all but disappeared. The Coen brothers found actors to dress up and sing prison songs. Lomax recorded the actual prisoners. Artists like Bruce Springsteen still perform Woody Guthrie songs. Lomax recorded Woody himself.

Woody Guthrie in his prime. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Still doubt those claims about Lomax’s impact? Here’s how the New York Times summed up Lomax’s importance: “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.”

In a new story on Sunday, the Atlantic wrote, in part: “No one was more aware of this fragility (of traditional music), and more determined to preserve what was so easily lost, than Alan Lomax. … Even as old and beautiful folk musical traditions persisted in America, Lomax knew that they wouldn’t persist forever, and for years and years traveled tirelessly, especially throughout the South, lugging every technology of preservation he could think of: tape recorders, cameras, video cameras, notebooks. … He wanted to record everything, to make what he called a Global Jukebox that anyone and everyone could use. And now Alan Lomax’s dream is coming true.

Here’s the big news making headlines this week: Lomax’s vast archive of 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, 5,000 photographs and a huge array of related manuscripts is being digitized. By the end of this month, February 2012, the first portions of his giant Global Jukebox will begin streaming for free online.

Can’t wait for the free streaming? To tease the audience and spread greater awareness of Lomax’s huge range, a sampler of 16 pieces from 1947-1982 was just released for sale on January 31, called The Alan Lomax Collection From The American Folklife Center. Those 16 pieces are drawn from Lomax’s thousands of recordings housed at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. The collection starts with America’s great folk hero, John Henry, and includes ballads, blues, dance tunes and sacred songs from around the U.S. with a Gaelic ode, Galician alborada (dawn song), Genoan chorale, Grenadan shango ritual, Trinidadian calypso, and the ashug bardic music of Azerbaijan.

Want to discover more about Alan Lomax? In 1983, he co-founded the Association for Cultural Equity, the central website online for news about Lomax’s archives and legacy. Of course, Wikipedia also has a pretty extensive Alan Lomax page.

Much ado about nothing? Well, let’s turn to the Atlantic’s conclusion: “This is an astonishing haul. People have known for decades that Lomax was maniacal, obsessive, and relentless, but it’s only now that everyone can discover the real scope, and real import, of his achievement.”

Sample of Alan Lomax’s work in Audio/Video

ONE SONG in the latest collection is called Joe Turner. The exact origin of this legendary figure—and associated songs about Joe Turner—apparently was never nailed down by Lomax. But, the tale of Joe Turner extends deep into the 1800s among black communities in the South. Joe Turner was a kind of supernatural figure who could emerge—and disappear—without warning and set things right for oppressed people. Below you should see two video screens. Click to watch these two versions of Joe Turner from Lomax’s work. If no video screen is visible in your version of this story, here’s a direct link to the first one on YouTube. Then, here’s a link to the second one on YouTube.



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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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