Alan Lomax's Massive Archive Goes Online
I did a search on "Alabama" and got 8 pages of results...A.J. Wright
Alan Lomax's Massive Archive Goes Online
by Joel Rose
National Public Radio
March 28, 2012
Folklorist Alan Lomax spent his career documenting folk
music traditions from around the world. Now thousands of the
songs and interviews he recorded are available for free
online, many for the first time. It's part of what Lomax
envisioned for the collection — long before the age of the
Lomax recorded a staggering amount of folk music. He worked
from the 1930s to the '90s, and traveled from the Deep South
to the mountains of West Virginia, all the way to Europe,
the Caribbean and Asia. When it came time to bring all of
those hours of sound into the digital era, the people in
charge of the Lomax archive weren't quite sure how to tackle
"We err on the side of doing the maximum amount possible,"
says Don Fleming, executive director of the Association for
Cultural Equity, the nonprofit organization Lomax founded in
New York in the '80s. Fleming and a small staff made up
mostly of volunteers have digitized and posted some 17,000
"For the first time, everything that we've digitized of
Alan's field recording trips are online, on our website,"
says Fleming. "It's every take, all the way through. False
takes, interviews, music."
"Alan would have been thrilled to death. He would've just
been so excited," says Anna Lomax Wood, Lomax's daughter and
president of the Association for Cultural Equity. "He would
try everything. Alan was a person who looked to all the
gambits you could. But the goal was always the same."
Throughout his career, Lomax was always using the latest
technology to record folk music in the field and then share
it with anyone who was interested. When he started working
with his father, John Lomax, in the '30s, that meant
recording on metal cylinders. Later, Alan Lomax hauled giant
tape recorders powered by car batteries out to backwoods
shacks and remote villages.
Lomax wrote and hosted radio and TV shows, and he spent the
last 20 years of his career experimenting with computers to
create something he called the Global Jukebox. He had big
plans for the project. In a 1991 interview with CBS, he
said, "The modern computer with all its various gadgets and
wonderful electronic facilities now makes it possible to
preserve and reinvigorate all the cultural richness of
He imagined a tool that would integrate thousands of sound
recordings, films, videotapes and photographs made by
himself and others. He hoped the Global Jukebox would make
it easy to compare music across different cultures and
continents using a complex analytical system he devised —
kind of like Pandora for grad students. But the basic idea
was simple: Make it all available to anyone, anywhere in the
Lomax was forced to stop working when his health declined in
the '90s, and he left the Global Jukebox unfinished. Now
that his archives are online, the organization he founded is
turning its attention to that job.
The Association for Cultural Equity is housed in a rundown
building near the Lincoln Tunnel in Manhattan. Most of
Lomax's original recordings and notes are now stored at the
Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. But Fleming says the
New York offices still exude the DIY vibe they had when
Lomax was working there — right down to the collection of
castoff chairs and desks, none of which seem to match.
"There was never any money in it for Alan," says Fleming.
"Alan scraped by the whole time, and left with no money. He
did it out of the passion he had for it, and found ways to
fund projects that were closest to his heart."
Money is still tight. But that never stopped Alan Lomax, and
it hasn't deterred Anna Lomax Wood, either.
"He believed that all cultures should be looked at on an
even playing field," she says. "Not that they're all alike.
But they should be given the same dignity, or they had the
same dignity and worth as any other."
Almost 10 years after his death, his heirs are still trying
to make his vision a reality — one recording at a time.