Alan Lomax: Ambassador To The Ages Part II By
Alan Lomax, the
man who traveled the world to document cultures little known outside of their
locales, the man who developed various means of quantifying the information
he gleaned from those cultures, the man who helped launch the careers of Leadbelly,
Woody Guthrie, and Muddy Waters, and the man whose archival recordings continue
to live on in the work of dance star Moby and such popular soundtracks as Oh
Brother Where Art Thou? has, as his offices final resting place, a
nondescript building behind Manhattans Port Authority building.
Now, this is about
as bland and at times as dangerous a neighborhood as you can find in New York
City, but it is somehow fitting that this man of the common people and his legacy
can be found in an environment where all and everyone are welcome.
But occasionally even a pauper becomes a king. Many of Lomaxs important
papers, books, and recordings have recently been acquired by the American Folklife
Center in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
I think its the jewel in the crown of the collections here,
says Peggy A. Bulger, director of the Folklife Center (speaking recently to
the Washington Post), because it spans 70 years. Its almost
an entire century of documentation by one person who was an incredible collector
and who had an ear for excellence.
The Lomax collection, she said, offers a vast sampler of the very best
music, dance, and stories from 1930s to present day. The Center will have
their hands full. New Yorks Alan Lomax Archives have contributed 5,000
hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of movie film, and 2,450 videotapes.
The Center is also receiving 2,000 books, papers, and journals from Lomaxs
office in the Archives, as well as boxes of photographs, letters, manuscripts,
lectures, and miscellaneous Lomax information of every mien. But the Alan Lomax
Archives and their seedy headquarters still hold some of the master recordist,
folklorist and talent scouts secrets. With director Don Fleming showing
me around the rambling offices, I encountered everything from old recording
gear to ancient 78s to reel-to-reel tapes. The rooms arent marked; there
are few locks on the doors to hold this national treasure. One room holds 60s
era gear for transferring tapes, another houses modern digital technology.
This is where we transfer Alans reel to reel tapes, Fleming
says of the old analog gear. All of Alans field trips, he had over
500 hours of field trips, he also had another 5000 hours of audio that other
people did that he collected. For the last 20 years of his life he did the Global
Jukebox, which was giving examples of music from every culture. We transferred
stuff for ten years including all his speeches, everything that he recorded.
Everything else has been given to the Library of Congress, as we finish it we
give it to them for permanent storage. We have copies here and they have the
In a room stuffed with albums and 78s, Fleming explains the crusty recorders
and microphones encased in a large glass cabinet.
These are the machines Alan used, Fleming says. The deck he
used. In the early days they had acetate recorders, they recorded everything
on acetate discs, they were huge machines that ran on batteries. In the 40s
when tape machines came along, Alan got a Magnarecorder, a mono machine, that
is the one he did the Parchman Farm Prison Songs record on. That was certainly
the first time anyone had put anything like that out. Blues in the Mississippi
Night also had some of that prison material on it. The records were heard
by a lot of people, even Johnny Cash wrote a song based on one of the songs
on the Blues in the Mississippi Night record.
The machines almost glow with the wild 40s and 50s colors and noticeable
use. You can almost smell the leather that sheaths the recorders, and almost
see Lomaxs fingerprints.
This stereo Ampex machine, Fleming continues, is the one Alan
used on the 1959 Southern Journey trip [which produced an album of the same
name]. That is what he is best known for commercially and the Atlantic Records
box set that was sampled by Moby. There were tons of records, the Topic label
in England put out a 12- record set of folk music. And the Nagra recorder is
the one Alan used in the Caribbean. At the time these were all the most high
fidelity gear you could get. Alan was way into keeping current. The Ampex preamps
are still great. They were stereo recorders with high fidelity.
Along his highways and byways Lomax created a series of methods for documenting
what he found. He called these systems Coreometrics, Cantometrics, and Parlametrics.
The papers look like primitive drawings with blue and red lines and large circles.
Cantometrics was a coding system for coding music with all these different
parameters, Fleming explains. He and his assistants wrote a book
on how to code music in different languages. They did it so they could put it
all into the computer, and to be able to compare and analyze music from every
culture. They would check migration patterns, they determined a lot about the
music would play who had different agricultures.
They did the same thing with dance [Coreometrics]. Alan worked with these
people in the field who were experts on a system of coding dance. In certain
cultures there are different body movements, some use their hands a lot, others
use much more body movement. So they did the same thing, devised a coding system
for dance. Then they pumped that info into a computer, and used that as a study.
Alan spent that last 25 years of his life on that. That was the most important
thing to him. But it is the least known thing about him. They did a prototype
of a computer, it is amazing. But part of our long term goal is redigitizng
that material and then rewriting it as computer software.
I wander from room to room, the whole place smelling like an old basement. One
room is stacked high with old reel-to-reel canisters.
We still have to process all these reels. That is our next project, coding
all these reels for Alans Parlametrics, the study of language. We had
a lot of 16mm film canisters of world dance, it was one of the worlds
largest. Alan shot film at the Newport Jazz Festival, and there is an unreleased
film we are now doing the transfers for that he shot at his apartment in New
York in the 60s in the Village that has a bunch of bluegrass folks playing.
The other we did in the PBS series in 1980 called American Patchwork
that showed Alan going through the South in the 70s and 80s with
video cameras. He recorded 500 hours of blues and country music, New Orleans
Cajun. It is amazing. Most of it has never been seen.
Alan Lomax died in 2002 and since then his daughter, Anna Lomax Wood, has taken
up her fathers torch.
She wants to carry on his work, Fleming says. Now that Rounder
Records are putting out Alans records, we have been going through his
business records to track down all of all these artists to pay them or their
heirs. When the Rounder thing started we went back to finding everyone. We even
found one of the artists who Moby sampled for Play, she was a girl at
the time. She did pretty well. Same with Oh Brother Where Art Thou?
We found James Carter who sang the song they used, he is alive in Chicago. He
got a lot of money. It was six figures.
The latest Lomax recordings from Rounder include Italian Treasury: Piemonte
and Valle DAosta, Spanish Recordings: Basque Country: Navarre and Spanish
Recordings: Basque Country: Biscay and Guipuzcoa. With amazing photography
and music that seems frozen in time, these are time capsules that will never
But there is much to work to be done. With a small staff, it seems the folks
at the Alan Lomax Archive will never finish translating the gifts that Alan
Lomax documented for the world to enjoy for years to come.
is what we do, says Fleming. We try to keep these things out there.