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Cirque Du Soleil
(Cirque Du Soleil)
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Patricia Barber
(Blue Note)
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Cirque Du Soleil
(Cirque Du Soleil)
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Jim Pearce
“Why I Haven't Got You”
Prairie Dog Ballet
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Andy Timmons Band
“Gone (9/11/01)”
(Favored Nations)
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Ralph Towner
Time Line
(ECM Records)
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Anoushka Shankar

Amos Lee
"Arms Of A Woman"
Amos Lee
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Julius Curcio
"American Pie"
Alligator Shoes
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"Come Alive"
Changing Into Me
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Feature [Issue #12]
Alan Lomax: Alan Lomax: Ambassador To The Ages Part II
By Ken Micallef

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 office’s final resting place, a nondescript building behind Manhattan’s 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 Lomax’s important papers, books, and recordings have recently been acquired by the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

“I think it’s 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. It’s 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 York’s 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 Lomax’s 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 scout’s 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 aren’t 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 Alan’s reel to reel tapes,” Fleming says of the old analog gear. “All of Alan’s 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 originals.”

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 Lomax’s 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 Alan’s Parlametrics, the study of language. We had a lot of 16mm film canisters of world dance, it was one of the world’s 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 father’s torch.

“She wants to carry on his work,” Fleming says. “Now that Rounder Records are putting out Alan’s 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 D’Aosta, 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 grow old.

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.

“This is what we do,” says Fleming. “We try to keep these things out there.”

Alan Lomax: Ambassador To The Ages Part II Alan Lomax

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