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 home >> events >> lomax legacy symposium >> review article

The Lomax Legacy: Folklore in a Globalizing Century

A Symposium Presented by The American Folklife Center
and The Association for Cultural Equity, New York

January 18-20, 2006, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

AFC Conference Celebrates Alan Lomax in Story, Song
an article by James Hardin

(reprinted from the Library of Congress Gazette, February 3, 2006)

Alan Lomax had a genius for discovering genius. In his travels throughout the United States, the legendary American folklorist (1915-2002) met and recorded blues musicians Son House, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Muddy Waters, and Big Bill Broonzy. He was the first to record Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Aunt Molly Jackson.

In Washington, D.C., in 1938, working at the Library of Congress as assistant in charge of the Archive of American Folk Song, he recorded the flamboyant jazz pianist and composer Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, whose work the Library celebrated with a concert and lecture during a Jan. 18-20 conference on Lomax.

Lomax's legacy of research, scholarship, preservation and dissemination of the music and music-makers he cherished lives on, in recordings such as the new release of his Morton recordings at the Library, and in the conference, "The Lomax Legacy: Folklore in a Globalizing Century," celebrating the life and work of Alan Lomax and AFC's 2004 acquisition of the Lomax Collection.

The conference was sponsored by the American Folklife Center (AFC), in cooperation with the Association for Cultural Equity in New York City (ACE).

Peggy Bulger, Director of the American Folklife Center, said the purpose of the symposium was "to examine the persistence of past scholarship in the present, and the resonance of Alan Lomax's pioneering work for scholars today."

Conference coordinator Guha Shankar added that the AFC wanted to find out "who is working now in the same arenas where Lomax worked, and how their work is similar to or diverges from his."

Lomax's interest in finding and recording folk culture was global. During his 60-year career that began in the 1930s, while working alone and with his father, John A. Lomax, his sister Bess, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, John Work and others, Alan Lomax conducted recording expeditions not only in the United States, but also in the Caribbean, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Russia.

With the material he collected, Lomax produced folksong anthologies, films, and radio and television programs. He developed a system for analyzing and studying folk music and dance tradition and devoted himself tirelessly to disseminating the creative work of remarkable performers and cultural communities, using the latest technologies and media outlets.

At a time when many folklorists were concerned primarily with song and story texts, paying little attention to music, dance or the performers themselves, Lomax fell in love with the intense vitality and creativity of traditional life and sought to capture that experience in film and recorded sound, both to preserve it for future generations and to share it with the world. His mission was "to get the best singers and storytellers, and get them heard everywhere," said Robert Baron, of the New York State Council on the Arts. "He was bigger than life," says Lomax biographer John Szwed. "He had a fan's passion, even a teenage fan's passion."

At the opening session of the two-day symposium portion of the conference, keynote speaker Bill Ferris took up the theme of Lomax's folksong collecting: "His greatest legacy will always be his Mississippi field recordings."

Ferris noted an intimate connection between the national library, with its mission to preserve a record of the history and creativity of the American people, the American Folklife Center's mission "to preserve and present American folklife," and Lomax's mission to document American and world traditional cultures.

"Their worlds are inextricably linked," said Ferris, who is Professor of History and Senior Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"The Library of Congress has had a long and very valued association with Alan Lomax," said Associate Librarian for Library Services Deanna Marcum, who welcomed conference participants.

Marcum noted that Lomax's life-long mission -- to give voice to the world's many diverse cultural communities through the use of the latest technology -- coincides with several recent Library initiatives, such as the Global Gateways Project, which is providing access to the Library's rich international collections and to the resources of other libraries and archives throughout the world.

A diverse group of scholars, cultural workers and media producers gathered in the Library's Mumford Room on the morning of Jan. 19 to reflect on Lomax's life and work and discuss their own research, publications, productions and advocacy. Panelists discussed the care and management of the Lomax Collection material (including matters of preservation, cataloging and access); intellectual property rights, with a special emphasis on the rights of traditional performers and indigenous communities; Lomax's theories of music and dance, which he called cantometrics and choreometrics; and the dissemination of Lomax materials through radio and television broadcasts, published recordings and the Internet.

Bill Westerman, of the Chicago Cambodian American Heritage Museum, noted Lomax's concern that "mass media was supplanting local music traditions and local voices."

According to Robert Baron, folklorist at the New York State Council on the Arts, Lomax believed that a profit-motivated society destroys diverse cultures. Lomax prodded and encouraged folklorists to advocate for the folk, provide access to traditions to a broad audience, return copies of documentary material to the places of origin, and disseminate generally recordings of traditional culture.

Lomax believed in the "inherent genius and viability of every cultural community," said Jake Homiak, Director of the Smithsonian's Anthropology Collection and Archives Program.

In addition to the two-day symposium, there were three public events. On Jan. 18, Lomax biographer and Professor of Anthropology and African American Studies at Yale University and Louis Armstrong Professor of Jazz at Columbia University, John Szwed, presented a lecture on Jelly Roll Morton in the Coolidge Auditorium, in which Lomax interviewed and recorded the great jazz pianist in 1938. Composer and pianist Dave Burrell played examples of Morton's work, as well as one of his own. All nine hours of the historic recording session are now available in a new, uncut, unexpurgated release from Rounder Records, Jelly Roll Morton: the Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax.

In the evening, filmmaker John Bishop presented "Oss 'Oss, Wee 'Oss, a film made in 1951 by folklorist Peter Kennedy about the annual May Day celebration in Padstow, England. The film featured cinematography by George Pickow and was written and directed by Alan Lomax. Bishop also showed a film he made of the same event in the same Cornish town, 50 years later.

On Jan. 19, the National Chorus of the Church of God and Saints of Christ, a traditional African American a cappella choir from Belleville, Va., performed in an evening concert at the Coolidge Auditorium. Alan Lomax had recorded the choir in 1960, while making a film in Colonial Williamsburg. Among the choir members Lomax recorded was Solomon Carey, whose children Solomon Carey Jr., Aaron Carey and Sabrina Johnson, presented several songs in honor of their father. Also on the program, singing songs from the Luso-Hispanic tradition collected during her fieldwork in rural Spain and Portugal, was Judith R. Cohen, ethnomusicologist, performer, and professor at York University, Toronto. Cohen's work in Spain today parallels that of Lomax's in the 1950s.

Speaking during the symposium was Anna Lomax Wood, the daughter of Alan Lomax. She directs the Association for Cultural Equity in New York City, which carries on her father's mission to further what he called "cultural equity," the concept that all local and ethnic cultures and traditions should be represented in the media and the schools.

"Alan Lomax believed in the importance of making sure cultural materials -- especially oral cultural materials -- would be available to people. [During Alan's career], we were at a threshold where many of the [cultural expressions that people had developed over many years] were in danger of being flushed away," she said. Now devoted to her father's cause, and handling matters pertaining to licensing the use of materials from the collection, Anna Wood is mindful of her father's high standards and dedication. "He never felt satisfied with his day's work," she said.

The American Folklife Center maintains and provides research access to the Alan Lomax Collection -- a treasure house of ethnographic documentation including recordings, manuscripts, photographs, films, and more -- the largest of its kind in the world. Collection curator Todd Harvey said the AFC aims to employ the highest standards of archival preservation and conservation, honor the intellectual property rights of the performers, provide consistent and timely access, and work closely with ACE on all matters of mutual concern and interest.

According to the ACE Website, Alan Lomax was a controversial and complex figure in American life, regarded with affection by many, including those he recorded in the field, and resented by others for his occasional high-handedness. Nick Spitzer, public radio host of the program "American Routes," called him the "gigantic model of the 20-century ethnographer" and said, "it is liberating to think of the many different roles he played."

Filmmaker John Bishop had a final enigmatic characterization, which elicited nods of understanding from conference participants: "He could be very irritating, but he turns out to be right about most things."

-- James Hardin retired from the American Folklife Center in 2005

 

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   May 15, 2015
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