By DON FLEMING and DAVID A. TAYLOR
The American Folklife Center in the Library has acquired the Alan Lomax Collection, which comprises the unparalleled ethnographic documentation gathered by the legendary folklorist over a period of nearly 70 years.
The acquisition was made possible through a cooperative agreement between the American Folklife Center (AFC) and the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) at Hunter College and the generosity of an anonymous donor.
With this acquisition, the Alan Lomax Collection joins the material Lomax and his father, John, collected during the 1930s and early 1940s for the Library's Archive of American Folk-Song, thus bringing the entire Lomax collection together for the first time, at the Library of Congress.
"The Alan Lomax Collection contains pioneering documentation of traditional music, dance, tales and other forms of grassroots creativity in the United States and abroad," said James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress. "We are extremely pleased that this collection has come to our national library, where its creator did such important work in the 1930s and ‘40s."
From the time he left his position as head of the Archive of American Folk-Song at the Library in 1942, through the end of his long and productive career as an internationally known folklorist, author, radio broadcaster, filmmaker, concert and record producer and television host, Lomax amassed one of the most important collections of ethnographic material in the world.
The collection has been housed in several large rooms at Hunter College in New York City. It includes more than 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of motion picture film, 2,450 videotapes, 2,000 scholarly books and journals, hundreds of photographic prints and negatives, several databases for portions of the archive and more than 120 linear feet of manuscript materials such as correspondence, field notes, research files, program scripts, indexes and book and article manuscripts.
Included in the collection are field recordings that Lomax made of traditional singers, instrumentalists and storytellers in the American South, the Caribbean, Britain, Scotland, Ireland, Spain and Italy. It includes original video footage, which was shot in the southern and southwestern United States, Washington, D.C., and New York City, that Lomax used as the basis of his "American Patchwork" television series, as well as videotapes of all the programs in the series. The collection contains 16mm footage of performances by Howling Wolf, Son House and others at the Newport Folk Festival during the 1960s, videotapes of folk dance performances and work elements and originals of numerous films that Lomax made.
ACE will continue to produce the Alan Lomax Collection compact disc series on Rounder Records and administer rights to repertoire contained in the collection, working from digital copies made of all the original materials that will be housed at the Library. ACE plans to donate CD and DVD copies of hundreds of hours of audio and video recordings to regional libraries in the United States and abroad. Over the next few years, ACE will work closely with the American Folklife Center to create databases for the audio, video and film collections; to raise funds for preservation and for fellowships; and to make Lomax's ethnology of performance style available to researchers.
The Lomax family has a long history of collaboration with the Library of Congress. Alan's father, John Avery Lomax, began his relationship with the Library in June 1933, when he set out with Alan, then 18, on their first folk song gathering expedition under the Library's auspices. Together they visited Texas farms, prisons and rural communities, recording work songs, reels, ballads and blues.
Succeeding Robert W. Gordon, who in 1928 was appointed the first head of the new Archive of American Folk-Song, John Lomax, then in the Music Division, served as "honorary consultant and curator of the Archive of American Folk-Song" from 1933 to 1942 and carried the title until his death. Having served as an unofficial assistant to his father, Alan Lomax became the archives' "assistant in charge" in 1937 and, in effect, managed the Archive of Folk-Song until 1942, when he joined the Army. Benjamin A. Botkin succeeded the Lomaxes in 1942. With his father and on his own, Alan Lomax published many books, including "American Ballads and Folk Songs" (1934) and "Our Singing Country" (1941).
During his tenure with the Library, Alan Lomax continued to make field trips and supply recordings to the Archive of American Folk-Song. He was the first to record such legendary musicians as Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters. He also recorded a series of important interviews with Jelly Roll Morton and recorded an enormous number of other significant traditional musicians.
After he left the Library in 1942, Alan Lomax continued his work to document, analyze and present traditional music, dance and narrative through projects of various kinds throughout the world. He received numerous honors and awards, including the National Medal of the Arts, the National Book Critics Circle award for "The Land Where the Blues Began" (1980) and a Living Legend award from the Library of Congress (2000). According to folklorist Roger Abrahams, he is "the person most responsible for the great explosion of interest in American folk song throughout the mid-20th century."
"We are delighted that our agreement with ACE makes it possible to combine Alan Lomax's earliest documentary material, which he collected during his time at the Library of Congress, with the material he collected during the rest of his life," said American Folklife Center Director Peggy Bulger. "His entire collection will now be available in one place. The collection is simultaneously a monument to one of the greatest cultural documenters of the 20th century and a priceless storehouse of traditional artistry."
Mickey Hart, member of the board of the American Folklife Center and longtime drummer with the Grateful Dead, said of the acquisition: "The Alan Lomax Collection has finally come home to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. This sonic treasure chest represents the vivid stories, history, hopes and dreams of many cultures. Through these recordings, generations will come to know what has passed before them. The Lomax Collection is a jewel in the crown."
The Association for Cultural Equity, chartered in 1985, was founded by Alan Lomax to research, preserve and disseminate world folk performance traditions. Partnering with the American Folklife Center, ACE seeks to ensure that his legendary collection remains accessible to general and specialized audiences.
David Taylor is coordinator of acquisitions for the American Folklife Center, and Don Fleming is public affairs coordinator for the Association for Cultural Equity and director of licensing for the Alan Lomax Collection.