By JAMES HARDIN
In Washington, D.C., in 1938, working at the Library of Congress as assistant in charge of the Archive of American Folk Song (precursor to the American Folklife Center), Lomax 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 symposium 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 symposium, "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 symposium was sponsored by the American Folklife Center (AFC), in cooperation with the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) in New York City.
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."
Symposium 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 a long 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 and Spain.
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, folklorist at the New York State Council on the Arts.
"He was bigger than life," said Lomax biographer John Szwed, professor of anthropology, African-American studies and jazz at Yale and Columbia University. "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 noted an intimate connection between the national library's mission to preserve a record of the history and creativity of the American people 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 Gateway Web site (www.loc.gov/international/), which is providing online 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 (issues such as who owns the recordings, the performer or the recorder?); Lomax's theories for analyzing both song and dance, which he called cantometrics and choreometrics; and the dissemination of Lomax materials through radio and television broadcasts, published recordings and the Internet.
William Westerman, director 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, 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, give copies of documentary material to people and 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.
Also speaking during the symposium was Anna Lomax Wood, the daughter of Alan Lomax. She directs the Association for Cultural Equity, which her father founded in the 1980s 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.
At ACE, Lomax developed his "Global Jukebox," an interactive computer audiovisual system for studying world music and dance. He also made arrangements to publish commercial releases of his field recordings, most notably through a 1995 contract with Rounder Records, which recently released a boxed set of his Jelly Roll Morton tapes, recorded at the Library of Congress in 1938.
"Alan Lomax believed in the importance of making sure cultural materials—especially oral cultural materials—would be available to people," said Wood. "[During his 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, Wood is mindful of her father's high standards and dedication. "He never felt satisfied with his day's work," she said.
Under an agreement with ACE, 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. 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 Web site, 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 20th-century ethnographer" and added that, "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 is the former editor of Folklife Center News, published by the American Folklife Center.