Alan Lomax — Ethnomusicologist and Photojournalist
Normally, it can take weeks (even months) preparing a story for this space. I need time in my attempts to share something imaginative, hopefully insightful — or dare I reach as an offering towards a sliver of enlightenment — in an era when everything and anything is brilliantly rehashed on the Internet.
This week I’ve decided to loose my laundry and dive as rapidly as I can into the Ring of Blogging Fire on a topic surely well written upon. What happened just under two weeks ago (though it’s been quietly going on for sometime) is indeed one of the biggest developments not only in the world of field recording history, it’s also a landmark moment for social documentary photography.
The Alan Lomax collection is now completely accessible online — 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, piles of manuscripts — including 5,000 photographs he took over this astonishing career.
Oh, did I mention the best part…these thousands of hours of audio are not only accessible in their entirety (most of the Lomax collection has been available online for years but as 45 second intro pieces), they are streaming for FREE!
For those who do not know who Alan Lomax was, he was an American folklorist and one of the preeminent ethnomusicologists of our time. Born in Texas in 1915, Alan was the son of John Lomax, a teacher and pioneering folklorist in his own right. By age 17, Alan Lomax began traveling with his father throughout the American south and the Caribbean as his dad made what are considered some of the most important early recordings of American culture while working for the Library of Congress (John Lomax set out in 1933 on the first recording expedition ever undertaken by the Library of Congress with son Alan in tow). According to Don Fleming with the Association for Cultural Equity, Alan primarily traveled with a Ampex 601-2 audio tape recorder and two RCA 77-D microphones — would need a well padder steamer trunk for such a large but truly awesome quality kit. He also traveled with camera, taking photographs that matched his field recordings in places like Haiti, Dominican Republic, Scotland, England, Ireland, all over the Caribbean, Italy, and Spain. Here are some photographs of Alan Lomax throughout his 60 years of literally recording our world ~
When the Association for Cultural Equity, a not-for profit Mr. Lomax started, announced that the entire Alan Lomax Collection would be available for streaming, I was beyond thrilled. In my World Music collection I have two or three treasured CD’s of his which are as pure and raw as it gets.
During the last 20 years of his life, Lomax created an interactive multimedia educational computer project he called the Global Jukebox. This recent ability for the entire collection to be accessible to everyone is indeed a dream come true for Alan, who died at the age of 87 in 2002 — he wanted his messages of change, inspiration and education to be available for all.
This is huge on many levels.
Lomax wasn’t only the preeminent and pioneering ethnomusicologist and field recordist of our time, he was social documentarian who used both audio and photography to educate and raise awareness of issues. In many ways, he was a fellow photojournalist.
Take a gander as some of these rare contacts which a young Alan, about 18 years of age, took while he and his father worked for the Library of Congress ~
His microphones and cameras traveled the world during an era when musical traditions were already under pressure due to development and cultural apathy. Lomax knew the importance of creating audio recordings and photographs as a means to make change and raise awareness, well before a drop of notion that a tool called the Internet would arrive, let along recording device that would fit into a shirt pocket. Lomax knew that the musical and cultural traditions which took all of human civilization to develop was under pressure and about to becoming extinct, in the same manner of urgency that the present day preservation of linguistic heritage is sending anthropologists (sadly with scarce funding) to record the last speakers of dying languages on our planet — every two weeks a last speaker dies, taking with them the vestiges of our global language which not only makes up our global cultural heritage, we lose the wisdom of our ancestors.
Lomax was also a social activist, focusing heavily on civil rights issues, once again using music/field recordings and photography as a compendium against social injustice and raising cultural awareness. He was a co-founding member of People’s Songs, with Pete Seeger and others in 1945, with the belief that folk music could be an effective impetus for social change. His recordings from America’s southern states in the 30′s, 40′s and 50′s were key in raising awareness and helping to end racial discrimination while Lomax championed civil rights issues for African Americans.
Alan Lomax used the power of images and the awesome power of sound not just to record history, he used these communication tools to make a difference.
This is one of my favorite Lomax quotes:
“The dimension of cultural equity needs to be added to the humane continuum of liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and social justice.”—Alan Lomax, 1972
I can type effortlessly for hours on how important Alan Lomax was to the preservation of culture and the weighted issues on a whole host of human rights efforts and activism he was connected to. Given the wealth of the Lomax collection now accessible to all — and the countless books, news articles and whatnot written/recorded about Mr. Lomax — you can easily learn more about this extremely talented and passionate individual yourself by making a simply Google search (click here). Anyone wanting to really delve deep into Lomax’s career and life, make sure to read the book, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World.
My reason for rapidly writing this piece — and what’s often overlooked in all the writings, reviews and ravings about Alan Lomax — is his eye.
Alan Lomax was a pretty darn good photographer.
I hope these few photographs — and Alan Lomax’s entire archive — inspires you as much as it has me for continuing to use our cameras to make social change for those who cannot themselves, while in compendium, make field recordings, helping to expand the minds and hearts of others through the consciousness arresting power of sound and sight.
These days we tend to call it multimedia.
Fine, though I prefer to call it Visual Audio.
Either way, well before anyone of us were creating such combination storytelling, Alan Lomax was…and most of us weren’t even born yet.
NOTE: An enormous level of gratitude goes to Nathan Salsburg and Don Fleming — both with the Association for Cultural Equity — for allowing me to used un-watermarked photographs taken by Alan Lomax over his amazing career. Nathan had the weighted task of gathering 20+ high res files and helping me source proper captions. A super group of people continue the legacy of Alan Lomax, all of whom I’d be honored to meet on my next visit to New York City.