- The Alan Lomax Archive
For Alan Lomax, documenting, analyzing, and disseminating folk music required harnessing the latest technological innovations. A quintessential romantic who saw modern standardization as a disease endangering the world’s noncommercial, indigenous cultures, he nevertheless embraced modern innovation at every point in his astounding career as an ethnomusicologist and folklorist that spanned six decades from the 1930s to the 1990s. As early as the 1950s, Lomax foresaw the capacity of computers to revolutionize the study of ethnomusicology by analyzing vast amounts of diverse data that could lead to a unifying theory of musical expression. In the 1980s and early 1990s, as personal computers became increasingly common, but before the revolution wrought by the World Wide Web, he envisioned what he called an “intelligent museum” that would make the world’s indigenous musical cultures widely accessible on CD-ROM databases. The idea became better known as the “Global Jukebox.”
If Lomax saw the existence of a jukebox in a place like the Mississippi Delta or eastern Kentucky mountains as akin to a snake in the garden—a threat to a community’s supposedly pure folk music traditions—this new Global Jukebox would allow far-flung audiences to experience and analyze the teeming diversity of local styles in a way that simply listening to a 78 RPM disc, LP, or CD never could. Users of the computerized Global Jukebox would search databases that classified music, dance, and speech based on culture, region, and style. They could read descriptions and analyses and view maps in order to trace patterns and migrations. Lomax wanted to create nothing less than a taxonomy of the world’s folk cultures. Observable links between performance style, geography, and social organization would be the ballast for his ground-breaking, if controversial theory, known as Cantometrics. “The evolution of culture and the conditions under which it occurred could be reconstructed. … Everyone could find his own place in the cultural world, locate his roots, [End Page 429] and trace his links to peoples and cultures never imagined,” writes Lomax’s biographer, John Szwed. In this way, Lomax’s recordings could also circulate beyond the archive and into the global community, promoting deeper appreciations for the immense value and beauty of all the world’s indigenous cultures. Preserving, celebrating, and circulating these cultures, instead of letting them succumb to global market forces, captures the ethos of “cultural equity” that Lomax championed beginning in the early 1970s and inspired him to establish a nonprofit organization dedicated to that cause known as the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) in 1983.1
Lomax, who suffered a debilitating stroke in 1996 and died in 2002, never saw the implementation of his Global Jukebox project. Today, ACE carries on his legacy and mission, which includes the Alan Lomax Archive, a web-based collection of all the recordings, photographs, and films he made while doing fieldwork between 1946 and 1991. ACE partners with the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center (AFC), which maintains all the original recordings, images, films, and field logs created by Alan and his father, John Lomax, including those from the 1930s and early 1940s when the Lomaxes worked under the auspices of the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song. Between 1997 and 2003, members of the ACE staff digitized Alan Lomax’s vast archive. For a number of years they could claim the distinction of being the largest sound archive to have the entirety of its collection in digital format. In the spring of 2005, portions of what ACE then called the “Alan Lomax Database” went online, and for several years visitors could listen to forty-five-second snippets of select recordings. In the spring of 2012, ACE launched its full-scale version of the Alan Lomax Archive, which today includes 17,400 sound recordings available for streaming, 5,000 photographs, hundreds of video clips shot during the 1970s and 1980s that are also available on YouTube, and 16 hours of radio interviews, lectures, and discussions. The Global Jukebox...