The Alan Lomax Database Goes Online

Alan Lomax

USA – The Alan Lomax Archive has announced the culmination of its seven-year effort to preserve and disseminate the work of one of the 20th century’s foremost folklorists and musicologists, Alan Lomax. Lomax recorded and nurtured the careers of Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, and other legends; his recordings of many more obscure artists have been featured in works such as  O Brother, Where Art Thou?


O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Alan Lomax believed in a principle he called “cultural equity,” the need for all cultures to be equally represented in the media and in the classroom. Through years of comparative research on folk
song style, he drew a convincing parallel between natural and cultural ecology which underscores the importance of preserving our intangible oral heritage.

Alan Lomax believed it was imperative to return traditions to their home sources and artists, a strategy he called “cultural feedback.” In that spirit, The Alan Lomax Database went online recently. Also, over the next ten months, the Association for Cultural Equity, which administers the Alan Lomax Archive, will send digital copies of audio and video recordings and photographs by Alan Lomax to a number of libraries and archives in the U.S., the Caribbean, and Europe so that they will be available locally to people in or from the regions in which they were originally made.

The Alan Lomax Database is a multimedia catalog of the audio and video recordings and photographs made by Alan Lomax from 1946–1994, as well as of recordings made by few of his colleagues. It will also ultimately include some of the older collections of audio recordings made by Lomax on behalf of the Library of Congress, which have been transferred and remastered using cutting-edge technology. Developed and built by personnel and consultants of the Alan Lomax Archive, the Database features 25 collections and thousands of recordings, which have been preserved, digitized, and cataloged over the past several years with funds from the Rock, Concordia, Rockefeller, Richmond, and Grammy foundations, the Save America’s Treasures Program, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others.

The Alan Lomax Database is designed to be an inclusive record of Lomax’s recordings of music and the spoken word; it thus documents all recordings, including interrupted tracks and false starts. It can be searched by performer, song title, geography, culture, genre, subject, instrument, collection, session, and recording date. Users can print out single-page reports of their search results. Photographs taken by Lomax during the field trips are linked to the appropriate sessions and also available in a separate searchable catalog. Every audio recording in the catalog can be heard in samples of forty seconds (music, spoken word) to two minutes (radio shows, discussions, lectures).

Alan’s daughter, Anna Wood, turned on a laptop recently at the home of an old friend, diminutive Raffaela De Franco, longtime immigrant from Calabria. Thirty years before, she and some of her co-villagers recorded songs for Dr. Wood, which were eventually published on an LP by Folkways. A few seconds after logging on to Smithsonian Folkways new Globalsounds site, Wood downloaded an
example of Mrs. De Franco’s favorite genre, a villanella called “Tears of Blood.” The overlapping polyphony, high-pitched drone and exquisite lyric texts, mournful yet wild, came from the near-untamed backwoods of the southern Apennines, where the tape recorder could once have been regarded as an instrument of witchcraft. The villanella is now a dying art. It was after midnight. Mrs. De Franco refused to sit as she listened, and asked for another, then another, apparently forgetting the pain of her leukemia. “We must be the only two people on earth who are listening to these,” she said. “The whole world can hear them now,” was Wood’s answer. Soon, Mrs. De Franco will be able to go to the Alan Lomax Database online and browse through its collections of Calabrian, Abruzzese, Genoese, Neapolitan, Sicilian, and Georgia Sea Island songs, whose styles she had grown to love after being exposed to them in the U.S.

The first seven collections to go online are: Texas Gladden & Hobart Smith 1946;  Calypso Concert 1946; Mississippi Prison Recordings 1947 and 1948; Big Bill Broonzy 1952; Southern Journey US 1959 and 1960; Hally Wood 1960; and Central Park Concert 1965.

Dissemination “Blitz”

The Alan Lomax Archive is also in the process of donating digital copies of selected collections to some 20 libraries and archives in the U.S. and abroad, largely in the regions in which the recordings were made. Donation agreements have been signed with fifteen of these institutions. By the end of 2005, a total of 4,500 hours of audio recordings and 2,014 hours of video recordings will have been disseminated.

Recipient institutions include: the Adams Music Research Institute of Center for Black Music Research, St. Thomas; the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, Montgomery; the Ruby Pickens Tartt Collection at the University of Western Alabama; the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston; the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum, Ferrum College, Virginia; the Ethnomusicology Archives at the University of California at Los Angeles; the Folk Research Centre, St. Lucia, West Indies; the Hunter College Libraries, Hunter College, New York; the Ibiza Cultural Archive, Ibiza, Spain; the Irish Traditional Music Archive, Dublin; Mediatheque Caraibe, Guadeloupe; the Robinson Library, Newcastle University, UK; the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Glasgow; the School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh, UK; The Blues Archive, University of Mississippi Library, Oxford; The Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University, New Orleans; the Music Library of the Performing Arts Library, New York Public Library; The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library; and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

In 2004, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress acquired Alan Lomax’s original recordings and papers, bringing seven decades of his work together under one roof. The Association of Cultural Equity and the Alan Lomax Archive in New York continue to administer and disseminate the work of Alan Lomax.

The Alan Lomax Collection on Rounder Records is a multi-series, 100+ CD collection of folk music and narrative drawn from Alan Lomax’s international field recordings. For more information go to

Author: World Music Central News Department

World music news from the editors at World Music Central