The following is a guest post by Joshua Caffery, who was the John W. Kluge Center’s Alan Lomax Fellow until April 2014. Caffery is a scholar of vernacular traditions in Louisiana, as well as an archivist and a musician. He is the author of Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings, and the creator of www.lomax1934.com, which places online for the first time many of the recordings from the Lomaxes’ historic 1934 trip to Louisiana for the Library of Congress, particularly those from South-Central Louisiana, known sometimes as “French Louisiana,” “Cajun Louisiana,” or “Evangeline Country.”
On June 7, 1934, in the early days of his historic field collecting trip to lower Louisiana with his his teenaged son Alan in tow, John Lomax wrote to Carl Engel, then head of the Library of Congress’s Music Division. He described their intention of visiting New Iberia, Avery Island, Lafayette, and “many smaller” places along the way, and he took note of “an absolutely unique type of American Folk Songs, entirely distinct even from the Creole.”
He then proceeded to inscribe a short sentence that I have occasion to think about often: “Already we see visions of a Folk Song Map of the United States.”
Eighty years after that historic expedition, the visionary nature of the early Lomax trips seems increasingly beyond dispute. One way to think about the Lomaxian mission is that they were building the foundation for what we might call today a massive Geographic Information System. John Lomax’s old-school, historic-geographic, Teutonic approach to folklore ensured this, though such approaches went quite out of fashion for the rest of the 20th century. As John Szwed has written, however, “as it is prophesied, so it used to be.” John Lomax’s visions of folk song maps of the United States are now a tangible reality as new technologies increasingly allow for the large scale visualization, dissemination, and transmission of the massively complex geographic and phonographic data they gathered. As technology increasingly liberates and reveals these historic collections, the vision of their authors comes into sharper relief.
I had the enormous good fortune to spend eight months at the Library of Congress ruminating about these and all things Lomax this past year as an Alan Lomax Fellow in the John W. Kluge Center. As part of my application for that fellowship, I suggested that I would design and build a website that would make the 1934 Lomax recordings in south central Louisiana (the object of my research) available. When not being regaled by stories of Lomaxian hijinks by the many esteemed folklorists of the DC metro area, I had the time to do just that, and www.lomax1934.com provides a portal to the sounds of that distant summer.
I had a few goals here. Most importantly, I wanted to make the audio easily available. Much of this material was never released commercially and was thus inaccessible to all but devout researchers. I also wanted to sync the audio in some way to the excellent online resources provided by the Library of Congress, particularly scans of the original Archive of American Folk Song Card Catalog and photographs from the 1934 trip. By making the card catalog images and photographs hyperlinked and clickable, I wanted to encourage users to access more detailed information and to approach the library collections on their own terms. I’ve also used resources from around the web to help users make connections between the songs here and the music and folklore of other areas and other time periods. I’ve done this on a somewhat whimsical basis for now, but I hope to bolster these links as time goes on.
Finally, I’ve tried to cleave to John’s visions in developing a handful of interactive folksong maps. These too I intend to improve and bolster as time and evolving technology allow. In the near term, I am working with a group of Louisiana teachers to develop open-source lesson plans that employ the site’s resources. In the longer term, I’d like to see more sites and more maps reflecting the many hundreds of hours of additional audio recorded by the Lomaxes and others elsewhere in the state and later in time.
No one really ever accused the Lomaxes of thinking small. My impression is that they thought and worked on a tremendous scale, and their visions have often proven to be uncannily prescient. I look forward to watching as John Lomax’s vision of a folk song map of the United States begins to appear before our eyes.
Related: Joshua Caffery presented a lecture on Lomax’s Lousiana materials in AFC’s Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series on December 11, 2013. View the webcast of that lecture in the player below: