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Alan Lomax in Italy: a letter to Goffredo Plastino

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Vendemia workers singing with guitarist at the grape harvest. Moncalvo (Monferrato), Piemonte (Italy). Photo by Alan Lomax, October 7, 1954. AFC 2004/004 ph 01.03.1087  Find it online at the Association for Cultural Equity.

At the American Folklife Center, researchers come from around the world to study our unparalleled documentation of traditional culture. But sometimes, they don’t even have to come here. Occasionally, new discoveries by our staff are so exciting or so curious that we feel prominent researchers need to know. For this reason, our reference librarians keep up correspondence with researchers whose interests they share.

An example of this came up recently.  Soon after the Newcastle University professor Goffredo Plastino visited AFC to give a lecture on Alan Lomax’s Italian fieldwork, AFC’s reference team discovered some exciting items in the Alan Lomax Collection that shed further light on his areas of interest. Lomax curator Todd Harvey thought it would be nice to thank Plastino for his excellent talk, and at the same time fill him in on the new discoveries.  Those discoveries are so much fun, Todd and I thought we might share them on Folklife Today as well. Todd drafted a letter to Plastino, and we scanned some of the items in question, to create this illustrated letter for the blog.

Goffredo Plastino of Newcastle University discusses "Alan Lomax in Italy, 1954-1955" as part of the Botkin Lecture Series presented by the American Folklife Center, May 5, 2015. Photo by Shawn MIller.
Goffredo Plastino of Newcastle University discusses “Alan Lomax in Italy, 1954-1955” as part of the Botkin Lecture Series presented by the American Folklife Center, May 5, 2015. Photo by Shawn MIller.

Plastino’s lecture, which occurred on May 5, 2015, was part of a year-long series of events celebrating the centennial of folklorist Alan Lomax’s birth.  For more on these events, visit this link.

Here’s some background to Plastino’s talk and Todd’s letter. During the 1950s, Alan Lomax, who had already recorded vast amounts of traditional music for the Library of Congress from 1933 to 1943, was living in Europe. He was working steadily with Columbia Records, producing the first broad anthology of field recordings of what we would now call “world music,” The Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. In this task, he worked with organizations within each country he visited for the anthology. Thus, in 1954 and 1955, Lomax, sometimes traveling with Italian ethnomusicologist Diego Carpitella, traveled around Italy on a field trip underwritten by the BBC (but largely financed by Lomax), and planned with guidance from the Accademia di Santa Cecilia conservatory in Rome. Their primary goal had been two long-playing records for Columbia, but they ended up recording 3,000 items, enough for about ten such discs. The recordings document the music and songs of shepherds, fishermen, farm workers, and artisans, performed during labor, leisure, festive celebration, and religious observance, in over a hundred localities from Sicily to the Alps. Their pioneering field trip covered many regions of Italy, including all the ones that had not previously been documented.

Tuna Fishermen
Tuna fishermen singing at capstan, Vibo Valentia Marina (Catanzaro), Calabria (Italy). Photo by Alan Lomax, August 03, 1954. AFC 2004/004 ph 01.03.0517  Find it online at the Association for Cultural Equity.

What happened to these remarkable recordings? Some of them were released during the 1950s, including the planned two volumes on Columbia and several other releases on Tradition Records. Copies were made for Italian institutions in the 1950s, many of which found their way into the hands of filmmakers and other artists, as Plastino recounted in his lecture. Lomax held on to the full set as part of the archive he maintained throughout his life.  Most of these originals were digitized and released on CDs by Rounder Records in the early 2000s, with Plastino as the series editor. Soon thereafter, the originals, digital copies, and a wealth of supporting documentation were acquired by the Library of Congress as part of the American Folklife Center’s Alan Lomax Collection (AFC 2004/004), so the Italian recordings are here with the rest of Lomax’s amazing life’s work.

The final plan for these recordings is for them to go online at the website of Lomax’s organization, the Association for Cultural Equity.  The supporting manuscript documentation, too, is being digitized for release online by the Library of Congress, a process which led to the discoveries Todd outlines in his letter.  That is part of the enormous project of digitizing Lomax’s vast manuscript collections and presenting them online, a goal we’re getting closer to every day!

Nuovi Argomenti 17-18 features an essay by Alan Lomax about Italian folk music. Look it up in the Library of Congress Catalog.

In addition to recording the music, Lomax distinguished himself on this trip as a truly masterful photographer, shooting some of the most evocative images ever captured of rural Italy in the 1950s. During his lecture, Plastino mentioned Lomax’s Leica camera, which was absolutely state-of-the-art at the time. Todd’s letter below reveals more details about it. Two of Lomax’s Italian photos appear above.  The one showing fishermen operating a capstan was taken with the Leica, but the square format of the photo showing the grape harvest indicates it was taken with a different camera.  Todd’s letter touches on this mystery as well. The rest of Lomax’s amazing photos of Italy are available at this link through the Association for Cultural Equity, as are the photos from Lomax’s Southern and Caribbean expeditions of 1959-1962, to which Todd alludes in the letter.

Todd’s letter refers to two Italian-language publications: Plastino’s excellent book about Lomax’s trip and a 1955 issue of the Italian cultural journal Nuovi Argomenti, which featured an article by Lomax in Italian about Italian folk music, “Nuova Ipotesi sul Canto Folkloristico Italiano.”  The latter publication featured works by a stellar assortment of Italian intelligentsia: Rocco Scotellaro, a poet, novelist and social activist; Alberto Moravia, a novelist and editor; Danilo Dolci, a social activist and writer; Roberto Guiducci, a leading sociologist; and the celebrated poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who would later use Lomax’s Italian field recordings as the soundtrack to his movie of Boccaccio’s Decameron.  Lomax’s placement among such prominent thinkers and artists shows that his work was held to be of the highest importance in Italy at the time, an opinion that most students of Italian culture continue to share today.

That’s enough from me!  Todd’s letter begins here:

Dr. Goffredo Plastino
Newcastle University
United Kingdom

May 14, 2015

Dear Dr. Plastino,

Anna Lomax Wood, daughter of musicologist Alan Lomax, listens to Goffredo Plastino of Newcastle University discuss "Alan Lomax in Italy, 1954-1955" as part of the Botkin Lecture Series presented by the American Folklife Center, May 5, 2015. Photo by Shawn MIller.
Anna Lomax Wood, daughter of Alan Lomax, listens to Goffredo Plastino’s lecture. May 5, 2015. Photo by Shawn MIller.

I wish to thank you personally for your lecture last week titled “Alan Lomax in Italy, 1954-1955.” The crowd at the Whittall Pavilion provides a testament both to your reputation in the United States and to the draw of the Lomax collections at the Library of Congress. It was a pleasure to see Anna Lomax Wood again and to host you both for the afternoon.

Two items of reflection, if I may, about the lecture. First, I think that our noontime audience appreciated your ‘travelogue’ approach to the 1954-1955 Italian field trip. Given the scarcity of primary documentation for this episode in Lomax’s career it is helpful have someone with a deep understanding of the material to provide an overview. Second, we benefited from your contextualization of the field trip within post-War Italian culture.

We had a brief conversation about of your book L’anno più felice della mia vita (il Saggiatore, 2008). I believe that there is a market for an English language edition. Can we have more conversation about this? Also, I am not aware of an English translation for “Nuova Ipotesi sul Canto Folkloristico Italiano” published in Nuovi Argomenti (1955).

Camera Receipt small
This receipt, preserved in the AFC archive, indicates that Alan Lomax bought a Leica camera in Munich on June 11, 1952.

Now, to the research matters we discussed: I agree that the Italian photographs demonstrate Lomax’s artistic maturation in this medium. I wonder what was the catalyst for this maturation? They are simply superb and deserve deeper scholarship and wider publicity.

The archival record can be helpful, and here is some news in that regard. The team here pored through Alan’s financial records for the early 1950s. We found the bill of sale for the Volkswagen bus that Lomax and Diego Carpitella used during the trip–you showed the audience a photo (number 01.03.0362 [see it here]) made in Calabria in August 1954. Lomax sold it in 1956 through the Overseas Happy Motor Sales group in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, France, for $600.

More excitingly, we found a receipt showing that Alan purchased a Leica IIIf camera from the Wolf Kohlroser firm in Munich, June 11, 1952. The serial number is 593155 and the cost was 920 DM. As well, the collection here contains Alan’s passports. 1952 stamps indicate that he obtained a visa to visit Germany at the German embassy in Paris on May 30, entered Germany on June 8, and returned to France on June 12, a day after purchasing the Leica. He then passed into Spain on June 21. Lomax and Pip Bell were in Spain through January 1953 and he shot 31 rolls of 35 mm film–more photographs in six months than in the whole of his previous career.

Alan Lomax’s passport from the 1950s sheds light on his travels. We believe page 11 records his visa to visit Germany, issued in Paris on May 30, 1952, as well as his departure from Germany on June 12 of the same year, the day after he purchased the Leica. As with many of our passports today, the entrance and exit stamps were not always entered in correct chronological order!

I concur with you that the Italian trip photographs were made with a Leica, and I speculate that it was the same camera purchased in 1952. Alan shot 84 rolls of film between July 1954 and January 1955.

Leica Tag
The tag from Alan Lomax’s 1952 Leica camera, preserved in the AFC archive. Click to read the details!

During our conversation you mentioned that Lomax began to use a larger format film at a certain point during the field trip. My research shows that 33 of the Italian rolls are 35mm b/w and that 51 are the larger 2×2-inch b/w. The last roll of 35mm was made in San Giorgio Resia (Udine) Friuli, Italy, 19 Sept 1954. The first large format roll was made in the same location on the same day. We know that a bag containing Alan’s field notes was stolen during the field trip, and that the theft was a great loss for our understanding of the people and genres he and Diego Carpitella documented. Do you know the date? Does it coincide with the shift in photographic formats? Perhaps the Leica was stolen as well.

Oddly, aside from the Spain and Italy photographs, the Lomax collection contains only two other rolls made in Europe during the 1950s, both undated. Why is this so? In fact, the archival record suggests that after returning to England from Italy in January 1955, Alan essentially discontinued his photographic work until he returned to the United States from a decade abroad in July 1958. Happily, the wonderful images, bursting with color, from the Southern Journey (1959-1960) and Caribbean (1962) field trips lay ahead.

I have more questions than answers, but I hope that this information assists your research. We look forward to a return visit.

Plastino Letter
Here’s what Todd’s letter looks like on paper!

Best Regards,

Todd Harvey
Curator, Alan Lomax Collection
American Folklife Center
Library of Congress


Comments (4)

  1. i like folk music,, is powerful.. i don’t know why when i listen to the raining dance mostly starts raining..

  2. I agree this is both interesting and exciting material. I much look forward to the digitized sound material. Great! Italian chanties. Thank you.

  3. This is absolutely great stuff, guys. My reaction is totally opposite to what Danny Kaye supposedly said upon exiting the stage production of I AM A CAMERA: “No Leica!” Kudos to Todd and Steve for sharing this with us. I Leica very much!

  4. Compliments! Beautiful initiative: we see us in September to Genoa. Laura Parodi

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