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Rhetoric and the Lomax Archive

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Prisoners breaking up rocks at a prison camp or road construction site. Photo is probably by Alan Lomax. Forms part of: Lomax collection of photographs depicting folk musicians, primarily in the southern United States and the Bahamas. Prints and Photographs Division.

The following post was written by Jonathan Stone, Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Utah.

I write on occasion of a recent publication that may be of interest to readers of Folklife Today. We are still in the middle of the Lomax Centennial year and the article “Listening to the Sonic Archive: Rhetoric, Representation, and Race in the Lomax Prison Recordings” appeared in Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture a few weeks ago. The article offers a fresh historical accounting of John A. and Alan Lomax’s journeys through Southern prisons in the early 1930s as well as in-depth rhetorical analysis of eight songs, seven of which were field recordings made during that trip.

All right, full disclosure. I wrote the article. It is drawn from a chapter of my dissertation, which has a similar title: Listening to the Lomax Archive: The Sonic Rhetorics of American Vernacular Music in the 1930s. I recently defended that dissertation in completion of a PhD in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I’m still sighing in relief of its completion. Seeing it in writing here again helps.

Like many, I’ve long been fascinated by the Lomaxes’ story: its place among other American authenticity-seeking narratives common during the Depression, the audacity of the Lomaxes who were so confident that such authenticity could be found in African-American prisons, and the power of the songs themselves, sung by incarcerated men serving hard time and even harder labor. And while this story is a well known among folklorists and American music historians, most people in my field have never heard of the Lomaxes. I thought it was time to change that.

This disciplinary oversight aside, the study of rhetoric has a rich tradition. It originates in Western antiquity with the ancient Greeks, and is most commonly found in the contemporary academy within English and Communication departments. For much this long history, rhetoricians were primarily invested in the power of oratory—eloquent and/or persuasive speech, including the details around speech’s production and reception. But rhetoricians today are invested in other modes as well: writing, imagery, and digital media among them. The study of sound and music are also a part of this modal shift and my work puts the rhetorical tradition in conversation with the sounds of history, folklore, and the archive.

To do this, my work engages with questions about sound and music’s rhetorical roles in national and personal myth making, racial formation, cultural eloquence, historiography, and traditional and progressive thought. In the article as in the dissertation, I argue that vernacular, folk, or “roots” music can be a key element—a sonic rhetoric—for interpreting the ebb and flow of cultural ideals, particularly during times of crisis. Put more simply, I’m interested in what it meant in 1930s America to have a “Archive of Folk Song” at the Library of Congress and how its development—through the work of the Lomaxes, but also in the voices of those on its records and tape—affected America’s idea of itself.

As will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, my research confirms the far-reaching and multifaceted rhetorical impact of vernacular music.

It’s important to note, however, that though my scholarship is often framed by the Lomaxes’ story and experiences, I work hard to move beyond John and Alan as sole analytical figures. “Listening to the Sonic Archive” in particular is a tribute to voices that, though recorded and archived, remain marginalized. This reframing allows me to foreground the stories of the incarcerated men recorded during the prison trips and also opens up opportunities for some meaningful critique of the Lomaxes and their intellectual and political contexts. That critique walks a bit of a tightrope, however as it is generally through the work of the Lomaxes—their field notes, recordings, and publications like John A. Lomax’s Adventures of a Ballad Hunter—that the stories of people like “Iron Head” James Baker are available to us at all.

James Baker (Iron Head), Sugar Land, Texas. Photographed by Alan Lomax in June 1934.

I’m interested, then, in the ideological tension embodied by the Lomaxes’ work. When compared with contemporary standards, for example, their research methods can appear problematic and even coercive. Yet the beliefs the drove that work—the willingness to look beyond European roots in their search for “authentic” American voices—were part of a small but growing progressive ideological turn emerging alongside the Depression in the 1930s. In my larger work, I explore this tension in chapters about the prison recordings (which includes John Lomax’s unique relationship with ex-convict and songster Lead Belly), Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress oral history sessions with Jelly Roll Morton, and Alan’s experience producing the CBS radio program “American Folk Songs” for the educational series American School of the Air.

Dissertations, however, can be a constraining genre. Most collegiate institutions still require documents that conform to traditional deposit standards and anything more complicated than a PDF is inadmissible. The opportunity to rework a portion of my dissertation in an electronic format was an attractive prospect because digital media allow for something usually absent from traditional scholarly publications, let alone dissertations: sound.

So, on a research visit to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and working closely with Lomax curator Todd Harvey, I listened to all of the recordings available from the 1933 and 1934 prison recording trips and read all of the available field notes and correspondence from that period. After returning home, I let the recordings shape the content of the chapter/article and became particularly interested in the stories of John Gibson, Lightnin’ Washington, Mose Platt, and James Baker along with a number of other unnamed incarcerated singers. I chose seven recordings as representative, each of which allowed me to explore different aspects of prison life: from the realities of the brutal work camps to dreams of release or escape, and from the occasional conjugal visit to moments of sacred communion with deity.

From a rhetorical perspective, it’s clear that many of the incarcerated men were mindful of the potential audiences their songs might reach, particularly in the still-echoing mythos surrounding Lead Belly’s pardon (allegedly acquired through deft singing). The Lomaxes also had hopes for what the songs might accomplish rhetorically, both in terms of what they might mean for America vis-à-vis the Library of Congress, but also how they might be used to further their own careers. My article draws out these various rhetorical strands encouraging readers (and listeners!) toward more complex understandings of the artifacts of the sonic archive. Undoubtedly, the prison recordings are multivalent with both complex meaning and wide-reaching affects.

I hope that “Listening to the Sonic Archive” is just a first foray for me into the world of digital publishing. I’m inspired by recent innovative work with the Lomax archive such as Todd Harvey’s eBook Michigan-I-O and Joshua Clegg Caffery’s interactive website, “John and Alan Lomax in Louisiana, 1934.” Also, the ongoing efforts by the Library of Congress to digitize the Lomax artifacts in their holdings (such as the recent digital release of 25,000 documents in the Lomax Family Collection) as well as the tireless work of The Association for Cultural Equity (including a recent collaboration with the LOC for The Lomax Kentucky Recordings) are making scholarly work with Lomax archival material more accessible than ever. To those in academia, I say let’s be sure to utilize these resources in our scholarship but also in our teaching. The classroom is an often overlooked but excellent venue to think about and utilize archival material. The Library of Congress and ACE make it both an easy and rich experience well suited to a variety of undergraduate and graduate curricula.

On this end, my new position as Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Utah requires a book for tenure, but they are also open to a digital product. That’s good news, but also indicates that the scholarly tide is turning. As tools for the presentation and circulation of digital texts become more sophisticated, academia is beginning to recognize the legitimacy of digital scholarship. With any luck, in a few years you’ll be able read an updated version of my prison songs article in the pages of my first digital book, Listening to the Lomax Archive.

Thanks again to Stephen Winick and Todd Harvey at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress for their hospitality during my visits to the archive as well as their willingness to let me be a guest here on Folklife Today!


  1. Great blog Steve. Look forward to reading the article. This tension is present in all collecting work but seems more obvious with the Lomaxes, especially in hindsight. Looking at the work of Seán Ó hEochaidh, a collector for the Irish Folklore Commission (1935-1971), brings out similar dilemmas.

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