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Alan Lomax in Haiti: A Visit from Gage Averill

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The following is a guest post by Todd Harvey, AFC’s Lomax collection curator. Portions of the post appeared in a short essay Todd contributed to the Haiti box set pictured below.

Alan Lomax in Haiti, 1936-1937 is a box set compiled in 2009 by Gage Averill.

In 2009, ethnomusicologist Gage Averill edited and compiled the CD box set Alan Lomax in Haiti 1936-1937, and wrote the accompanying Grammy-nominated notes. He selected the music and documentation for the set from field recordings and other materials in the American Folklife Center archive. These materials resulted from a 1936-1937  field trip to Haiti led by Alan Lomax.

Only about a year after the box set was released, Haiti suffered a massive earthquake that destroyed both physical infrastructure and many cultural resources.  In the wake of this devastating event, Averill, with the help of the Library of Congress and the Association for Cultural Equity, arranged to repatriate copies of Lomax’s Haitian recordings, returning significant documentation of Haitian culture to its rightful place.

On March 15, 2017, Averill will be was here at the Library to speak about the box set project, as well as the difficulties, joys, and discoveries made in the process of returning the recordings to Haiti. Visit this link for full information on his talk. Select this link to view the webcast of Gage Averill’s talk, “Repatriating the Alan Lomax Haitian Recordings in Post-Quake Haiti.” 

The background to Lomax’s Haitian trip is interesting in itself.  Some of it is preserved in the Library’s files, but some is only hinted at.  In the rest of this post, I’ll explore what we know about this pioneering field trip.

The 1937 Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress is a good source of information on the field trip.

The extant documentation provides an accurate chronology for the trip and an inventory of what was collected. The official Library of Congress travel voucher, for example, shows that Alan left Washington December 5 for New York and sailed for Port-au-Prince December 10, likely arriving December 14. His expense itemizations end March 8, 1937. Alan’s typewritten index dates the last recording on April 20. The official 1937 Report of the Librarian of Congress provides the essential outcomes of the project: 58 ten-inch and 236 twelve-inch discs capturing 1,500 Haitian songs and drum rhythms, and 350 feet of motion picture film.

On the other hand, scant information about the trip’s intellectual impetus was preserved. Almost certainly a relationship exists between Lomax’s summer 1935 Library-sponsored Bahamas field trip and the Haiti trip. Alan’s correspondence to LC Music Division Chief Oliver Strunk (August 3, 1935) painted the Bahamas trip as an impulsive adjunct to well-conceived fieldwork in Florida and Georgia by the team of Lomax, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, and Zora Neale Hurston. Lomax intimated that after hearing a group of Bahamian “fire dancers” in Florida, he and Barnicle (Hurston opted to return home) determined to travel on to the Bahamas and further experience the genre where they became “bewitched by these fairy islands” and busied themselves “recording the liveliest and most varied folk-culture we had yet run into.” Alan also recorded Haitian singing in the Bahamas, and in his letter to Strunk advocated for continued collecting in the region, citing the prevalent African characteristics of Caribbean cultural expression. Anthropologist Melville Herskovits sent Alan a draft chapter of his Life in a Haitian Valley (1937) and introduced him to other scholars, perhaps contributing to Alan’s understanding of Haitian music and culture.

In September 1936 Music Division Assistant Chief Harold Spivacke penned a glowing letter to the University of Texas, recommending Alan for a fellowship and noting that in the coming year Alan planned to undertake “the collecting of folk-material in Mexico.” No mention is made of an upcoming months-long field trip to Haiti, yet on November 21 Strunk wrote a memo to Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam detailing the trip. This suggests that the Haiti venture was conceived and planned sometime in the intervening six weeks.

Pursuant to our recent conversations, I should like very much to recommend that Mr. Alan Lomax be authorized and directed to visit Haiti in the interests of the Archive of American Folk-Song and to study and record there for the Archive the native folk-culture of the island. For the duration of this expedition, which will probably consume four to five months, it is also recommended that Mr. Lomax be placed on the Library rolls at the rate of $30 per month, as a special and temporary assistant assigned to the work of the archive. Associated with Mr. Lomax in his work will be Miss Zora Neale Hurston, of New York City, at present holder of a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Strunk requested that the Library pay for Alan’s transportation, equipment and supplies, and provide a $5 per diem. An undated note from Hurston to the Librarian, perhaps serving as supporting material for her inclusion in the project, outlined Haitian musical genres. (It’s interesting to note that this trip marked the beginning of Alan’s official employment at the Library. His temporary appointment was renewed in May 1937 and Alan became a permanent Library of Congress employee, “Junior Library Assistant,” in June 1937.)

This is the map Alan Lomax used while in Haiti. Note his handwritten annotations.

To prepare diplomatically for the trip, Strunk wrote on November 24 to the Minister from Haiti, informing him that Alan was “about to make a visit to Haiti in the interests of the Library’s collection of recorded folk-music.” A day later, Mr. Putnam wrote to the Secretary of State requesting letters of introduction for Alan, describing “the nature of his mission as scientific and in the interests of the Library.”

Alan made his first report to the Librarian on December 21, a week into the trip. It previewed topics that dominated his Haiti correspondence—problems with the disc recorder and later the film equipment, financial woes, and delays in official permission to record (“I have … spent most of my time in ante-rooms and in taxiing from office to office to keep my white suit as unwithered as possible.”). Yet Alan’s enthusiasm for the culture remained undimmed.

I have, however, looked about enough to be sure this is the richest and most virgin field I have ever worked in. I hear fifteen or twenty different street cries from my hotel window each morning while I dress. The men sing satirical ballads as they load coffee on the docks.

Alan closed by assuring the Librarian that, barring catastrophe, he would return with valuable recordings for the Library’s collections. More than eighty years later that confidence seems amply justified. More than that, we’re proud this collection of field recordings was returned to Haiti after the earthquake, ensuring that  future generations of Haitians will have access to their own cultural heritage.

Alan Lomax’s drawings of traditional drum ensembles from his notes.

Please come and hear Gage Averill’s account of this fascinating project, March 15, 2017, at noon, in the Library’s Whittall Pavilion, here on the ground floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building.

View the webcast of Gage Averill’s lecture, “Repatriating the Alan Lomax Haitian Recordings in Post-Quake Haiti,” presented at the Library of Congress on March 17, 2017 (also on Library of Congress YouTube).

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