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The Man Who Recorded the World: On the Road with Alan Lomax

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The following is a guest post by Todd Harvey and Melanie Zeck of the American Folklife Center

Page of notebook with handwritten notes.
Page 18 of Alan Lomax’s “composition book” containing notes from June 22 through July 30, 1942. Find the archival scan here.

Muddy Waters – 29. (Head of the house) Farms 16 acres.
Been knowing Son House since ’29. Learned how to
play with bottle neck from him by watching him for
about a year – followed after where he playing at –
He can tune his guitar in three ways –
Nachel – Spanish – E minor

The American Folklife Center needs your help!

The text above was transcribed verbatim from the notebook of Alan Lomax who, as a Library of Congress fieldworker, documented his first encounter with McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield of Stovall, Mississippi. During this encounter, Lomax and his associate, John W. Work III (of Fisk University), recorded the famous bluesman, and nearly eight decades later, the resultant recordings continue to stand as bedrock examples of Mississippi blues.  But only recently have Lomax’s accompanying field notes and journals become widely available online. We want to make them even more accessible, more useful, and better known, through the Library of Congress’s crowdsourcing project: By the People.

A brainchild of the LC Labs division, By the People is available online at this link. It allows patrons the opportunity to transcribe online manuscripts, including Lomax’s field notes and journals. Anyone can take part in this virtual volunteering effort, from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. Volunteers are welcome to register for an account if they want to access all of the features of the site, including tagging and reviewing, but those just wishing to transcribe can take part without creating an account. The process of transcription and review provides hands on access to unique materials and encourages transcribers to deepen their understanding of the materials and the circumstances in which they came to be. These transcriptions increase the visibility and enhance the usability of the collection from which the original manuscript came.

Through By the People, the American Folklife Center will launch “The Man Who Recorded the World: On the Road with Alan Lomax,” which features more than 10,000 pages of fieldwork created by Alan Lomax and others during his 30-year career as an active fieldworker. Lomax recorded thousands of tradition-bearers in the United States, in the Circum-Caribbean, and in Europe. All of these papers are currently online as part of the digital Alan Lomax collection and many of the recordings are online through the Library of Congress, through our partner, the Association for Cultural Equity , or at other websites such as Lomax 1934 (Louisiana recordings), Delta State University (Mississippi recordings), and The Alan Lomax Kentucky Recordings.

Closeup of the faces of Alan Lomax and Raphael Hurtault. Lomax wears headphones and a straw hat.
Alan Lomax and Raphael Hurtault listening to playback. La Plaine, Dominica. June 1962. Find the original with more details at this link at the Association For Cultural Equity.

Lomax had a knack for finding the best performers in a given location and coaxing from them epic stories and songs that have remained a part of today’s aural landscape. In the related manuscript material, readers learn about events ranging from the first recordings of Muddy Waters to the travails of life on the road, from details of Galician singing style to music-making in 1950s London. The field notebooks provide a unique window into Lomax’s travels, some of which were undertaken in his capacity as a Library of Congress staff member. They serve as both a chronological record of professional activities and as his personal journals, thereby revealing interesting information about genres, performers, and locations. By the People also includes song and interview transcriptions that Lomax and his colleagues utilized in publication and for research. Additionally, written correspondence was a necessary aspect of fieldwork for Lomax, whether with the Library of Congress, or with performers and local contacts at his destinations. As a whole, these different types of materials are invaluable for the study of the Lomax family and their collaborators, such as Zora Neale Hurston, and for an understanding of 20th-century American folk music.

“The Man Who Recorded the World: On the Road with Alan Lomax” will present these vital documents in three phases relating to Lomax’s travels and geography. They are:

Phase 1: United States and Circum-Caribbean (1933–1962)
Phase 2: Britain, Ireland, and Northern Europe (1950s)
Phase 3: Spain and Italy (1950s)

The first phase will include nearly 3000 pages from Lomax’s United States and Circum-Caribbean fieldwork. Although much of the work focuses on the African Diaspora, some trips document immigrant groups from Europe and include Finnish-, French-, and Gaelic-language materials.

Here are a few examples:

Haiti, 1936–1937
From December 1936 through April 1937, Alan Lomax and Elizabeth Lomax recorded the songs and religious ceremonies of Haiti, while occasionally bumping into writer Zora Neale Hurston and other ethnographers. The notebooks compiled by Lomax are filled with vivid descriptions of expressive culture on that island nation and include long narratives about Vodou practices. Here is a letter from writer Zora Neale Hurston giving Alan advice about navigating the complexities of fieldwork in Haiti.

Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, 1938
In 1938, the Library of Congress dispatched Alan Lomax to conduct a folklife survey of the Great Lakes region. He traveled in a 1935 Plymouth sedan, toting a Presto instantaneous disc recorder and a movie camera. By the time he returned three months later, Lomax had driven thousands of miles on barely paved roads and recorded a cache of 250 discs, 8 reels of film, and countless documents, which attests to the incredible range of ethnic diversity, expressive traditions, and occupational folklife in Michigan. Here is a notebook page written by a Finnish speaker in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

New York City, 1950s
Alan Lomax had a relationship with the great bluesman Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter that began in 1933 when Alan and his father John A. Lomax Sr. first made recordings together. The Lomaxes attended Lead Belly’s wedding to Martha Promise in Wilton, Connecticut. In the 1950s, after Lead Belly’s death, Alan conducted an audio interview with Martha, and the resulting transcription provides a unique perspective on Martha’s relationship with the singer. Here is a page from that transcription.

West Indies 1962
In 1962, the pan-Caribbean political movement stirred Alan Lomax, Antoinette Marchand Lomax, and Anna Lomax to document the varied music and dance genres found in the West Indies. They found stylistic similarities among the genres that would eventually be detailed in the books Folk Song Style and Culture and Brown Girl in the Ring. The notebooks compiled during this trip contain careful transcriptions of the creolized French spoken on many of the islands. Here is a notebook page made during Alan’s visit to the island of St. Kitts, a former British colony.

Comments (2)

  1. It is good to see that Alan’s field notebook on Muddy has returned to its home at LC/FOLK. Best of luck with this great project!

  2. It’s great to see Alan’s field notes for the Morganfield recordings back at LC/FOLK — for years they had been “missing.” I guess Alan had taken them home with him before he left the Library toward the end of 1942. Great article, Todd!

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