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Help Folklife Research by Reviewing Lomax Transcripts!

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Handwritten notes on a small notebook page listing names of members of the Gallagher family.
Field notes for the recording session of members of the Gallagher family that sang songs for Alan Lomax on Beaver Island, Michigan. AFC 2004/004: MS 07.02.04 Image 6.

When I was writing my blog on “Great Lakes Ships and Shipping” in 2018, I naturally wanted to look at the field notes Alan Lomax wrote when he was collecting these songs. But this was no easy task. His field notes were online, but only as page image scans. The notes were handwritten and they were not searchable except the old fashioned way, by reading through all of those made in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. It was an interesting adventure to read through Lomax’s entire record of his Great Lakes experience. But it took time.

I was delighted to find the notes on the recording of “The Gallagher Boys” that listed the people present, shown on the left. Because Lomax identified one of the participants as “Andy Mary Ellen Gallagher” with the note “His father died when he was young and his mother was head of the family,” we can be sure exactly which of the Andrew Gallaghers of many this was in the Beaver Island, Michigan community. He was locally called Andy Mary Ellen because his mother, Mary Ellen Gallagher, raised him and this distinguished him from others with a similar name. Some have assumed from the recordings that he was the son of the singer Dominic Gallagher, but the note makes it clear that he was not. It is not clear how they are related. From other sources, we know that Andy Mary Ellen hosted the recording session in his fishing net house, bringing in singers from the community for Lomax to record. My experience with the notes Lomax took is that there can be nuggets of pure gold in there that can help us to identify the people, places, song titles, and contexts for the recordings that he made. But getting to that precious information can be difficult work because the texts are not fully searchable. We aim to change that.

Since I wrote that blog, the Library of Congress launched a By the People project to get all the Lomax manuscripts transcribed into digital form called “The Man Who Recorded the World: On the Road with Alan Lomax.” This crowdsourcing campaign will help researchers to locate items more readily in the manuscript collection and assist them with with research on the audio recordings they relate to — recordings made in the United States and the Caribbean. Not only that, but it will make these manuscripts available to those with vision problems who cannot read the originals. A great many have been transcribed by volunteers, but we also need these reviewed by others in order to ensure accuracy before they are put online. The Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois notes are among those that need review. So, as you may have heard, this January, we have a campaign to encourage more folks to review the transcripts that have been done with a goal of raising the number of completed pages up to 3,000 by January 31st—or what would have been Alan’s 105th birthday. What a great way to celebrate his life and work!  As of this morning, there are 2,535 completed pages. Can you help us reach our goal by reviewing some of the transcribed pages?

Here are some pointers on how to review, and remember that any contribution to this effort helps us improve access and usability of these valuable collections!

There is a lot to explore through these notes as Lomax worked in many different ethnic communities and in many geographic locations. He would sometimes let singers who spoke languages he did not speak write down the titles of their songs and their names in his notebooks, meaning we need some help with translations of the various languages that appear. There is a good range of subject matter as well since Lomax was interested in songs, dances, culture, and religious expression as he encountered it in his work. So you can find a lot of interesting subjects to choose from in these materials. Read more about the life and work of Alan Lomax right here on Folklife Today, the American Folklife Center’s blog!

Comments (4)

  1. Hello as a midwestern musician, I would love to help with this project. I am particularly interested in Minnesota and south western Wisconsin!

    Best wishes,

    Daniel Kenneth Libby

  2. I also wrote a blog post about Andy Mary Ellen for this site! Super cool project- I hope I can get involved!

    • Absolutely! Just follow the links. As I said in the blog, the Great Lakes field notes are among those that need review.

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