This is a guest blog post by Todd Harvey, a Reference Librarian and curator of the Lomax collections at the American Folklife Center.
The American Folklife Center announces long-awaited digital access to a tranche of Lomax family correspondence. It follows similar treatment for the Bess Lomax Hawes collection and the Alan Lomax collection. Most of the half-million pages of Lomax manuscripts at the American Folklife Center are now online.
John A. Lomax, Sr., and his son Alan Lomax became stewards of a nascent Archive of American Folk-Song, now the American Folklife Center, in September 1933. Their tenure lasted until Alan separated from the Library of Congress in October 1942. During that period, they administered an archive that grew in scope and volume. The resultant manuscript material—correspondence, memoranda, reports, notes, and writings—was decades later collated into the John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax papers (AFC 1933/001), the focus of the digital collection found at this link.
The collection provides a remarkably clear picture of the Lomaxes’ activities. They built the archive—and their careers—while maneuvering within the Library’s byzantine political currents. They created and managed for the Library a dynamic network of politicians, musicians, academics, and other folk music collectors. They hurried, and befriended, and wrote at such a pace that John Lomax’s elegant penmanship seems at times to fly off the page, giving the accurate impression of a man in motion with a national undertaking in his care. John pens a typical dispatch from Crowley, Louisiana, June 7, 1934:
We are in the midst of the Cajuns and Creoles.… We are really embarrassed by the quality of material offered us, our object, of course, being to try and record only the best and representative. Tonight we go far off the beaten track to attend a dance where the music, at least partly, will consist of survivals of early French breakdowns.
Over a decade, successive Library administrators received breathless letters detailing the riches of American cultural expression from both John and Alan Lomax as they etched the voices of everyday people onto instantaneous disc recordings.
Sometimes the correspondence revealed the challenges of fieldwork, not the least of which came from long weeks of driving and balky recording equipment. Alan spent four months in Michigan during the summer and fall of 1938. Here is a telegram from Charlevoix, Michigan, September 2, 1938. Lomax’s car had broken down and he was low on cash. The ‘fortnightly fortifier,’ then as now, was the bi-monthly federal paycheck.
HAROLD SPIVACKE. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. WHERE IS FORTNIGHTLY FORTIFIER. AM UNABLE TO PROCEED. LETTER ON THE WING.
Part of the Lomax legacy is a series of publications that showcased the variety of American song genres. The labor songbook, Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, was compiled by Alan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger during the early 1940s, but the content was so incendiary that it was not published until 1967. The editors drew from field recordings—especially those of mining activist Aunt Molly Jackson—and pamphlets like Annabel Lee Glenn’s Trade Union Songs.
One type of document, however, that captures my attention more than any other is an address book, and the Lomaxes do not disappoint. Maintaining contact information for persons such as dancer Katherine Dunham (spelled “Catherine” in the notebook entry), musician Huddie Ledbetter, and professor Willard Rhodes demonstrates a wide range of acquaintances and interests.
A collection finding aid, joins a solid body of guides and digital collections that provide analysis and context to what are largely the administrative papers of the archive during the 1930s. But the John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax papers are anything but dry, bureaucratic exchanges. They reveal at turns the humility and hubris, the comity and paternalism that readers have come to associate with this unique duo who recorded undiscovered, 20th century American voices.