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John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax papers now online

This is a guest blog post by Todd Harvey, a Reference Librarian and curator of the Lomax collections at the American Folklife Center.

Man with an acoustic guitar stands in front of a sedan, which is parked next to a building.

Arthur “Brother-in-Law” Armstrong, Jasper, Texas. Photo by Ruby Lomax, 1940. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

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.

Handwritten letter from John A. Lomax, dated June 7, 1934.

Correspondence from John A. Lomax, June 7, 1934 from Crowley, Louisiana.  John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax papers. AFC1933/001.

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.

Western Union telegram from Alan Lomax, dated Septemer 2, 1938. Telegram reads: Harold Spivacke, Library of Congress, Where is fortnightly fortifier. Am unable to proceed. Letter on the wing. Alan Lomax.

A telegram from Alan Lomax from Charlevoix, Michigan, September 2, 1938. AFC1933/001.

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.

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Although the Library of Congress is temporarily closed to the public and staff are, as possible, working from home, the work of the Library continues. It is heartening to see that one of the most labor intensive areas of work, putting archival collections online, continues in spite of the precautions against the COVID-19 pandemic. The […]

Podcast: Episode 17, on Transcribing Lomax with By the People, is Ready for Listening!

Episode seventeen of the Folklife Today Podcast (or Season 2, Episode 5) is ready for listening! In the episode, John Fenn and Stephen Winick talk about a campaign called “The Man Who Recorded the World: On The Road with Alan Lomax.” It’s an effort to crowdsource transcriptions Alan Lomax’s fascinating field notes. Through this campaign, you can help out the Library of Congress and music fans worldwide by increasing access to Lomax’s field notes through transcribing and reviewing pages. Anyone can get involved at the link provided in the blog. The podcast and blog feature music from throughout Lomax’s career as well as descriptions of his notes.

Lomax Birthday Challenge!

This guest post from Todd Harvey, AFC reference staff member and Alan Lomax collection curator, is part of a short series related to the Library’s crowdsource platform and the campaign we helped launch in September 2019 focused on the extensive holdings AFC has of Lomax manuscript materials. The American Folklife Center wishes a happy birthday […]

Update: Lomax transcription review challenge

At the start of this month we announced a “challenge” for the Lomax crowdsourcing campaign on the Library’s By the People platform. To refresh your memory, the campaign is focused on transcribing about 9000 pages of handwritten and typed Alan Lomax manuscripts. The ultimate goal is to create machine-readable electronic text versions of Lomax’s materials so […]

Pitch in to review crowdsourced Lomax transcriptions!

Back in September, the American Folklife Center helped launch a crowdsourcing campaign focused on transcribing about 9000 pages of handwritten and typed Alan Lomax manuscripts. This campaign is running on By the People, the crowdsourcing platform developed by the Library of Congress. The ultimate goal is to create machine-readable electronic text versions of Lomax’s materials […]

AFC accelerates its efforts to preserve analog media

This is a guest post by American Folklife Center archivist Maya Lerman. Staff in the American Folklife Center archive finished a project that will improve our efficiency in preserving and making accessible AFC’s rich audiovisual collections. Like audiovisual archives everywhere, AFC is working to prepare for a time when obsolescence and degradation of physical media will greatly hinder preservation efforts. We […]

Reel Folk: Cultural Explorations on Film Screening and Discussion Event

On September 29th and 30th, 2017, the Library of Congress is hosting “Reel Folk: Cultural Explorations on Film,” a series of free film screenings and discussions organized by the American Folklife Center. The films feature fascinating explorations of traditional culture in the U.S., focused particularly on cultural communities, traditional artists and their cultural practices in […]