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A New Discovery Sheds Light on Haiti’s 1930s Elites

The following is a guest post by Antony Stewart, British Research Council Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center.

Curator Todd Harvey discovered a never-before-seen notebook in the Alan Lomax Collection. Kluge scholar Antony Stewart was the first historian to study it.

Curator Todd Harvey discovered a never-before-seen notebook in the Alan Lomax Collection, used by Lomax while traveling in Haiti. Kluge fellow Antony Stewart is the first historian to examine it.

Recently, Todd Harvey, curator of the Library’s Alan Lomax Collection and a walking encyclopaedia of all things Lomax, keenly tapped me on the shoulder as I was busy listening to old Haitian pop songs in the American Folklife Center. He’d found a frail notebook wedged somewhere in the vaults, and as I examined it, trying to work out why he was so excited, he whispered to me, “You’re the first person to ever see this.”

It is a rare thrill of the historian’s trade to cast your eyes on something never before seen. As a British Research Council Fellow at the Kluge Center, I’ve been working in the Library’s American Folklife Center tracing Alan Lomax’s activities during his Haiti fieldtrip in 1936-1937. It’s a path that has been traveled before; in fact a book exists that collates the most illustrative sources scattered throughout the collection into one neat package.[1] With my fellowship I hope to use the collection to form an original contribution to the field of Haitian studies.

But on this day I carefully flicked through the battered old document that, to that point, had never been examined by historians. In it, I found a full account of Alan Lomax’s expenses, both official and unofficial, that revealed the extent of the then 21-year-old’s smoking habit, as well as his daily payments to Revolie Polinice, elsewhere described by Lomax as “my professor in Creole and in Haiti, my haggler and my protector, my valet and my companion of all my journeys throughout his world.”[2]

Most striking was a piece of writing, dated December 23rd 1936, that nested in the center pages of the book. These 19 pages documented a trip Lomax made to the Rex Theatre, Port-au-Prince, to watch a play; one that, it appears, he disliked much of. The play, from Lomax’s eyes, was filled with jokes at the expense of the peasantry and their inability to understand the purpose of footwear, (the crowd “howled” with laughter), French-language versions of American pop songs, a complete absence of plot, and a salute to Mussolini in a less-than-subtle endorsement of fascism for Haiti.

The peasants come in and wash their feet to great amusement of crowd, talks in Creole, evidently very funny, the acting is excellent, a shoe salesman comes in and the young [peasant] tries to buy the red shoes but discovers they are for women. He howls his complaints, then tries on his shoes and howls and walks as if he had a new pair of feet…the young peasant begins to walk like a baby and finally falls on his nose…[3]

The young man in the black shirt was a Fascist, complimented on the conquest of Italy, hoping that the Haitians could conquer something too – the Haitians reply the have conquered their idle passions, our shameful disputes, our shameful ideas, have decided to work together – “We are both on the road to fame, long live Mussolini and Haiti.”[4]

I had to know more. Fortunately I am in the best place in the world to play historical detective. I walked through the underground tunnels to the Library’s Newspapers and Periodical Division, to access the Library’s collection of Haitian newspapers. I also picked out books from the Library’s general collections that documented the history of Haitian theater. A few days later, I had a myriad of clippings, reviews, and context for the show and its players.

The play was called Pif-Paf, and was a variety show that played at least five times in the winter of 1936-37, by the Troupe Pêle-Mêle. The reviews were glowing. “Go in droves”, the Haitian literate classes were commanded. A triumph in acting, comedy, music and scenery.

It is too early to say whether this new account by Lomax may be a historically significant find, or just a description of an evening where Alan Lomax went to the theatre. During this period, many of the Haitian elite held a disdain for the “barefooted” classes, and a few of this social class had fascist leanings.[5] But Lomax’s detailed description of Pif-Paf is a particularly vivid example of elite culture through the lens of the theatre. Pêle-Mêle and their works (including Pif-Paf) feature in Georges Corvington’s annals of the history of Port-au-Prince, as an important expression of upper-class culture in post-occupation Haiti.[6] Lomax’s description provides an insight into their work, and highlights its complex influences and tendencies. Parts of the play are in Creole, perhaps inspired by growing indigeniste influence on Haitian theatre, and the hand of Pêle-Mêle member Martial Day, who would go on to pen some important indigeniste productions in the 1940s.[7] Lomax comments on the use of not only American standards, but also meringues, Cuban guitar and Vodou rhythms, highlighting the massive variety in Haitian music even at the level of “refined” culture.

Perhaps the notebook is more significant to the history of Alan Lomax. At 21 years of age, on only his third collecting trip without his father, the pioneering musicologist John Lomax, he had spent his first ten days in Haiti in the company of the elites of the capital. Soon he would abandon them entirely, for the hounfort (Voodou Temple) of Pont Beudet to record the popular and religious music of the hinterland. Later a famous leftist, folklorist, and critic of the Haitian class divide, this evening at the Rex may represent an important moment in the molding of “the man who would record the world.” [8]

Lomax did not record the show, it was not a work visit. But something about Lomax’s experience at the Rex that night compelled him to pull out his expense book, the only thing he had to write upon, and document in intricate detail each scene of a show he was not particularly enjoying. Did he go on his own whim, or was the play recommended by a friend? Did he go alone, with Polinice, or with an elite friend? At this stage my research is too early to say for certain. Perhaps no evidence will ever emerge that answers those questions. But there are always untapped archives to discover.

Read more about Alan Lomax on the American Folklife Center blog, “Folklife Today.”

Notes

[1] Ellen Harold, ed., “Haitian Diary: Papers and Correspondence from Alan Lomax’s Haitian Journey, 1936-1937,” (Library of Congress, 2009).

[2] Letter from Alan Lomax to Elizabeth Harold, (undated, late December 1936), Library of Congress American Folklife Center, 0086.12.02.50.

[3] Alan Lomax, “December 23rd, Rex Theatre”, scene 6.

[4] Ibid, scene 8.

[5] Jacques Roumain, “Masters of the Dew,” (Portsmouth NH, 1978), p. 29.

[6] Georges Corvington, “Port-au-Prince au Cours des Ans: Volume 7, La Ville Contemporaire,” (Port-au-Prince, 1991), pp. 290-292.

[7] Robert Corvenin, “Le Theatre Haïtien: des Origines à nos Jours,” (Ottawa, 1973), p. 149.

[8] John F. Swzed, “Alan Lomax: The Man who Recorded the World,” (New York, 2010).

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