Velia Ivanova is the current Jon B. Lovelace Fellow for the Study of the Alan Lomax Collection, found here at the Library of Congress. Velia is a Ph.D. candidate in Historical Musicology at Columbia University in New York. I interviewed Ivanova on her research project, her academic program at Columbia, and notable finds that she has discovered during her time at the Kluge Center.
Q: You are currently a PhD candidate at Columbia University. Could you describe your program and what you are studying there?
I am working on a degree in Historical Musicology at Columbia, and the research I’m doing during my Kluge fellowship is part of my dissertation, “The Musical Heritage of Incarceration: The Curation, Dissemination, and Management of the Lomax Collection Prison Songs.” My work examines the mediation of the public’s encounters with recordings of field hollers, work songs, and blues music collected by the folklorists John and Alan Lomax in prisons of the US South from the 1930s to the 1950s.
I started working on this dissertation in the fall of 2016. At that point, I had been in the program at Columbia for two years, during which, like other students, I worked on coursework and took qualifying exams. Through this, I was introduced to a wide array of subjects and, even more importantly, came into contact with professors and other students from the four subfields of music studies offered at Columbia at the doctoral level: ethnomusicology, music theory, composition, and historical musicology. I was becoming increasingly interested in the intersection of music and incarceration in the United States and, particularly in the ways questions of race, gender, class, and morality were enmeshed in these intersections. In the fall of 2016, I registered for a musicology seminar called “New Currents in American Studies,” which was taught by Professor Ellie Hisama, who is now my dissertation advisor. It is there that I first became acquainted more deeply with the Lomaxes and developed the broad idea of my current work.
In addition to researching and writing my dissertation, I have also had the opportunity to teach courses at Columbia. For several semesters, I taught “Music Humanities,” a course that surveys music in the West from the Middle Ages to the present and is required of most undergraduate students at the University. In addition, in Fall 2019, I was fortunate to be selected to teach a course titled “Curating Popular Music: From Song-Pluggers to Spotify,” which I designed and successfully proposed to the Columbia Music Department through the University’s Teaching Scholars program. This class focused on the role that music industry professionals—song pluggers, sheet music publishers, producers, talent scouts, record executives, and content curators—have played in shaping the markets of production, circulation, and consumption of popular music in the United States from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day. Being able to discuss questions about music—both ones related to my work and beyond—with undergraduate students has been no less enriching to my thinking than my research.
Q: This PhD program has led you to the Library of Congress, and to our Jon B. Lovelace Fellowship for the Study of the Alan Lomax Collection. Could you describe why the Library is the appropriate place for you to conduct your research?
My work focuses on the recordings of incarcerated people, which the folklorists John and Alan Lomax collected in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, and all four chapters of my current project are based on archival research. The Lomaxes, who produced an enormous quantity of documents, also have rich archives at the University of Texas, Austin and at the Association for Cultural Equity in New York City. The bulk of the material I am considering for my dissertation, however, is housed in the over one hundred Lomax family-related collections at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
As I was working on my dissertation, it became increasingly clear that, in order to complete my work with the degree of detail and subtlety that this topic necessitates, I would need to examine the original recordings made by the Lomaxes, as well as correspondence with Library of Congress staff, commercial publishers, and other individuals involved in the management of these recordings. I had been to the American Folklife Center on a number of research trips, but a more involved and prolonged stay would be crucial to fully developing my work. It was this realization that led me to apply for the Jon B. Lovelace Fellowship for the Study of the Alan Lomax Collection.
In addition, because my work involves studying the way that archives are constituted and the way that they function, spending time at the Library of Congress is an invaluable asset. It allows me not only to examine archival documentation, but also to engage in discussions with current archivists about institutional understandings of the historical and present-day roles of the Lomax prison recordings.
By giving me access to the resources necessary for my research and putting me in contact with individuals whose day-to-day activities are linked to the materials I study, the Lovelace Fellowship allows me to acquire a full understanding of the effect that the Lomax prison recordings have had on the musical and cultural history of the United States.
Q: What, if any, notable finds have you made here so far in your time as a fellow here in the Library’s collections?
I have most recently been working with the materials collected and produced by Alan Lomax alone, for the most part after the death of his father, John. In the 1950s, he began devising a system called cantometrics, a comparative, taxonomical method for the classification of folk singing. Although Lomax’s use of this system has often been criticized, it has also been influential to a number of folklorists. In the present, it underpins the Global Jukebox, an interactive website that features digital versions of Lomax’s recordings of performers from all over the world, as well as ones contributed to him by other ethnographers for his research on cantometrics. The Global Jukebox appeared online only a few years ago, but Lomax had envisioned a version of it in the 1980s. Thus, the Alan Lomax collection contains pages upon pages of documentation, in which the process of devising the Jukebox can be seen. One of the chapters of my dissertation deals with the role of the Lomax prison recordings in the development and implementation of the Jukebox and, as such, it has been exciting and enriching to be able to peek into the backend of this database project in order to better understand it.
In addition to this, Kluge Intern Stacy Hernandez has been helping me go through the Lomaxes’ numerous field notes and correspondence items in order to gather as much information as possible about the singers they recorded. Because the Lomaxes made many separate trips during which they recorded in prisons, and because these trips were interspersed with recording sessions in non-carceral spaces, the information is scattered across their archives. Stacy has been able to find a number of mentions previously unknown to me, and I am looking forward to incorporating these into my work.
Q: What advice would you give to scholars who are interested in pursuing a fellowship here at the Kluge Center?
A Kluge fellowship is a wonderful way to spend time deepening your knowledge and understanding of the many documents held at the Library of Congress. If you’re working with Library archives, I would absolutely advise you to apply! Even given that I am doing most of my research remotely, the community which surrounds you at the Center—staff, other fellows, and interns—is a wonderful and enriching part of the experience. And there’s nobody who knows the materials at the Library better than the archivists, who are invaluable to any Kluge fellow’s work. I could not have gotten any of the work I have completed since the beginning of my fellowship without the help of Todd Harvey, the curator of the Alan Lomax Collection. I highly recommend this experience!