Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Global Jukebox

You may not know the name of Alan Lomax, but you have heard echoes of his work all your life. And now one of his greatest dreams is coming true – too late for him to see it himself, but for all the world to enjoy.

In the mid-1930s, Alan Lomax joined his father, John Lomax, in what was to become his lifelong quest to record, film, photograph, and catalog the folk music of the world, and especially of the United States. In 1937 he landed a gig at the the Library of Congress as the Archivist of Folk Songs. From this position he was able to travel and collect field recordings and interviews with American folk artists whose work might have been forgotten but for his efforts – people like Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters and countless others.

The folk and blues revival in the United States in 1950s and 1960s, and the parallel emergence of the 'skiffle' musical style in England drew heavily on the material collected by Lomax, and led pretty directly to the rock revolution in both countries. Alan Lomax, the father of rock 'n' roll!

Here's one of my favorite music stories of all time: On October 25, 1937, Lomax recorded a Kentucky fiddler named William H. Stepp playing a tune called "Bonaparte's Retreat". In 1939, Ruth Crawford Seeger (stepmother of Pete Seeger) transcribed the tune faithfully for a folk music publication, which came out in 1942, just as Aaron Copland was casting about for American folk melodies to include in the ballet "Rodeo". Copland lifted "Bonaparte's Retreat" nearly note-for-note to become the "Hoedown" theme in "Rodeo" (and that 'Beef – it's what's for dinner' ad you've heard a thousand times).

By some accounts, the Lomax collection amounts to over 5,000 hours of audio recordings in various formats, at least 400,000 feet of film, thousands of videotapes and photographs, and countless volumes of written material.

Lomax died in 2002. He dreamed (long before the internet) of creating something he called "the Global Jukebox" to make his collection available to everyone. His dream is finally coming true. The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) is custodian of the Alan Lomax Archive, and has as its mission the publication, dissemination, and repatriation of the material in the collection. They have also fought for royalties due the original artists or their families.

Check out some of the incredible Alan Lomax Archives at the ACE website:

While we are in a folkie mood, June sends us a link to a great new streaming website called Folk Alley that shows us how the seeds planted by Alan Lomax have grown, cross-pollinated, and borne new fruit in generation after generation:

Please let your bootheels wander over to the Musical Shares Blog:, and leave comments if you like (of if you don't), and share your own favorite musical stories, web links, etc.