There’s a fundamental contradiction to the life and work of Alan Lomax, the prolific collector of American folk songs. He encouraged Western audiences to appreciate rural and indigenous traditions as true art, on the same level as classical music. Meanwhile, he wanted to help those marginalized societies maintain distinct cultural identities, empowering them against the encroaching influence of mass media.
So how does that work? How can we bring these traditions into a cosmopolitan world without compromising them? When a culture comes under the anthropologist’s gaze, can it still write its own history?
In 1983 Lomax established the Association for Cultural Equity, known as ACE, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing that tension, largely by making sure the communities he had recorded reaped some reward. This spring, the organization unveiled the Global Jukebox, a free, interactive web portal with recordings of more than 6,000 folk songs from around the world that Lomax recorded or acquired.
Most have never been publicly available.
Most have never been publicly available.
It’s still imperfect, but the jukebox is a huge achievement. It will ensure that his work lives on in a single, broadly accessible collection, under the stewardship of an organization whose mission he helped define. Yet there are some questions it still must answer. What is it doing to further the creative life of the communities that created this music? As Lomax put it in a dispatch from 1976, how can the jukebox “make culture again grow on the periphery — where culture has always grown”? And does the Global Jukebox resist the false notion that homegrown expression in nonurban areas is a thing of the past — or does it feed into it?
On the Global Jukebox website, the recordings are plotted on a world map. Using a system called cantometrics, devised by Lomax and the ethnomusicologist Victor Grauer, each song has been analyzed according to 41 variables, such as vocal inflection and ensemble size. Users can sort songs from around the world and sift for commonalities, finding clues to migration patterns, or the ways that societies with similar structures share modes of expression.
Lomax first envisioned creating something like this in the 1980s and worked for years to make it a reality, often adopting new methods and machinery as technologies advanced.
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“The idea was that young people of the world were losing interest in their own traditions, and that had a lot to do with TV and the radio,” Dr. Grauer said. “It was an overwhelming project. All the recordings in his archive needed to be digitized.”
Lomax died in 2001, before the project could be completed, and his daughter, the anthropologist Anna Lomax Wood, has seen it through since then.
The Global Jukebox, in its current form, is not quite ready for prime time. It’s virtually unusable on a mobile device. The tools that offer guided tours and invite user interaction are difficult to find. It doesn’t readily show up on search engines.
Still, it amounts to an unprecedented compendium of worldwide musical heritage — in terms of its scope and its accessibility. And it invites further inquiry. Within five minutes, you’re likely to find yourself Googling the name of a region you didn’t know, or diving into the deep cuts of an album of old songs on Spotify.
Part of what’s missing is contextualizing content. There are brief, boilerplate descriptions of most societies, plus a few essays and lesson plans written by anthropologists and ethnomusicologists. But beyond the songs themselves, we do not hear from the cultures that created the music.
“Music has a life. It’s telling the lives of migration, and whatever else people are doing,” said Diana Taylor, a professor of performance studies at New York University and director of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. “There’s something very rich about putting that music in context — which means the people’s context.”
“I would love to know what they think their music is doing in their communities,” she said.
Lomax saw archives as tools to ward off cultural erasure. He meant to help populations maintain and expand on their traditions. At a time of high modernism, that meant capturing traditions on tape and establishing their own standard repertories. But to uphold and honor any population in the present day, it’s crucial to avoid freezing it in place. (Even the Delta blues, which first inspired Lomax to make folk music his career, was an evolving form that had existed for only a few decades.)
With the Global Jukebox, ACE can actually foster a continuing conversation. The quintessential image of Lomax is one of a smiling man holding a microphone up to a singer. The image of today’s folkloric inquiry might be one of the artist recording herself while she repurposes the tools of past generations, using new instruments and technologies.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Lomax worked on various projects to ensure that rural communities would remain aware of their own traditions and the social contracts they reflected. He advocated for region-specific public TV programs as a way to make sure local communities “grow from their own roots,” as he once wrote. He pushed Unesco — and then Sony — to put recording equipment into the hands of artists in small communities across the world.
With ACE, Lomax said his main purpose was to “repatriate” the audio and video materials he had captured across the globe — placing them back within their places of origin and incorporating them into local education initiatives. He also hoped to help people in those areas continue documenting themselves.
The association has led about 100 such projects. “We try to document cultures that are threatened, and provide a platform for them to participate in scholarly and general intellectual discourse,” said Jorge Arévalo Mateus, ACE’s executive director. “The Global Jukebox is really the centerpiece; everything will now feed back into that.”
For now, that last statement remains an aspiration. But there are plenty of opportunities for it to become a reality. Last month the organization received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to digitize Lomax’s blues recordings from the Mississippi Delta, house them at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and create grade-school lesson plans using the recordings.
In Montemarano, Italy, the music enthusiast Luigi D’Agnese has worked with Dr. Wood, ACE’s president, to create a museum dedicated to Lomax’s recordings in the area. He wants to keep young people in touch with their local musical traditions. The organization recently supported a project documenting styles of traditional singing that have survived in refugee housing in South Sudan.
Other groups are doing similar work: In Peru, the vocalist Susana Baca helps run the Instituto Negro Continuo, which works to record and teach Afro-Peruvian music and dance traditions, making that repertoire available to young musicians so that it can take root it in their expressions.
“Young people want to experiment, they want to mix things and they play what they want,” Ms. Baca said. “But it’s also important to really drink up your own culture, to go to the source, to hear the old singers.”
What would a Global Jukebox look like if it made space for a record of these evolving musical engagements?
Rather than focusing on only cantometrics and scholarly overviews, it could include personal histories and writings that explore the modern-day resonance of traditional recordings — in the cultures that ride their wake. And there is plenty of new music and art being created that draws on these traditions.