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Fleeting fame with John Lomax

January 31, 2012

Bit of music excitement today when the BBC World Service contacted me to ask if I would comment on a link I put up on my Twitter feed @musicJJMG. I have done plenty of radio — even had a quasi-show of my own years ago — but never about music.

In the end they got someone else — an academic from Kings College, London — which was probably just as well. The subject was John Lomax, of whom I knew next to nothing. Huge amounts of the American  music and film he collected have been put online, which was what peaked my interest and my tweet.

Here is what The New York Times article said:

 His vast archive — some 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, 5,000 photographs and piles of manuscripts, much of it tucked away in forgotten or inaccessible corners — is being digitized so that the collection can be accessed online. About 17,000 music tracks will be available for free streaming by the end of February, and later some of that music may be for sale as CDs or digital downloads.

Wikipedia, of course, also has a lot on him, including on his fascinating Depression-era work as the Federal Writers’ Project’s first Folklore Editor, where he directed the gathering of ex-slave narratives.

The WPA project to interview former slaves assumed a form and a scope that bore Lomax’s imprint and reflected his experience and zeal as a collector of folklore. His sense of urgency inspired the efforts in several states. And his prestige and personal influence enlisted the support of many project officials, particularly in the deep South, who might otherwise have been unresponsive to requests for materials of this type. One might question the wisdom of selecting Lomax, a white Southerner to direct a project involving the collection of data from black former slaves. Yet whatever racial preconceptions Lomax may have held do not appear to have had an appreciable effect upon the Slave Narrative Collection. Lomax’s instructions to interviewers emphasized the necessity of obtaining a faithful account of the ex-slave’s version of his or her experience. “It should be remembered that the Federal Writers’ Project is not interested in taking sides on any question. The worker should not censor any materials collected regardless of its nature.” Lomax constantly reiterated his insistence that the interviews be recorded verbatim, with no holds barred. In his editorial capacity he closely adhered to this dictum.

This has all got me very excited, of course. Free streaming of 17,000 songs makes the end of Feburary suddenly busy.


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