"The black communities were just too difficult to work in"
February 8, 2015 8:27 AM   Subscribe

“[M]uch of the music he recorded this way, including many blues and work songs, are powerful expressions of overlooked cultures. But his quest for a ‘pure’ black music untouched by white influences was problematic... This much is undeniable: right at the time the Civil Rights movement was trying to bring whites and blacks together in a common cause, Lomax drew a hard line between white music and black music that — with help from the record companies — helped keep us apart.” How Alan Lomax Segregated Music.
posted by koeselitz (55 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
The other negative effect of Lomax's insistence on recording only the "purest" black recordings, as untouched as possible by white influence is that it obscures the give and take that was going on between white and black culture throughout folk music even before rock n' roll.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:40 AM on February 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


Don't get me wrong: Lomax was a giant and recorded many of my favorite things ever. But the criticisms in this piece are very valid, and definitely worth rolling around with in your head for a while, no matter how much you love those field recordings.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:42 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


insistence on recording only the "purest" black recordings, as untouched as possible by white influence

Yeah, that's discussed in the article.
posted by neroli at 8:46 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


If a man gave him a Tin Pan Alley number or a church song, Lomax wasn't terribly interested.

This criticism falls a little flat. I spent a lot of time listening to his old recordings and reading through his folk books as a kid, and AFAIK, Lomax wasn't that interested in recording church songs and Tin Pan Alley music from white musicians, either.
posted by KGMoney at 8:46 AM on February 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Yeah, that's discussed in the article.

I know. The second half of that sentence was the point of what I was saying.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:47 AM on February 8, 2015


Although the story in the 4th paragraph about having guards "Coerce" prisoners at gunpoint definitely doesn't put him in such a great light.
posted by KGMoney at 8:48 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Black folk music might have had a longer shelf life with the African-American community if well-meaning people like Lomax hadn't worked so hard to cast it as the music of the outcast, disenfranchised, etc.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:53 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's a shame Lomax only recorded the most obscure music, as far from pop influence as he could find. I guess we'll never know what tin pan alley, church music, and minstrel shows sounded like.
posted by idiopath at 8:55 AM on February 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


This was in part because the folks doing the collecting had preconceived notions of what was interesting and important. Another example is Ralph Rinzler, who "discovered" the great Doc Watson. Doc was playing electric guitar, and really tried hard not to play acoustic; he was an electric guitarist in his own mind. At first Ralph thought Doc was just a rockabilly band member, not worthy of recording, and getting in the way of his search for authenticity. It took a ride in the back of a pickup truck and a banjo to change Ralph's mind. Story here, or search for "Doc Watson Ralph Rinzler pickup truck"
posted by blob at 8:55 AM on February 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


I guess we'll never know what tin pan alley, church music, and minstrel shows sounded like.

As interpreted by regular folks at home or among a few friends, no, mostly we won't.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:00 AM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I spent a lot of time listening to his old recordings and reading through his folk books as a kid, and AFAIK, Lomax wasn't that interested in recording church songs and Tin Pan Alley music from white musicians, either.
Yeah, that's true, but I don't think that absolves Lomax. I think it just points to the ways in which this is related to bigger problems in the field of folklore, at least as it was practiced during Lomax's heyday. Folklorists believed that there was such a thing as authentic culture, and they got to decide what was authentic. Authentic culture was not commercial. It was not self-conscious: it was not produced by people who were educated about the history and practice of the kind of art they were producing or who thought very much about what they were doing. Rural culture was more authentic than urban culture. The culture of poor people was more authentic than the culture of middle-class or above people. Cultural exchange was inauthentic and tended to sully pure cultural expressions. A lot of these ideas didn't have much to do with how people actually expressed themselves or what they actually valued culturally, and sometimes it reinforces negative stereotypes. It also dismisses a lot of amazing music as inauthentic and corrupt, rather than valuing that music on its own terms.

Obviously, Lomax is a really, really important figure in American musical history, and his work is really valuable and important. But I don't think that means that you can't question his fundamental assumptions or interrogate his legacy.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:01 AM on February 8, 2015 [15 favorites]


Also, agreed that the whole "authenticity" thing is underexamined and often quite silly. But the primary role of an ethnomusicologist is to preserve, and to make my above point without sarcasm, the most popular things, and the things loved by the middle and upper classes, are going to be preserved. You don't need ethnomusicology for that to happen. It is disenfranchisement, counterculture, poverty, and isolation that produce the weird musical expression not appreciated by their own supposed culture, and which will be lost forever if no-one makes an effort to record it.
posted by idiopath at 9:01 AM on February 8, 2015 [11 favorites]


There is something about the original article that strikes as a bit of "yes, but" or "gotcha" or saying--well he failed in some area(s) as I am going to use a slightly different definition/nomenclature because this is what he should have done. Also, I think the use of the word 'segregated" in the title is one step towards being eye catching but not terribly instructive.
posted by rmhsinc at 9:11 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


idiopath: “It's a shame Lomax only recorded the most obscure music, as far from pop influence as he could find. I guess we'll never know what tin pan alley, church music, and minstrel shows sounded like.”

But we don't know what church music, as played in black churches from 1900 to 1950, actually sounded like – not in any great detail. And you can add to that list (as the article mentions) black colleges, and other important parts of the black community of the time. The "popular" things weren't preserved, because black communities simply didn't have the mechanisms for preservation; those mechanisms were denied them. That's what white supremacy meant.
posted by koeselitz at 9:27 AM on February 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


But the primary role of an ethnomusicologist is to preserve, and to make my above point without sarcasm, the most popular things, and the things loved by the middle and upper classes, are going to be preserved. You don't need ethnomusicology for that to happen. It is disenfranchisement, counterculture, poverty, and isolation that produce the weird musical expression not appreciated by their own supposed culture, and which will be lost forever if no-one makes an effort to record it.

Seems to me that the trouble comes from treating this as a clear binary distinction, though. There's a lot of stuff that falls through the middle — stuff that wasn't mainstream enough for the record companies or "pure" enough for ethnomusicologists like Lomax. And since the record companies put more effort into catering to white consumers than to black ones,* it wouldn't be too surprising if there was more black music that fell through the middle like that.

*I mean, they put a pretty substantial effort into catering to black consumers too. But there was still a difference in degree.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:34 AM on February 8, 2015


koeselitz--If one searches "black church music early twentieth century original" there is a fair amount to be found. The Library of congress has a nice article and references to the recordings and recorders. I am quite sure this music did not the breadth and depth of recordings asother music but it was not ignored by either the black or white community.
posted by rmhsinc at 9:47 AM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I never respected Alan Lomax because I thought he pretended to capture *every* aspect of American Song. I respect him because he did the damn work, and captured what he could. His work is a sample, and we are better off having them. I don;t know enough about his contemporaries or if there even were any!
posted by brainimplant at 9:48 AM on February 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


The other problem with Lomax, not mentioned in the article but perhaps more pernicious, is how he took ownership of what was a folk music as he was codifying it.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:54 AM on February 8, 2015


One mistake that Lomax likely made was to use a very simplified model of influence. And this is encoded in ethnomusicology itself (a field in which he was definitely a transformative figure).

In its origins ethnomusicology was about transcribing to sheet music the music of "native cultures". It was never applied to the White, European wold. For of course what Europeans did was simply "music", and they had a "universal" and "general" science of music and music composition to describe that, so an ethnomusicological approach to their music would be absurd and unneeded, to their colonial mindset.

There was some transition as cultural perspectives became more nuanced, but the field carried with it echos of that approach, that ethnomusicology was about discovering and transcribing (later recording) the music of the "other". This of course led to a desire to find the "unobscured" or "virginal" culture of the other, before the taint of colonial culture. And there is some logic to this. You can probably learn quite a bit more about the older music of the Pygmies from a recording made by an isolated tribe that was not yet exposed to church music (via missionaries) and popular music (via radio) and inevitably influenced by these.

But of course if we aren't trying to recreate an unknowable past, and instead want to record what is being done today, we can't simply dismiss material at the sign of outside influence. Like it or not world music is American music now. And to an infinitessimal degree, visa versa.
posted by idiopath at 9:55 AM on February 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


With commercial music, there are also really interesting questions about reception: did different audiences use this stuff in different ways? Did people play sheet music the way it was written, or did they change it to fit in with the way they were already playing music? Did people incorporate stuff from records and the radio into the music they played together socially, and if so, how?
It is disenfranchisement, counterculture, poverty, and isolation that produce the weird musical expression not appreciated by their own supposed culture, and which will be lost forever if no-one makes an effort to record it.
Ok, but there are a lot of ways to be isolated and countercultural. For instance, folklorists believed in cultural purity and that cultural mixing was a form of pollution. People with power agreed with them, and black and white musicians who played together in the segregated south were flouting social convention and often breaking the law. So when folklorists ignored musical traditions that brought together black and white musicians, they were reinforcing, not combating, the marginalization of countercultures in which black and white musicians played music together.
His work is a sample
Ok, but I think the point is that his work is a sample that reflects his beliefs and preconceptions, and because his work was immensely influential, it spread some of those beliefs and preconceptions. So, for instance, his work is part of the reason that for a long time I was always a little surprised when I found out that my black friends' parents and grandparents listened to country music. That makes sense if you realize that musical cultures in the early 20th century south were not rigidly segregated, but what we know about rural southern non-commercial music comes largely from people like Lomax, and they weren't very interested in musical cultures that weren't rigidly segregated.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:56 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


"when folklorists ignored musical traditions that brought together black and white musicians, they were reinforcing, not combating, the marginalization of countercultures in which black and white musicians played music together"

Agreed 100%.

I wasn't trying to make these people sound virtuous, and many amounted to musical stamp collectors, uninterested in the welfare of the people they studied. I just want to make sure the conversation reflects the motivations and worldview of the people doing the collecting, and help shed some light on how these criteria are formed.
posted by idiopath at 10:03 AM on February 8, 2015


i think it's important to remember that he didn't just record black music, but many kinds, all over the world - including white, european folk culture - the idea that ethnomusicology ignored european music simply isn't true, although one can always debate whether it was looked at enough
posted by pyramid termite at 10:04 AM on February 8, 2015


pyramid termite:

We need timelines on this. Early ethnomusicology did ignore European culture, but as we come to the turn of the 20th century there was a shift from the enlightenment style rational universalism to romanticist nationalism, where the discovery of local folk musics was an essential component to constructing national identities.
posted by idiopath at 10:11 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's fair to say he was searching for anything "pure".

I think it was all about the exploration of vernacular music. Black or white, he was looking for sounds that hadn't been drowned out by mainstream fashions. This required going to marginalized communities. Recording equipment was brand new shit at the time. I think it's hard for us to imagine what it must have been like, growing up before the existence of recorded music as a consumer item. I'm sure he wasn't a perfect human being but I'm glad he captured this stuff.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:11 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


This much is undeniable: right at the time the Civil Rights movement was trying to bring whites and blacks together in a common cause, Lomax drew a hard line between white music and black music that — with help from the record companies — helped keep us apart.

In the very next paragraph, the article has two black people saying "Eh, Lomax was ok." What the shit, is that supposed to make it ok? Why even write the goddamn article then, if it's just one man's opinion of what black music is? Or are we sticking the breathless image of Lomax keeping black and white musicians and music apart as they tried desperately to come together in harmony?

Lomax isn't the problem here, it's the whole goddamn society that ignored black people, unless they drank from the same water fountain or didn't smile submissively when forced to seat at the back of the bus.

Christ, what a busybody shit stain of an article, composed of chattering small talk complaining about racism even as it perpetuates the article. White and black people did not live and work together, they lived and worked on the same farm or plantation, sure. But using the word "together"is such a striking misuse of the term, you have to wonder what the fuck the producers of this piece were thinking.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:30 AM on February 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


One result of Lomax claiming copyright on folk songs sung by uncompensated black prisoners is that Lomax's estate got to claim co-authorship of Jay-Z's Takeover. The criticisms of Lomax are based in real things he did, not just the projection of presentist historical bias into the Jim Crow past.
posted by jonp72 at 10:39 AM on February 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


By the way, if you want an archivist from the same time period who was not guilty of "segregating" sound, there's Harry Everett Smith. His Anthology of American Folk Music didn't even identify the artists by race, let alone impose any attempt to segregate them. Smith shows the commonalities between rural black and white artists, instead of trying to drum up some racially pure "white" or "black" authentic musical experience.
posted by jonp72 at 10:42 AM on February 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


i think it's important to remember that he didn't just record black music, but many kinds, all over the world - including white, european folk culture
Right, but a lot of that stuff suffers from some of the same problems: obsession with authenticity; insistence on cultural purity even when cultural mixing is part of people's lived experience; rigid distinctions between commercial and folk culture that don't reflect the way people actually experience or play music. This is a problem with the mid-20th century field of folklore, rather than with Lomax personally, I think. I mean, I come at this from an interest in Irish traditional music, which is a pretty different context but has some of the same issues.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:44 AM on February 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


In the very next paragraph, the article has two black people saying "Eh, Lomax was ok." What the shit, is that supposed to make it ok? Why even write the goddamn article then, if it's just one man's opinion of what black music is? Or are we sticking the breathless image of Lomax keeping black and white musicians and music apart as they tried desperately to come together in harmony?

Yeah. Agree with you there.

What I took away from what Dom Flemons was saying in the article is that these are really the only recordings from that period of certain things (derail: if you haven't checked out the Carolina Chocolate Drops, do yourself and favour and do so).

So as tainted and problematic as the gathering process was, there was some documentation of some music. Who and what that represents is really the issue.

Lomax recorded some stuff, and did it in a way that was in no way divorced from the white supremacy of the day. I think the headline is a little click-baity, quite frankly. There was was waaaay more at work during the period of Lomax's recordings that was keeping black and white musicians apart than Alan Lomax - his wasn't the foot on the back of Deford Bailey's neck, for example.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:57 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is a problem with the mid-20th century field of folklore, rather than with Lomax personally, I think. I mean, I come at this from an interest in Irish traditional music, which is a pretty different context but has some of the same issues.

Ron Thomason of Dry Branch Fire Squad does a riff on this in the context of bluegrass music in this bit. Sorry it's not the whole thing, but the thrust of what he's saying in this bit is that folk festivals send out "cultural liaison officers" to find the most backwards "australopithecine" examples of white hillbillies to represent the "pure" essence of bluegrass music.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:09 AM on February 8, 2015


I just finished reading Wiki's entry on Lomax--it seems to me some of the posts underestimate his contributions, his work in representing world music and his efforts to transcend traditional cultural boundaries. It seems to me a bit more generosity about his work, rather than skeptical and judgmental critiques from a contemporary metafilter view, is warranted. But I am biased because I have always had a great deal of admiration, from a layman's perspective, for his work.
posted by rmhsinc at 11:10 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I respect him because he did the damn work, and captured what he could.

Some claim Lomax (or at least John Lomax, the elder) actually forced Leadbelly to perform in prison clothes and stymied his career and development by insisting he kept doing the chain gang-style material that fitted with their emerging fetishisation of 'authenticity'.

Attitudes to 'authenticity' have never really moved on much further in pop music. The Iggy Azalea discussion beckons.
posted by colie at 11:16 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


If a man gave him a Tin Pan Alley number or a church song, Lomax wasn't terribly interested.

Well, imagine for a moment that you were a Lomax type character in the early to mid 1980s trawling the American North West in search of local music. Who are you going to record? The Zeppelin Tribute Band, the Wedding Singer Band, or this grungy kid called Cobain?
posted by IndigoJones at 1:46 PM on February 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


definitely worth rolling around with in your head for a while

Definitely agree with DirtyOldTown.
posted by uosuaq at 1:59 PM on February 8, 2015


I'm not sure which aspect of that comment I find goofier: the idea that Tin Pan Alley and church music were equivalent to Zeppelin tribute bands or the idea that Alan Lomax, who for what it's worth was alive and still working in the mid-'80s, would have had any interest at all in the music that Kurt Cobain made.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:59 PM on February 8, 2015


i would record the zepplin tribute band, the cobain band, the wedding band, the praise band, the acappella group, congregaitonal singing, the busker, and the azberjani down the street. i want a full store.
posted by PinkMoose at 4:32 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure....

You miss my point through being too literal. Lomax was going for music that was not already recorded, as Tin Pan Alley numbers obviously were. For the thought experiment, his age in the 1980s, much less his personal taste, is utterly irrelevant. I'm suggesting that of the three bands on offer, only the one (non-mythical) example could be accused of doing something no one else was. Thus - the logical target for the mike.

i want a full store.

You presume unlimited storage. Wasn't like that in the pre-digital age.

Kids today!
posted by IndigoJones at 4:54 PM on February 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


The only criticism here that rang true for me was having prisoners coerced into having their music recorded...to the extent that this happened as described, it's quite disturbing. Otherwise, I can't see Lomax as any more guilty of not recording other forms of music than anyone else alive at the same time. I don't think he had a responsibility to record anything, so it's all gravy. Was Lomax claiming to represent the full spectrum of black American music? If so, I can see some room to criticize his selections, but even then, it's a bit of a gift horse situation.
posted by Edgewise at 5:22 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


The heart of the criticism isn't that he failed to record the entire breadth of black music. It's that, based on his own tastes and ideas, he went out in search of a comparatively narrow slice of that spectrum and loudly declared this segment to be the "true" and "authentic" black music.

This made for a distorted view of the larger African-American community. Working and middle-class African-Americans could justifiably look askance at him for claiming that chain gangs and share croppers were the heart of the black experience.

He also ignored (if not deliberately and consciously obscured) the fruitful and historically significant cross-pollination into and from black music from the broader scope of American music at the time. The latter attitude is probably partly to blame for the curious fiction that American blues music is something that sprouted from the Delta unbidden, like the monolith in 2001, only to be churlishly stolen by scheming white folk as rock n' roll.

The more complicated story of American folk music gets kind of left by the wayside in that telling.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 5:58 PM on February 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


I don't think I exactly missed your point, Indigo Jones. I think your point is based on a misunderstanding of Lomax's project. He wasn't interested in recording music that hadn't been recorded. He was interested in recording music that was authentic and pure. If you look at what he was actually recording in the 1980s, it was stuff like this and this. Lomax was a huge proponent of using new technology to record and disseminate folk music, but he wasn't someone who believed that folk music could change or adapt to new circumstances and still remain authentic. By the 1980s there definitely were folklorists who were interested in things like hip-hop culture, which grew out of an urban black experience and was heavily influenced by Jamaican and other Caribbean music, but I don't think Lomax was one of them. He wanted men in overalls and ladies in bonnets, performing the pure, ancient songs and dances of their ancestors.
Was Lomax claiming to represent the full spectrum of black American music?
He was claiming to represent black culture at its purest and most authentic. Black culture at its purest and most authentic could be found among inmates in prisons, he thought. So yeah, that's a little fucked up.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:03 PM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


He was claiming to represent black culture at its purest and most authentic. Black culture at its purest and most authentic could be found among inmates in prisons, he thought. So yeah, that's a little fucked up.

Well put.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:10 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


When did lomas do his work? When did bands play with mixed blacks and whites? We know what Jim crow is..but what of ...Google..crow Jim?
posted by Postroad at 6:29 PM on February 8, 2015


He was claiming to represent black culture at its purest and most authentic. Black culture at its purest and most authentic could be found among inmates in prisons, he thought. So yeah, that's a little fucked up.

Was that his claim, that the most authentic black culture could be found among prisoners? As with my earlier comment, I'm not asking rhetorically; my familiarity with Alan Lomax is very limited. Though the article was critical of Lomax, I didn't think that it was making quite that strong a claim. But as I said, my knowledge is limited, so I'm truly asking.
posted by Edgewise at 12:09 AM on February 9, 2015


Some claim Lomax (or at least John Lomax, the elder) actually forced Leadbelly to perform in prison clothes and stymied his career and development by insisting he kept doing the chain gang-style material that fitted with their emerging fetishisation of 'authenticity'.

John Lomax did have this particular vision of how to present Leadbelly and was very controlling as his manager - this lead to a falling out and Leadbelly successfully sued Lomax for back pay and to break his contract. Leadbelly then developed his career just fine on his own - though he continued to find the most success playing to the white folk music crowd - until he stabbed a guy in a fight and went back to prison. Alan Lomax bailed him out and gave him airplay but I believe their relationship was on more even terms.
posted by atoxyl at 12:14 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Was that his claim, that the most authentic black culture could be found among prisoners? As with my earlier comment, I'm not asking rhetorically; my familiarity with Alan Lomax is very limited.
I actually think that's a slightly complicated question. He had a staggeringly long career: he started collecting songs with his father when he was a teenager in the '30s, and he was still active in folk music circles when I started listening to traditional music in the '90s. (I don't think he was still collecting at that time: he had a plan for something called the Global Jukebox, which would be an internet repository of field recordings from all over the world, so those recordings would be available to everyone. We were all using super-slow dial-up connections at the time, and the technology wasn't really there yet, but in retrospect it was a really forward-thinking idea, especially coming from a guy in his 80s.) In the early days, he and his father explicitly said that they collected in prisons because that was where the most authentic black culture existed. John Lomax clearly believed that, and my understanding is that Alan Lomax was sort of loathe to criticize or contradict his father publicly, even though they had really different attitudes about race and even though Alan Lomax was professionally active for fifty years after his father died. I've heard interviews with Alan Lomax from pretty late in his life where he said that they collected in prisons because they believed that was where they could find black culture at its most authentic, and he didn't say anything to indicate that he now realized that was kind of offensive and silly. But I think that a lot of the evidence that makes Alan Lomax look bad comes from kind of conflating him with his father, which is a pretty bad way of looking at things even if he didn't ever say that his father was wrong.

I shouldn't put myself out there as an expert on Lomax at all, though. I'm sort of interested in this stuff, as I said because I was really in to Irish traditional music for a while and because Lomax was around when I got interested in questions of authenticity in folk music, but I don't know all that much about him.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:18 AM on February 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


> We need timelines on this. Early ethnomusicology did ignore European culture, but as we come to the turn of the 20th century there was a shift from the enlightenment style rational universalism to romanticist nationalism, where the discovery of local folk musics was an essential component to constructing national identities.

Your timeline is wrong, unless you're talking solely about ethnomusicology; the shift from enlightenment-style rational universalism to romanticist nationalism, where the discovery of local folk musics (and poetry, and dialects, and dances, and "national" costumes, etc.) was an essential component to constructing national identities happened a century earlier, at the turn of the 19th century. Maybe it took ethnomusicologists a century to catch up.
posted by languagehat at 7:40 AM on February 9, 2015


languagehat: yes, I should have been more precise in what I was saying.

First off there was musicology in the 1880s, followed swiftly by a rename to comparative musicology. Comparative musicology was a music-theory oriented approach to foreign music that lasted until the 1950s, and partially due to its focus on acoustics and music theory and the relative absence of an anthropological or sociological approach, was well behind the general trends in those sciences (thus enlightenment perspectives, unquestioned colonial prejudices in its premises, etc. well into the mid 20th century). This wasn't a homogeneous practice, and folklorists like the Lomaxes were influential in the transition to a more socially and culturally aware ethnomusicology (which to me updated them from the 17th C. to the 19th in terms of general attitudes). Quite quickly, this renamed field of ethnomusicology did get to a more current postcolonial approach.

So I appologize, there was a massive amount of handwaving and overgeneralizing in my prior statements, and I hope this clears things up a little more.
posted by idiopath at 10:26 AM on February 9, 2015


It does, and thanks!
posted by languagehat at 11:23 AM on February 9, 2015


I think this is a fascinating piece. I recognize the problematics of Lomax' work, but, like Dwandalyn Reece, I'm "sympathetic to what Lomax was trying to achieve."

I agree with many of the excellent comments here, particularly that some of the criticism is really a larger criticism, that of the construction of "the folk" as a category and the presumption that popular commercial music could be sharply defined away from vernacular music. Also that conflating John Lomax and Alan Lomax is very easy to do and sometimes justifiable, but that it's also fair to consider them and their personal motivations separately.

Also, the Global Jukebox actually happened, though not quite as Alan Lomax envisioned, and that is partially due to complexities of the estate. What he really envisioned is closer to what Smithsonian Global Sound [now rolled into the parent project, Smithsonian Folkways] became, with conscious attention to his ideas and with a great deal of material from his archive. I was able to go to an incredible conference touching on much of this at the Library of Congress when the Alan Lomax collection came to the American Folklife Center.

In the early days, he and his father explicitly said that they collected in prisons because that was where the most authentic black culture existed.

I think there's some nuance to that - he didn't say it was where the most authentic culture existed because prisons fostered an authentic black culture, or that prisons are the truest expression of black culture, but because those people who were sequestered in prisons were (as a result of incarceration) away from the influence of radio and commercial music, so they represented a "purer" form of vernacularity less (in the Lomaxes' imagination) contaminated by popular influence. In other words, it was not that prisoners were the best representatives of black culture, but that prisons served as refugia for cultural elements already disappearing from the broader community life. I think it's important to make a distinction between "prison culture," as such, and culture that people brought with them into prison, which is surviving and being expressed in prison even after outside society has moved on. I expect the Lomaxes were thinking about it in that sense. Even so, considering the way in which the work-release system privileged work songs and generated a context for the development of new work songs and lyrical material that had nothing to do with other contexts is pretty interesting. Had prison labor not been structured as it was, the musical material gathered would probably have been pretty different. The prison setting may have preserved some elements of music from elsewhere in the culture, but also provided a growing medium for new elements which were not reflective of the general black experience.

an essential component to constructing national identities happened a century earlier, at the turn of the 19th century. Maybe it took ethnomusicologists a century to catch up.

Both are somewhat true, but the timeline is not "wrong." You are probably thinking of phenomena like Washington Irving, Clement Clark Moore and James Fenimore Cooper (and their European analogues, who I know less about - the Grimm Brothers, maybe) using legend and other cultural material to construct national popular identity at a time when feudal systems of social organization were winding down. And that was indeed a phenomenon of the early-to-mid 19th century. But at the same time, it is entirely true that another wave of cultural construction using folk/vernacular material passed through during the late nineteenth century. It was in the 1880s and 1890s that he fields of anthropology and folklore were established and professionalized, most of them conscious of the social changes accompanying industrialization (soon to become modernity) structured around the project of "saving" or reviving traditions now positioned as culturally essential, and under threat [American Folklore Society founded 1888, American Anthropological Association founded 1888.] John Lomax himself founded one of the first folklore societies; he was trained at Harvard, where folklore had emerged as a subspecialty of literature in English under Francis Child (of the Child Ballads). Lomax was part of a generation whose radical idea was to study music not as lyrical text alone (as Child had) but as practiced in the culture. Thus the emphasis on travel to do song collection, which actually preceded the development of reliable recording devices. Joanna Colcord, for instance, and Cecil Sharp collected and recorded folk songs by writing them down in text form with musical notation. Even when John Lomax and others began using audio recording devices, their earliest expectation was not to create popular recordings from them, but to use them as reference and study aids for the publication in print of the song texts and music. One of Alan Lomax' lifelong preoccupations was the development of a system he called Cantometrics, which was intended to create a means of recording musical expressions thatescape attention in Western systems of musical notation - he was concerned until the end of his life about the print transmission of musical aesthetics.

In a more popular way, the social and fraternal organizations associated with the waves of Eastern and Southern European immigration peaking between 1880-1920 also promoted expressions of ethnic culture, which asserted national identity in highly visible ways that were of tremendous influence in defining popular understandings of national cultures in America. Some scholars can and do follow the thread of the construction of national identity through both of these major periods, but it is not wrong to say this was happening in an extremely self-conscious manner and with a great deal of scholarly intention at the turn of the twentieth century, as well. I know less about the history of ethnomusicology and appreciated the note above about how recently the field was redefined and refocused.
posted by Miko at 11:37 AM on February 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


idiopath: It's a shame Lomax only recorded the most obscure music, as far from pop influence as he could find. I guess we'll never know what tin pan alley, church music, and minstrel shows sounded like.
It's going on right now, and Lomax is dead, so you can't blame him for not recording the current stuff. Guess you're to blame!

Or... Lomax could only preserve so damn much; blaming him for not preserving more is bullshit.

Blaming him for working most of his life to create a racial distinction that, in reality, wasn't nearly that clean-cut may be a meaningful discussion to have.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:45 AM on February 9, 2015


IamBroom: I thought my sarcasm would be more evident. All of those musics are in fact very well preserved.
posted by idiopath at 11:49 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sorry, I'm sarcasm-impaired.

Won't you please give? February is SI-Syndrome Awareness Month.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:51 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Lomax drew a hard line between white music and black music that — with help from the record companies — helped keep us apart.

The recording industry has been doing this since the dawn of recorded music, when they took the music of poor rural southerners, segregated it by race, and marketed one half as “hillbilly” records and the other as “race” records. At the start, there was little difference between the musics of black and white poor folks, but once they were defined into distinct genres, the two drifted apart.
posted by acb at 1:15 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


> You are probably thinking of phenomena like Washington Irving, Clement Clark Moore and James Fenimore Cooper

No, I'm thinking of the history of romantic nationalism, which is, as I said, over two centuries old. Here's a good summary if you want an introduction/refresher. Of course "another wave of cultural construction using folk/vernacular material" came along later; in fact, there have been a whole series of such attempts to construct some kind of authenticity (all unavoidably fake). But they all derive from the original (and, in my view, largely disastrous in its effects) romantic creation of nationalism as invented tradition.
posted by languagehat at 1:19 PM on February 9, 2015


I do understand that, because indeed the expressions of that phenomenon in America were the authors I cited, the American literary vanguard of the movement you are thinking of. But of course it did continue, though the shift didn't find expression as the academic study of anthropology, folklore and folk culture in music, story, costume, etc. until the late nineteenth century.

Point is certainly granted that an intellectual shift to romanticism came earlier, but the phenomena the Lomaxes were taking part in were very much of the late nineteenth century zeitgeist and the discipline formation going on then. Also, at the popular level, it was an incredibly active and inclusive period in the crafting of regional and national identities (as the entry you link says, "After the 1870s "national romanticism", as it is more usually called, became a familiar movement in the arts...." ).
posted by Miko at 1:36 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


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