Alan Lomax's Global Jukebox
January 30, 2012 9:16 PM   Subscribe

A decade after the death of renowned folklorist Alan Lomax, his vision of a "global jukebox" is being realized: 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. NYT article here.
posted by flapjax at midnite (39 comments total) 128 users marked this as a favorite
Best news ever. The music industry can go home now.
posted by mykescipark at 9:28 PM on January 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

flapjax I renchristen thee FAPjax. Because...

[wow] I crying?
posted by humannaire at 9:33 PM on January 30, 2012

I am so so happy. This is gonna be SO good. Thanks for the news, flapjax!
posted by not_on_display at 9:34 PM on January 30, 2012

Obligatory Lomax recording.
posted by clarknova at 9:34 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not comfortable with this. Are we sure none of his heirs want to invoke their copyright? It pains me to think of any of them missing out on the cash bonanza. Maybe when it's 70 years after his death, I could feel more comfortable.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:35 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Why isn't there a copyright problem with this?
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:36 PM on January 30, 2012

Joe in Aus, I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess: because he specified in his will (or previous to that) that his life's work would be in the public domain.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:44 PM on January 30, 2012

There's already an official YouTube channel sponsored by the Lomax-founded Association for Cultural Equity featuring more than a hundred videos from his collection. It's where I got several links for my O Brother music post, including this rousing take on Po' Lazarus (the film version of which was originally recorded off of a real-life chain gang by Lomax himself).
posted by Rhaomi at 9:44 PM on January 30, 2012 [8 favorites]

Yeah, I think I'd better get a few hard drives and grab everything I can from the site before the cease-and-desist letters start. I hope and pray that this stays up, but I won't count on it.
posted by koeselitz at 9:51 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

* Starts triangulating koeselitz's location. *
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 9:57 PM on January 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is very good news. There are so many people who have looked to his recordings not just to listen, but to learn to play. He was foremost an archivist, and while not knowing the man, I can't help but feel that this move fits perfectly with his vision of preserving, sharing, and teaching.
posted by l2p at 9:57 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't get the "copyright" comments. This is his wish being brought to life, partially by his daughter. Who are you thinking would take it down? It also mentions part of the mission is to pay back into the communities where the music was recorded. Seems like a great thing all around.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:01 PM on January 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

Also, the photo of the Mississippi prisoners being recorded singing work songs is amazing, if sad.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:03 PM on January 30, 2012

Thank you very much for the post.

Also, these recordings were made at the consent of the artists. I'm pretty certain Mississippi Fred McDowell would be pleased; same with Huddie Leddbetter. This is a treasure trove!! Besides, it is BECAUSE of Alan's recordings that many of the bigger names could later have their music on the market for themselves or their heirs.
posted by captainsohler at 10:59 PM on January 30, 2012

Mod note: We have waaaay more angry copyright threads than "ooh! great news about Alan Lomax" threads; it's not too late to preserve this one for future generations!
posted by taz (staff) at 11:12 PM on January 30, 2012 [13 favorites]

I understand that his rights may (or may not, whatever) have been placed in the public domain, but did he acquire those rights from the performers? If I record a performance, even with the permission of the performer, I don't automatically have the right to distribute the recording.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:22 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Recently Google has come calling, with an interest in setting up a site to preserve endangered languages, Ms. Wood said. Though the recordings Lomax collected himself through fieldwork is enormous, the archive also contains material that he obtained from other researchers around the world, including spoken samples of languages that are now vanishing.

It seems so in vogue at present to talk endlessly about how Google has gone to Don't Be Evil but the preceding, excerpted from the NYT article, shows the G gang doing something pretty sweet.
posted by dancestoblue at 11:38 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

yes...thanks flapjax
this should be damn good.
posted by quazichimp at 2:02 AM on January 31, 2012

He travelled round Scotland with one of my heroes, Hamish Henderson; shall look forward to hearing those recordings, which include some of the great traveller singers IIRC.
posted by Abiezer at 3:02 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

See there's this short article on Lomax's time in Scotland too.
posted by Abiezer at 3:07 AM on January 31, 2012

From the Scottish article; "Only last year the Lomax archive presented a sizeable royalty payment to a former chaingang prisoner whose singing appeared, 50 years after it was recorded, on the Grammy-nominated soundtrack of the film, O Brother Where Art Thou?"
posted by newdaddy at 3:50 AM on January 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

wonder what Shirley Collins feels about this. Lomax tried to write her out of his achievements as I recall.
posted by peterkins at 5:18 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by OmieWise at 5:23 AM on January 31, 2012

Who are you thinking would take it down?

Speaking for myself, I'm so conditioned to the iron fist rule of "rights holders" that I'm still occasionally surprised to find Santa Claus doing local TV ads. There will be a moment when I think "They'll never get away with that."
posted by Trurl at 5:44 AM on January 31, 2012

Probably the greatest sound archivist of the 20th century. We owe him for a huge chunk of our cultural legacy. The recording s stand up well too, since most of what we hear now is (apparently) digitized from the actual tapes, and not scratchy ol' 78s & 45s. I've been very pleasantly surprised by the sound quality of the Lomax recordings I've been able to acquire.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:57 AM on January 31, 2012

"Only last year the Lomax archive presented a sizeable royalty payment to a former chaingang prisoner whose singing appeared, 50 years after it was recorded, on the Grammy-nominated soundtrack of the film, O Brother Where Art Thou?"

I just had to read more about that:
As sales of the soundtrack climbed, the Lomax archives began searching for Carter to make sure that, as the lead singer of "Po' Lazarus," he received the royalties that were due him. After a months-long search of prison and public records looking for former Mississippi prison inmate 2464, they found Carter in Chicago, where his wife has been the longtime owner of a storefront church.

In February 2002, Lomax archives licensing director Don Fleming and Lomax's daughter, Anna Lomax Chairetakis, who manages her father's archives, went to Chicago and presented Carter with his first royalty check -- for $20,000 -- and a platinum CD bearing his name. They found Carter just in time for the Grammy Awards, and he took his first-ever plane ride to Los Angeles with his family for the ceremony.

"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" won album of the year, as well as a Grammy for best compilation soundtrack album, and Carter found himself thrust into the limelight. He told National Public Radio last year that "Po' Lazarus" wasn't his favorite work song when he was in prison, but said he was happy he had sung it. "I'm proud of it now because it gave me a piece of money I wouldn't have if I hadn't sung," he said. "It put a smile on my family's face. That's the big thing."

Carter received royalties not only as lead singer on the Lomax recording of the old work song. Because "Po' Lazarus" is now in the public domain, songwriter royalties go to the performer after the copyright expires. Elizabeth Scott, one of Carter's daughters, told the New York Times this week that her father had received at least $100,000 in royalties. Part of the money, his family said, purchased a church van and part went to a food bank at the church.
posted by mediareport at 6:03 AM on January 31, 2012 [20 favorites]

posted by Theta States at 6:06 AM on January 31, 2012

My dad is a huge fan of Lomax's work. This will make him very happy. This also probably means that he'll find some folk song to get obsessed with and find 50 different versions of it. Which I will have to listen to. Maybe I won't send him this link...
posted by KGMoney at 6:10 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is really great news; even the CD reissues Rounder did in the 90s of some of the World Library of Folk & Primitive Music series can be pricey. Not to mention the original albums.
posted by mediareport at 6:15 AM on January 31, 2012

And, hey, it's Lomax's birthday today!
posted by box at 6:23 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Signs that I might spend too much time here: I saw this news yesterday and thought "This would make a great post. I hope flapjax at midnite makes it!"

Lomax was - and continues to be, it seems - a cultural hero. His dedication to the preservation of this music, and recognition of the artists who created and performed it was boundless, and I'm so grateful for it.
posted by rtha at 6:25 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Totally sending this to my class at Uni...we were talking about Lomax just two weeks ago.
posted by LN at 6:43 AM on January 31, 2012

Those of you arguing about copyright: Copyright protects the writers, as I understand it. Lomax was mainly recording folk songs, most of which are a century or two old. So that's safe.

And, as Mediareport's comment states above, the Lomax archive seems to be going to great lengths to make sure the performers are taken care of as well.

So in the immortal words of Lloyd Dobbler: "You must chill!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:44 AM on January 31, 2012

This is a musical feast, and I look forward to enjoying the buffet.

Thanks for posting this. What a wonderful legacy.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:10 AM on January 31, 2012

Copyright protects the writers, as I understand it. Lomax was mainly recording folk songs, most of which are a century or two old. So that's safe.

No, the music and lyrics may or may not be protected by copyright, but in the US at least the recording itself is also separately protected. Which is why you can't go buy a CD of an orchestra playing a piece by Mozart and post it for free online. No old sound recordings like Lomax's will become public domain until 2067, regardless of whether or not the are recordings of public domain songs, unless the sound recordings themselves are explicitly transferred to public domain status by the rights holder.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:00 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

My mistake; thanks, burn.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:01 AM on January 31, 2012

I was just coming here to post this! So excited.
posted by Miko at 9:20 AM on January 31, 2012

Several years ago I went to a wonderful three-day conference at the Library of Congress on Alan Lomax. The occasion was his daughter's gift of the archive to the American Folklife Center, and at the conference they actually made the public announcement about this global jukebox being developed. They are celebrating today! That conference was just incredible, and it was ALL FREE, thank you very much tax dollars at work.

The topic of intellectual property came up, and believe you me, it is a complicated one for material like this.

The basic standard is this: there was no culture of securing releases and that sort of thing when the Lomax collections were made. He was out there gathering up as much as he could before it could go functionally extinct, and but for that there would be no such recordings. And it can be virtually impossible to locate anyone having any claim to the original recordings. So the LoC handles things case by case. You'll find on a lot of components of the collection a caveat like this one:
While the Library is not aware of any copyright in the materials in this collection, users should be aware of possible rights particularly in the underlying works in the sound recordings. As is often the case with materials collected in the course of ethnographic field research, it is frequently difficult or impossible to identify specific speakers or singers included in sound recordings. It is also often difficult or impossible to sufficiently identify specific songs sung by participants to perform a comprehensive assessment of the copyright status of underlying musical rights in lyrics or compositions. The Library of Congress has exhaustively researched this Collection to ascertain any possible legal rights embodied in the materials in the Collection. While we have been unable to identify any copyright in the recordings provided online here, we stress that the Collection is being made available in American Memory strictly for educational, noncommercial uses. The staff of the American Folklife Center is eager to learn more about these materials and would like to hear from individuals or institutions that have information about them or have additional information about their history. Contact them with any information at:Email:


Library of Congress
American Folklife Center
101 Independence Avenue, SE
Washington, D.C. 20540-4610

Note that of the total of approximately 700 sound recordings in this collection in the American Folklife Center, a small subset the sound recordings are not included in the American Memory because there is a strong possibility that there may be underlying rights in musical lyrics or compositions. See a list of the items in the American Folklife Center's holdings but not provided here online. Researchers with an interest or need to review the entire body of material are encouraged to contact the American Folklife Center to make arrangements to do so.

For more information, see What is an Ethnographic Field Collection? and read the documentation provided through the home page for this Collection.

Credit Line: Library of Congress, American Folklife Center Collection
posted by Miko at 9:27 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

...though I was kind of forgetting that Lomax himself, along with all the other song collectors at the time, was kind of shady about copyrighting - he copyrighted a lot of recordings to himself (as an arranger/recorder) or himself and the performer or writer. This was a little more thoughtful than a lot of his other fellow-lefty song collectors who didn't bother to credit the performer. This book goes into it a fair amount and you can read some of it online, and this broadcast has a short summary.

I still think you have to see it in the context of its time. These things were not copyrighted by anyone before Lomax recorded them, and by recording them and then copyrighting them he has at least created a platform by which they can serve the public good and be available to continue to influence the culture, unless and until a performer comes forward or is located by a researcher, and at that point they can pursue a settlement.
posted by Miko at 9:33 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

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