The Digitization and Organization of Alan Lomax’s Music Recordings Online

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Alan Lomax, shown here in 1992, envisioned creating a searchable database to archive music that he recorded from around the world. Credit G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times.

For this article, the author, Andrew R. Chow, explains how the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) is digitizing and organizing the collection of music recordings of Alan Lomax (the founder of ACE, who passed away in 2002) on a new online database, called “the Global Jukebox,” as a way to further Lomax’s musical research.  Alan Lomax spent his life working to archive and share traditional music from all over the world, recording music from famous musicians like Woody Guthrie to more obscure ones from Haiti to the British Isles, all the while developing classification systems to organize this music and discover connections between cultures.  Lomax envisioned a database to store this music with the development of computers in the 1980s, and started to work on a “global jukebox” to store thousands of dances and songs “cross referenced with anthropological data.”  In an interview, Kathleen Rivera, who is a research associate working for ACE, stated that, “The project was very ambitious for the point in time that Alan was working in…He was poring over these punch cards and computing systems for entire days. His vision couldn’t match the technology that he had at the time. Today, we have the system that can make it all very clear for people.”  With modern computer and internet technology, Lomax’s vision is now reality, as “the Global Jukebox” that ACE has created consists of a searchable database online on an interactive website.  This website is free for anyone to use and arranged with a map and by culture, where users can learn about and listen to over 6,000 songs that originate from 1,000 cultures, and many of these songs are from Lomax’s personal collection of musical recordings.  The recordings that were digitized for this database project came from hard copy originals in the collections of the Library of Congress and include songs recorded by Lomax from around the world, such as Romanian harvest songs from 1954 and a 1941 ballad to John Henry from Asheville, North Carolina.  This database also greatly emphasizes analyzing these recordings using “cantrometrics,” which is a system that Lomax created in order “to break down music into variables like tonal blend, melodic range and social organization of vocal lines.”  This article shows how databases are being used to organize new types of information, such as songs, and how this makes them accessible.  Now that these songs recorded by Alan Lomax are digitized and made available online, anyone online can go onto “the Global Jukebox” database and listen to the songs he recorded for free.  In the end, this article shows how databases of digitized collections are making information more free and accessible to users by organized it online.

Posted by Alexander Vastola, LIS-653-02, Spring, 2017

Chow, Andrew. R. (2017, April 18). Alan Lomax recordings are digitized in a new online collection. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/18/arts/music/alan-lomax-recordings-the-global-jukebox-digitized.html?_r=0

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by Hugh McLeod

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Pratt Institute School of Information
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