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  • February 2012
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A Global Jukebox Goes Digital

If you’re a music lover like me, you probably spend a lot of time building playlists in your iTunes library, browsing random music videos on YouTube, checking out new artists with Pandora or Spotify, and scrolling through thousands of songs on your iPod. From Drake to dubstep, from Lady Gaga to some random guy playing a cover of “Bad Romance” on a banjo in his kitchen—all you need to do is start searching, and in seconds you can uncover an endless array of musical experiences.  

It’s hard to imagine the world before these awesome digital technologies expanded our access to all kinds of culture & media, allowing us to become master collectors of music both popular and underground. Way back in the day, amazing music was happening everywhere, of course, but without any hyper-connected media-sharing platforms, tons of that stuff stayed hidden away in small towns, tiny villages, and obscure little blues bars.

Enter Alan Lomax (1915-2002), the fearless American folklorist who spent much of his life traveling the world, meeting people across the continents, and making recordings of them talking & playing traditional folk music. Alan was the son of John Lomax, another intrepid music-hunter, and in their lifetimes they collected the sounds that defined the places they visited, from blues and bluegrass to country and gospel. They even met some legends along the way, like folk hero Woody Guthrie, and blues masters Muddy Waters and Lead Belly, who inspired later artists like Nirvana and the Rolling Stones.

Sonny Terry (obscured), Woody Guthrie, Lilly Mae Ledford, Alan Lomax, New York, 1944.

Sonny Terry (obscured), Woody Guthrie, Lilly Mae Ledford, Alan Lomax, New York, 1944.

If you’re thinking it would be awesome to dig into the Alan Lomax archives and school yourself on the stuff that paved the way for so much modern musical goodness, you are in luck. The Association for Cultural Equity has just announced their Global Jukebox project, wherein this vast wonderland of material will be digitized and made available to the public online.  More than 17,000 tracks will be ready to stream by the end of the month, but in the meantime you can check out audio and video clips over at the project’s website or browse the Alan Lomax Collection online at the Library of Congress’ Center for American Folklife.

You can also read about the epic adventures of Alan Lomax in Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World or check out the documentary Lomax, The Songhunter, which chronicles his journeys through Europe. Or you can start listening to some of the music Lomax recorded on his journeys.  

By introducing diverse people and their music to the public, Alan Lomax helped to break racial and ethnic boundaries and usher in a new era of cultural connection as he immortalized musical treasures from around the world.  As Bob Dylan put it “Alan was one of those who unlocked the secrets of this kind of music. So if we’ve got anybody to thank, it’s Alan. Thanks, Alan.”

Lomax in the Caribbean in 1962

2 Responses

  1. Great post, Mr. Lomax probably did more for American (and world) music than anyone.
    Thanks Alan!

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