Approaching the Lomax Archive: a call for organized investigation and listening
Before I dive back into Lomax, I wanted to acknowledge the passing of one of the world’s genius innovators, Mr. Earl Scruggs. As Noam Pickelny says in this short NYT video piece, he was the Babe Ruth of the banjo. His influence is immeasurable. He’ll be sorely missed.
The Lomax archive got another huge press mention a few days, this time over at NPR. The story mentions the thousands of artifacts that have moved online but also makes mention of one of the things that I’ve been struggling with related to how to approach the enormous archive: Where do you start? It’s easy to jump over to the site and just throw a proverbial dart. You’ll find something to listen to after just a few clicks. That’s basically what I’ve been doing in my visits thus far. But accessing the “Global Jukebox” in all of its depth and breadth requires a more informed approach. What’s more, critically thinking through this digital space as both a historical repository for vernacular musics (that have been transfered from analog sources) as well as a product of Lomax’s very distinct kind of situated enthnographic practices (with all of his attendant personal and cultural baggage) should require a kind of guiding principle or method, at the very least. A thorough approach to accessing and understanding the archive could be the work of major academic studies — and surely there are those who are invested in scholarly ways.
But many of us are first and foremost interested in the music. In my posts, I’ll do my best to fall somewhere in the middle. While this archive is of scholarly interest to me (I just proposed to write a chapter of my dissertation on it), I’m also a music fan and am anxious to uncover gems and polish them up.
What I’m getting to here is a call for a more deliberate approach to the Cultural Equity archive. I’ll begin my own studied inquiry here, but would like to encourage others, popular and academic bloggers alike, to do the same. My plan is to start working chronologically and to move through the archive as a way of not only mapping Lomax’s career but also to get a sense for who his subjects were. What were their stories? How is their music a representation of those stories? What gets left out?
In short, I’m interested in the listening. My hope is that by listening closely to these artifacts, I’ll be able to piece together a larger narrative of both the importance of the archive itself, and also what our responsibilities as listeners are to that archive. I’ll have a few other resources to guide me including Lomax’s book and Szwed’s monograph, but will also seek mainly to draw from the archive itself as a source for teaching me about what is there.
Now that I’ve made a case for a measured approach, I’m going to break with my new methodology immediately and point you towards this recording of Earl Scruggs with Lester Flatt and the Foggy Mountain Boys at the 1966 Newport Folk festival.
Here’s to hoping there are banjos in the foggy mountains beyond.