The Lomax Kentucky Recordings

October 10, 2015 | by

The Association for Cultural Equity, in partnership with Berea College Special Collections & Archives, University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center, and the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, are proud to announce the launch of The Lomax Kentucky Recordings, an online exhibition of over 70 hours of Eastern Kentucky folk music and lore, collected under the auspices of the Library of Congress between 1933 and 1942. Four years in the making, this unique collaborative presentation makes available for the first time the extensive collections compiled by folklorists John A. Lomax, his son Alan Lomax, and Alan’s wife Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold, as well as those of Columbia University’s Mary Elizabeth Barnicle.

Featuring full, free streaming audio of every performance, interview, and narrative segment—some 1300 discrete pieces—along with searchable recording details (performer name, location, date, instrument, etc.), The Lomax Kentucky Recordings presents a breathtakingly diverse spectrum of Appalachian traditional culture and a point of entry into the lives of the farmers, laborers, coal miners, preachers, housewives, public officials, soldiers, children, grandparents, and itinerant musicians who nurtured and were nurtured by it. You’ll hear ballads and lyric songs, play-party ditties and comic pieces, topical and protest material, fiddle and banjo tunes, hymns and sacred songs, children’s games and lullabies, and a variety of spoken lore—religious testimonies, occupational reminiscences, tall tales, jokes, and personal narratives. You’ll hear the first version of “The House of the Rising Sun” recorded “in the field,” sung by 16-year-old Georgia Turner of Noetown, Kentucky. You’ll hear W.H. Stepp’s sublime rendition of “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” adapted by Aaron Copland for his ballet Rodeo and later reconfigured and broadcast to the nation in the “Beef, It’s What’s For Dinner” ad campaign, featuring the voice of Robert Mitchum. There are ballads of ancient derivation and more recent ones concerning local disasters. There are bawdy songs with lyrics deserving of “Parental Advisory” warnings. High-school girls sing of the murder of “Pretty Polly” in eight-part harmony. There’s a ten-part story of a drunken moonshine spree and the sounds of a hog-calling competition.

Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold Lomax operating disc machine on Marrowbone Creek, near Gardner, Leslie County, Kentucky. September 26, 1937. Still from footage shot by Alan Lomax.

The site was launched in tandem with Berea College’s annual Celebration of Traditional Music, which featured a symposium by ACE curator Nathan Salsburg called “I’ve Rambled This Country Both Early and Late: Alan Lomax In Kentucky.” It surveyed the collecting work of Lomax in the eastern mountains of the state, spanning 1933 to 1983 and a variety of media: acetate disc, recording tape, still photography, and moving image. A campus-wide convocation was also held featuring traditional musicians from several Eastern Kentucky counties, and renowned musician and scholar Bruce Greene presented a talk about East Kentucky fiddlers, both those that Lomax recorded as well as “the ones that got away.”

Lomax felt that a chief result of these efforts, in Kentucky and elsewhere, was that “America could hear itself.” Thus their intentions were not merely archival. Alan in fact cautioned against the strictly preservational impulse, remarking that “folksongs should not be buried in libraries as they are in Washington and in universities over the country.” This online effort, launched in Alan’s centennial year, 2015, seeks to realize his vision by providing free and complete access to these historic collections.

Originally posted: October 20, 2015