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Essential Alan Lomax, According to the Guy Who Knows His Work Best

Nathan Salsburg's job is archiving one of the world's most famed archivists.

by Rick Paulas
Jul 19 2017, 10:23pm

Image by Lia Kantrowitz. Photo via Alan Lomax Archive

Nathan Salsburg never met Alan Lomax, the famed American musicologist. But now, exactly 15 years after Lomax's death on July 19, 2002, there's likely no person on the planet who's spent more time with the deceased archivist. "I do feel like I know him very intimately," Salsburg says. "Every day I'm interacting with something that his fingerprints are all over."

Salsburg has one of the coolest jobs in the world: curator of the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity. Based in Louisville, Kentucky, Salsburg spends his days digging through the wide variety—both in content and format—of recordings Lomax made throughout his seven decades archiving folk music in Britain, the Caribbean, and the American southeast.

Born in Austin, Texas, in 1915, Lomax's career began in 1933, when he tagged along with his father, John A. Lomax, to record folk songs throughout the Deep South. Alan went on to make another few hundred hours of recordings for the Library of Congress before funding was cut, at which point he continued independently, picking up money where he could to fund investigative trips through hard-to-reach locales, lugging along his heavy equipment to capture the sounds and faces of people who wouldn't have otherwise been heard. Know Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, or Mississippi Fred McDowell? Without Lomax, their work and names could've easily been lost to the dust of history.

Lomax's dedication can be traced to an early event. When he was 17, he and his father went to record field hands at a Texas plantation. It was managed by a white farmer, who "compelled" his workers into the schoolhouse to be recorded by these two guys from the Library of Congress. "It was an awkward scene," says Salsburg. "Not everyone was glad to be there." Alan asked if anyone knew ballads, and an old man named Blue stood up. But before he sang, knowing the men had come from the nation's capital, Blue had a message.

"Hey, Mr. President," said Blue. "I'm down here speaking to you, so you know how badly they're treating us in Texas."

That message moved Alan.

"This is why he was doing it," says Salsburg. "He wanted to be the voice for the voiceless."

After that fateful day, Alan made thousands of recordings—reel-to-reel tapes, video, acetate-coated discs, film reels, the mediums go on and on. Alan Lomax always worked on the cutting edge of recording technology, always bringing the latest gear with him into the fields. Salsburg's job entails going through them all, figuring out who and what is on them, and ultimately uploading them to a database.

Sometimes, the information left with the tape has been muddled or transposed by the previous hands it's passed through, and Salsburg has to play detective. "There are really exciting details in the recordings," he says. "Someone will say, I was born on this date. But if that's true, then it couldn't be this guy, who was born on this date. I love it."

It's also where the internet itself occasionally lends a hand. "We've always found that quality control is made better by making things available online," says Salsburg "You get all kinds of feedback, some unhelpful. But sometimes, people will write and say, 'That tune's actually called this.' Sometimes you hear from families who say that was their uncle, or brother, or maybe tell us the town's no longer called that, it's called something else."

But no matter the location, or the artistry on display, the constant undercurrent in all the tapes is that of the man who made them. So, what has Salsburg learned from his many years spending time—if not with the man himself, then at least his tapes—with Alan Lomax?

"He had a massive appetite for music, women, booze, and for joy and excitement and adventure," he says. "But he was also totally single-minded. There was an F.B.I. file on him, and their conclusion was something along the lines of, 'His only interest is in folklorist music, he has no interest or capabilities with money matters or personal hygiene.' That's true. All he did was this."

Given how well he's come to know Alan, we asked Salsburg to help us get to know the iconic archivist the way he's helped so many learn of those they otherwise wouldn't have—to archive the archivist, as it were. Below are five clips, chosen with explanation from Salsburg, that he believes may help you get to know Alan Lomax.

Prophet Alan

Salsburg: "Holly Springs, Georgia, 1982. Lomax holds forth on Sacred Harp singing with two leading lights in the community, Phil Summerlin and Buell Cobb. And—in addition to showing his formidable extemporization abilities on matters ethnomusicological—Alan foresees Sacred Harp's increasing popularity. I'm not ascribing prophetic powers to him, but at a few points in Lomax's career he did make some prescient calls, and this is one of them."

Urban Alan

Salsburg: "Lomax's focus was hardly specific to rural American folk music. In 1983, for a film on the diversity of Southwestern culture that was to be called 'Desert Folk' (never finished), he and his crew shot some segments with a Latino car club in Tucson called the Sophisticated Few. (That year they also shot footage of break-dancers in Philadelphia and the Italian-American Giglio procession in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.)"

Globetrotting Alan

Salsburg: "Alan's interests didn't stop at American border. Between 1951 and 1991 he traveled throughout the British Isles, Spain, Italy, Morocco, and the Caribbean. This is a clip from his last field-trip, in 1991, shot on handy-cam, of the Shakespeare 'Mas in Carriacou, Grenada, during which men get dressed up in wild costumes and battle each other by reciting monologues from Julius Caesar."

Alan, Dog

Salsburg: "A brief scene of Alan trying and failing to make a reluctant hound to comply with his directorial wishes. During a 1978 shoot at the home of fife-player and picnic host Otha Turner, in Gravel Springs, Mississippi."

Visionary, Radical, Insistent, Sentimental, Romantic Alan

Salsburg:
"Lastly, this is quintessential Lomax, and I think him at his best—visionary, radical, insistent, sentimental, romantic. The first of four parts of Charles Kuralt's full 1991 interview for CBS Sunday Morning on Alan's life's work."


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