Kentucky Music Comes Home

Wade Ward with Alan Lomax, c. 1960

On Thursday, February 16th, curator Nathan Salsburg from the Alan Lomax Archive will visit the Filson to discuss the repatriation of the many recordings of folk and vernacular music collected by Lomax and his colleagues in Kentucky between 1933 and 1942. But what does it mean to “repatriate” Kentucky’s cultural heritage? Where did it go?

Collecting Kentucky Music: The Alan Lomax Recordings, 1933-1942 | Thursday, February 16

For at least the last hundred and fifty years, Kentucky and other rural, primarily southern states have been involved in a cultural exchange with America’s urban centers mediated by commerce, technology, and economic mobility. After the Civil War the South was considered by some to be a cultural backwater, having apparently failed to develop a cosmopolitanism matching the industrialized north and its many urban centers. Yet, as the twentieth century progressed, with mass economic migration leading many rural and southern families to cities on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, the culture and music of the South became a memento and a signifier of a pre-industrial, pastoral American ideal, or American idyll. Sales of phonograph records of country and blues music surged in concert with the urbanization of America in the 1920s and 1930s, perhaps because those who had left the country to find work in the city longed to hear the sounds of home. Commercial record companies were more than happy to fill this niche, though they were just as happy to use questionable stereotypes of both southern black and white culture in promoting their “race” and “hillbilly” recordings and artists.

But commercial record companies weren’t the only parties interested in collecting southern and Appalachian music and culture. Since before the turn of the twentieth century, folklorists and anthropologists had been collecting music – at first transcribing, and later recording on cylinder, wire, and tape – and considering its importance in local cultures across the globe. Beginning in the 1920s, the Library of Congress commissioned and collected field recordings for addition to the Archive of American Folk Song. One of the most prolific collectors for the Archive, and in the history of American folklore and ethnomusicology, was Alan Lomax. Lomax criss-crossed the country, and later the globe, collecting songs, interviewing their performers and composers, and submitting the recordings first to the Library of Congress and later to other institutions, including his own Association for Cultural Equity.

These recordings made by Lomax and his colleagues, including his father John Lomax, his wife Elizabeth Lyttleton Harrold, and folklorist Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, once completed, were deposited with the Library of Congress, or another institution, where they joined the body of materials available to those musicologists and folklorists pursuing research on music and folklore. But what of the folks back home – those who made the music, those who heard it performed in the dance hall or on the front porch, and their descendants? For many decades, while the Library of Congress and others issued some few collections of their recordings as LPs and on other media, the creators and original consumers of this cultural heritage were in large part cut off from access to it.

In 2015 the Lomax Kentucky Recordings project, a collaboration between Berea College, The University of Kentucky, the Library of Congress, and the Association for Cultural Equity, appeared to reunite the cultural heritage collected by Lomax et al with the communities from which the heritage came. The project endeavored to place recordings made in Kentucky (and recordings of Kentucky musicians made elsewhere) collected by the Lomaxes, Harrold, and Barnicle available to the public in Kentucky and beyond. The project resulted in an informative, easy-to-use website, featuring streaming audio of every one of the recordings. Thus, the collection has been repatriated – the digital versions of the recordings, as well as full cataloging and descriptive material – is held by the participating institutions, and those same institutions are actively promoting the use of this collection of Kentucky’s cultural heritage for research and for personal enjoyment.

Nathan Salsburg, himself a once-departed and now repatriated Kentuckian, was a key member of the team that carried out the project, and upon his visit to the Filson later this month will give greater perspective on the repatriation, on the cultural forces that gave rise to the original recordings, and will share some of his favorite recordings from the collection.

Aaron Rosenblum

Aaron Rosenblum is an Associate Curator of Special Collections at The Filson Historical Society.

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