Covers from the Ewan MacColl/Peggy Seeger 10-volume exploration of ballads through their British and North American variants. Released by Argo in 1967/1968. Thanks to Ghost Capital for the cover images.
Traffic has darkened the façade of the Hunter College-owned MFA Studio Building on 41st Street, between the Port Authority and the Lincoln Tunnel. The interior, a picture of institutional indifference, doesn’t look much better. But a climb to the sixth floor reveals a glittering treasure called the Association of Cultural Equity (ACE), a vast and remarkable assemblage of field recordings, instruments, books, posters and other artifacts collected by the legendary American archivist Alan Lomax over the better part of the 20th century.
In 1983, Lomax founded ACE in this building as a command post for his lifelong mission, to compile and disseminate the sights and sounds of cultures from around the globe, hoping to preserve them lest they be extinguished. Twenty-four years later, and 11 years since Lomax’s death, the building is being sold, and ACE is preparing to move into a smaller space at Hunter’s Brookdale campus, on 25th Street and First Avenue.
Fortunately, floor space has been less of an issue since ACE sold three-quarters of Lomax’s original collection to the Library of Congress in 2004—650 linear feet of manuscripts, 6,400 sound recordings, 5,500 photos and 6,000 moving images—and launched its vast online archive in March 2012. Digital copies of much of the material now fill the shelves, and a cursory stroll through ACE’s web site (culturalequity.org) offers endless hours of viewing (5,000 photographs, 3,000 videos), listening (17,400 files), and reading. One can also surf over to the Alan Lomax Archive YouTube channel, which boasts 77,000 subscribers.
“People used to be happy with published LPs and CDs, but today that’s not really enough,” Lomax archivist Todd Harvey said of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center. “The idea is that if it doesn’t exist in the digital form that’s accessible over the web, then it really doesn’t exist.”
But even with the sale and the effort to digitize, the ACE offices still flow with a trove of relics and heirlooms, so the company is preparing an eBayauction, to begin March 9, as it begins the move from its 2,500-square-foot space to a 1,500-square-foot space. Items for sale will include much of Lomax’s old recording equipment, video/film editing gear and other tools he used to build this archive, as well as odds and ends like his guitar and a few 78s from his personal record collection.
“We love having all this stuff around, but for practical reasons we have to pare it down,” said ACE executive director Don Fleming, who’s overseeing the sale. “This is the first time that we’ve offered anything to the public. We once let R. Crumb have some 78s of Alan’s for doing a picture of Jelly Roll Morton, but this is probably the only time something like this will happen.”
Though its archives can be accessed on a donation basis, and other labels, publishers and institutions often release its material, ACE continues to spread the good word on its own. On Feb, 14, it issued its first release in 12 months, “United Sacred Harp Convention: The Alan Lomax Recordings, 1959.” Mississippi bluesman Sid Hemphill’s “The Devil’s Dream,” recorded in 1942, will come out Thursday. The light-footed archive, with its $300,000 budget, may focus on historical recordings, but it is anticipating the CD’s demise, releasing almost all of them on LP and as digital files. The nonprofit uses the proceeds to help cover operating costs, but also to honor Lomax’s original contracts and make sure that artist royalties still go to their descendants if they can be found.
“We do like to monetize, and we do a lot of licensing, and in the past it’s been very lucrative,” said Anna Lomax Wood, Lomax’s daughter and the president of ACE. (Bruce Springsteen, for example, used two Lomax-derived field samples on his recent “Wrecking Ball” album.) “But we’ve never been in it to make money. My father always said, ‘If you want to make money, don’t go into folk music.’”
He may not have made a lot of money, but Lomax’s cultural impact at home and abroad is incalculable. In the decade before World War II, he and his father, the famed folklorist and collector John Lomax, took several historic trips through the South collecting material while working for the Library of Congress, making the first recordings of Muddy Waters and Fred McDowell, and capturing other legends like Jelly Roll Morton and Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter.
“It is quite possible none of them would be known today, and all the influences they spawned might have never occurred, had Alan not recorded them—and worked to popularize them,” said Bill Nowlin, the founder of Rounder Records, which has released dozens of albums of Lomax material.
Later, through his radio broadcasts in the 1940s, Lomax helped bring wide exposure to such American folk icons as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and continued making field recordings throughout the Caribbean, Ireland, Scotland and Spain. After 1960, he focused on what he called “cultural equity,” an egalitarian approach to expressive forms (particularly music, speech and dance) from around the world. It culminated in the last decades of his life in a forward-thinking creation he called the Global Jukebox Project, an early computer database that organized and compared various forms based on geography, style, and subsistence patterns. Initially available to institutions and researchers, a new version called the Global Jukebox Song Tree will be available online in the fall with a cache of 5,000 songs.
Though the aim of the Global Jukebox is to connect cultures, ACE is working to repatriate copies of archives back into the communities where Lomax originally documented them, even providing lesson plans so teachers in those communities know how to use them. “The physical part went to the Library of Congress, which is important to them, but we don’t need it anymore,” Mr. Fleming said. “One of the advantages of the digital era is it’s now easier to send out the entire collection on a hard drive. Because one of our missions is to get them to use it as a resource and celebrate their culture.”
— Tad Hendrickson, The Wall Street Journal
Photo: Bryan Thomas for The Wall Street Journal
The first 84 albums in Topic’s Great Big Digital Archive Project are now available to download, complete with newly-designed digital booklets, including the original sleeve notes. The digital booklets are available from the Topic website as well as iTunes.
“Each month throughout this year we plan to release another ten archive titles, each with their own digital booklet. We will also add digital booklets to our current catalogue - later this month we publish new digital booklets for each of the WATERSON:CARTHY albums; in March digital booklets for albums from the WATERSONS. In May, to coincide with the release of Wayward Daughter a new two CD set celebrating the first 21 years of ELIZA CARTHY’s career, we’ll publish new digital booklets to accompany her Topic albums.”
Raising Holy Sparks (David Colohan) performs Sacred Harp 282 (I’m Going Home) at Black Sun. Recorded March 8th, 2012 in Cork, Ireland.
Mr Colohan also performed with Black Sun’s Vicky Langan and Black Twig Pickers’/Pelt’s Mike Gangloff as Meitheal, a collaboration that was repeated in October 2012 at the Tusk Festival in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Their “Early in the Spring, Late in the Fall”, a limited-edition cassette featuring material largely culled from the Sacred Harp tradition, is highly recommended. Listen to a track below:
“It was in the month of January, the hills were white with snow…”
Pat Gubler / P.G. Six perform “January” from the album Starry Mind, at the Happy Dog in Cleveland, OH, May 6, 2012.
A variant of “Winter’s Evening” or “The Fatal Snowstorm”, which has been collected in England, Scotland, Ireland and Canada
A storybook come to life! Classic nursery rhymes performed by Shirley Collins, Martin Carthy and Isla St Clair (among others), with a marvelous mix of live action, puppets and animation.
“Who Killed Cock Robin is an English Nursery Rhyme/Poem with uncertain sources. Some affiliate it with Robin Hood, and others believe it to be a political satire poem about the fall of 18th Century English Prime Minister Robert Walpole.
Bird Radio’s interpretation is performed using flute, voice, a suitcase kickdrum, an effects pedal and looping pedal.”
The song appeared in print in America as early as 1788, in Tommy Thumb’s Song-Book (Worcester, MA, printed by Isaiah Thomas).
“Music Memory is continuing the work started by the collectors and researchers in the 1950s and ’60s. We share their passion to keep the history of our musical heritage from being forgotten and are committed to preventing that from happening. As of October 2012, we have digitized more than 10,000 records on location at the homes of several prominent record collectors. Our goal is to build a database complete with audio, discographical information, artist and composer biographies, song lyrics and notation. Our hope for this database is that it will serve as a musical Rosetta Stone for future generations by showing the links and cross-influences of the many musical styles captured on phonograph records in the first half of the 20th century…
“The specific objectives and purposes of Music Memory are: (1) to ensure the preservation and continued availability of historical and traditional American and international musical sound recordings and related media; (2) to oversee and facilitate the digital transfer of analog sound recordings of historical and traditional American and international music; (3) to oversee and facilitate the scanning of media, including publications and images, related to historic and traditional American and international music; (4) to oversee and facilitate the construction of a database to deliver information regarding historic and traditional American and international music to researchers and students; and (5) to engage in other activities and efforts related to educating the public about and promoting interest in historic and traditional American and international music.”
Contributions to the Music Memory project are tax deductible.
Pat Gubler (P.G. Six) covers Bert Jansch’s version of “Reynardine” at the STPP Music Fest
Though the name draws a connection to the sly Reynard, there really is nothing in the lyrics to support the conclusion that the shifty suitor is a werefox (or any other supernatural being, for that matter). But there is an overarching sense of impending doom and ruin that gives this song an unmatched frisson.
Earliest date, 1845. Found in the US, Canada, England and Ireland