Field Work

The Field Work catalog comprises over 20,000 digitized assets, from John A. and Alan Lomax’s first recordings for the Library of Congress in 1933, through Alan's initial independent forays into newly invented reel-to-reel tape in 1946, and tracing the arc of his documentary involvements into the 1990s. In addition to a wide spectrum of musical performances from around the world, it includes stories, jokes, sermons, personal narratives, interviews conducted by Lomax and his associates, and unique ambient artifacts captured in transit from radio broadcasts, sometimes inadvertently, when Alan left the tape machine running. Not a single piece of recorded sound in Lomax’s audio archive has been omitted: meaning that microphone checks, partial performances, and false starts are also included. In the early 1950s, Alan Lomax began to keep photographic journals of his field trips. Beginning with a few rolls taken in England and Scotland, he amassed many hundreds of photos on each of his subsequent major recording expeditions. Photography became for Lomax a serious vocation, and the camera far more than an adjunct to the recording machine. He was fascinated with the landscape, architecture, and humanity of the places he visited, but his main intent was to document performers. His camera focused on singers, musicians, and dancers at peak moments of their performances, and while engaged in the activities their music accompanied. With a remarkable eye for character and composition, Lomax attempted to capture quintessential body attitudes, gestures, facial expressions, and social groupings, illuminating the stories told by his sound recordings. There are about 5,000 photographs in these collections.

The LDA thus combines material from Alan Lomax’s independent archive (1946–1991), digitized and preserved by the Association for Cultural Equity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with thousands of earlier recordings on acetate and aluminum discs he (and his father) made from 1933 to 1946 under Library of Congress’ auspices. This earlier material — which includes the famous Jelly Roll Morton, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Muddy Waters sessions, as well as Lomax’s prodigious collections made in Haiti and Eastern Kentucky (1937) — is the provenance of the American Folklife Center at the Library. We continue to work diligently with our partners there to raise the funding necessary for the digitization, cataloging, and accessibility of these early collections, and discrete catalogs will be made available here as we succeed in their reformatting and description.

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