Sounds Of The Past

Lomax 05

Artists are historians. They capture the essence of the times in which they live. But we can only see what they saw. A painting, sculpture, sketch or tapestry can not share the sounds of the past world.

Fortunately ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax devoted his life to and made great strides in filling this void. Lomax left behind a treasure trove full of field recordings that create an auditory journey into the folk music world that existed from the early to late 20th Century. Alan Lomax traveled extensively around the globe recording traditional music played by both obscure and well-known musicians. He took his recording equipment into prisons, churches, concert halls and the outdoors to capture the very essence of the music in the setting where it was born and breathed.

The archive of Lomax’s collection was recently opened in January 2012 to the public on the finely curated Cultural Equity website. You really need to make a stop there and listen to music from the American South, Caribbean Islands, Eastern Europe, North Africa and Soviet Union. This is really a magnificent addition to our shared human history. The 17,400+ track collection is complete and unabridged:

“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.”

I first encountered Lomax’s recordings on the Southern Journey, Vol. 13: Earliest Times CD I checked out at a library back in 2004. The album is a collection of rural African American songs from the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia. “Authentic” “Powerful” “Fantastic” are the words that sum up the listening experience.

Take a listen to Alan Lomax’s legacy and get inspired. Make your creations sing like the voices heard on his historic recordings.

Lomax 02
Bill Tatnall, Frederica, Georgia
Lomax 03
Two musicians performing at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina
Lomax 06
African American convicts working with axes at Reed Camp, South Carolina
Lomax 01
Five musicians and a singer performing at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina
Lomax 04
Alan Lomax

photo credits: Library of Congress


  • Jeanne

    What wonderful information to bring to the public. I had no idea anything like this existed. Thank you, David.