Introducing Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork Project

Alan Lomax and crew filming Dink and Julia Roberts, Haw River, N.C., 1983. Photo by CeCe Conway. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.

Today, in partnership with the Association for Cultural Equity, we are proud to announce Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork project and the launch of its digital map on the Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture. Contained therein are nearly one hundred performances, interviews, and folkloric scenes culled from over 400 hours of footage Lomax recorded in the American South and Southwest between 1978 and 1985 in preparation for his American Patchwork series on PBS. As this project develops, we will share further selections from American Patchwork and the outstanding Alan Lomax Archive channel on YouTube while also making connections to the contemporary artistic and cultural life within these communities.

We would like to extend our deepest thanks to Nathan Salsburg, Curator of the Alan Lomax Archive, for his enthusiasm and guidance as this project took shape over many months.  Many thanks also to Rachel Beth Rudi, who created this digital map through the generous support of the National Rural Assembly, as well as through a Rural Digital Advocacy Grant. We are also grateful to the team of community-focused designers at Feral Arts, who offer PlaceStories as a free and easy to use platform for storytelling and community engagement.

Art of the Rural is honored to work in partnership with the Association of Cultural Equity on the national Year of the Rural Arts 2014 and the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange. We are looking forward to further collaboration on site-specific repatriation events in the fall of 2014 and beyond.

As a frame through which to begin exploring Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork, Nathan Salsburg was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work, the Archive, and its place in our current cultural moment. Nathan also offers a selection of videos, interspersed throughout our conversation, that can serve as introductions to the communities visited by Lomax.

— Matthew Fluharty


To begin, what was the path and artistic influences that led you to your position with the Association for Cultural Equity and the Alan Lomax Archive?

I was a fan; still am. I was raised on my parents’ Dave Van Ronk, Mississippi John Hurt, Woody Guthrie, and Dylan records, and I discovered Lomax in college: his Parchman Farm recordings, namely, which seem to be an immediate point of entry for a lot of listeners. When I showed up at the Archive I had no bona fides to speak of, just enthusiasm to do whatever needed doing — writing accession numbers on DAT tapes; making coffee and post office runs; and listening to whatever I could get my ears on in the process. That was October 2000.

Though you worked for 13 years as an editor, researcher, and producer at the Alan Lomax Archive, you became its Curator in 2012. What are the challenges and the pleasures of curating this archive?

The pleasures are manifold, to say the least. They’re also a series of discrete ones, as the Archive is comprised of several dozen geographically or project-specific collections, meaning that when I work on a project — an album, say, or a repatriation initiative — I’m usually focusing fairly narrowly on one of Lomax’s trips or sessions. My focus is on the English-language material (we have editors dedicated to the Italian and Spanish collections), and most specifically the American collections, which narrows things down a bit, but within any given collection, the body of work can be dizzyingly vast. That’s always a thrill, although it can be accompanied ­by serious hang-wringing over what gets left out. In 2010 I put together five albums commemorating the 50th anniversary of Lomax’s 1959-1960 Southern U.S. recording trip, what gets called his “Southern Journey.” Nearly everything from this trip is stellar, and there are some 50 hours of it, so the winnowing was a huge challenge. Many performances that I hold dear had to be left off: they were too long, too similar to another essential inclusion, or just unsequenceable.

That felt more like a loss then, though, before we had the YouTube channel chugging along as it is now. Now no matter how idiosyncratic, bizarre, noisy, or unwieldy a performance, it can reach arguably more people on YouTube than it ever could as part of a release. Apart from financial considerations, one of the greatest challenges of working with this material is getting it into folks’ ears, especially with all of the contextual details that are, as far as I’m concerned, vital to the appreciation and understanding of it. YouTube allows for that, obviously, although it’s hard to gauge the depth to which most viewing go in their investigations (my hunch is not a lot). And our hope is that the channel can serve as a promotional device for our online catalogs, where folks can dig nearly as deeply as any of us in-house can.

To receive a salary for doing this work — even after so many years of doing it — still seems like a dream I could wake up from some morning.

We are in a moment when many long-standing artistic and cultural organizations are reconsidering the role of their archives and their processes of documentation. From your perspective, what is the place of the Alan Lomax Archive in this cultural moment? Should archives function differently than they may have a decade ago?

Absolutely they should. Archives need to think seriously and think creatively about how to make their collections accessible, relevant, and exciting to their constituent communities. And they are. They certainly don’t need me to tell them that.

Alan’s daughter Anna Lomax Wood, who was the executive director of ACE for years and is now the president of the board, was far out in front of the archival digital-preservation movement in the late ’90s, and she secured the funding necessary to reformat all of the Archive’s collections — audio, photos, video — by 2002. That wasn’t just for the sake of preservation, but for publication, dissemination, and repatriation of the materials all over the world. With a digitized collection, we were also able — which seemed like pie in the sky in 2002 — to make the entire collection available on the web. ACE’s online archive is by no means perfect or, frankly, even great, although it will be after an upcoming overhaul. We’re laboring to redesign the whole thing for easier access, functionality, and enjoyment, adding playlists, making media embeddable: things we’ve come to expect from any web-based amassment of digital content.

As for the place of the Lomax Archive in the cultural moment, I’ve been heartened by what’s been a consistent broadening and deepening in interest in Alan’s work, really since I started working for ACE in 2000. It’s obvious that the steadily increasing emphasis the culture is placing — however confined a lot of that emphasis is to the culture of the young or youngish urban bourgeoise — on virtues like sustainability, local sourcing, and artisanal methods and modes of craftsmanship has increased appreciation for folk traditions.  Look at the popularity of spirit distilling, textile arts, animal husbandry, and more specifically, expressive culture: square dancing, shape-note singing, vernacular instruments, even story-telling. Lomax’s work was documenting this culture, and our work as an archive is not just to preserve it but to promote it and to make it available, especially to and in the communities from whence it came. That’s why we are working hard on our repatriation initiatives: returning the recordings Lomax made to the home communities. We’ve done this in Mississippi, the Grenadian island of Carriacou, in Italy, and in Spain. One of my primary focuses for 2014 is the repatriation of the 32 hours of Alan’s 1937 Eastern Kentucky recordings to archives and libraries around the state, who can do better work in reintroducing and reincorporating this material locally than we can from afar. The collaborative aspect of this is crucial: from our more macro partnerships — dealing with issues of digitization, cataloging, and access — with American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the University of Kentucky, and Berea College; to more local initiatives in process with Appalshop and yourselves at AOTR. It’s exciting stuff.

The mission of Art of the Rural has been deeply influenced not only by Lomax’s fieldwork, but also by his vision of cultural equity. In your time with the archive and on the ground in the communities touched by Alan Lomax’s work, do you feel like the necessity, or the prospects, for cultural equity have changed since Lomax first introduced this concept?

The prospects have certainly changed, so much for the better, and for some of the same reasons above: folks are interacting with an exponentially greater diversity of cultures and modes of expression than many were able to even ten years ago, to say nothing of the early 1970s, when Lomax first coined the term “cultural equity.” That’s on both the personal and the institutional level; libraries, venues, media outlets, universities have become far more serious about presenting and representing a diversity of voices, identities, and contexts. So that makes our work reaching audiences and reconnecting with communities easier.

As for the necessity for cultural equity, I’m of two minds about it — not that there isn’t one, but whether or not there’s more at stake in 2014 than there was in 1954, say, when Lomax and his tape machine were racing against the clock of modernization and industrialization in post-war Italy, as he had raced against it two years earlier in Spain. Reflecting on his Spanish trip in 1961, Lomax prophesied a “cultural grey-out” due to increasing media corporatization and consolidation:

It is only a few sentimental folklorists like myself who seem to be disturbed by this prospect today, but tomorrow, when it will be too late- when the whole world is bored with automated mass-distributed video-music, our descendants will despise us for having thrown away the best of our culture.

It’s wild how well he nailed the coming of MTV, but it’s also wild to think that the launch of MTV is closer to 1961 than it is to this moment. The mass-distribution network that was Viacom and Time-Warner and all the rest is now up against a billion points of micro-distribution, and the video music — not remotely all of it, but no small amount of it — is self-generated by ordinary folks all over the world. So what Alan feared as being thrown away (“the best of our culture”) is now being rediscovered, reinvigorated, reinterpreted by not just the heirs of the artists and their communities, but by folks literally all over the world. And public folklore (of which Lomax was one of the earliest progenitors) — through records, radio, festivals in the early days, and now all of those plus online archives and social media — is owed no small vote of thanks for that.

Part of your work in recent years has been to digitize the American Patchwork series of video recordings made between 1978 and 1985 — and you have also traveled across the country giving talks and screening this material. What elements of American Patchwork resonate most strongly with these audiences?

The personalities are the thing. I love audiences’ responses to the clips — whether it’s sighing when Joe Savage sings or laughing when Leatha Eller sits down at the piano and deadpans “the pianner’s outta tune and I am too.” I’ve spent years looking at this footage and the magic and the humanity in these performances — of these performers — has only increased. I can’t imagine it will ever wear off.