Association for Cultural Equity Preserves Glorious Cultural Heritage

By O'Leary, Mick | Information Today, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Association for Cultural Equity Preserves Glorious Cultural Heritage


O'Leary, Mick, Information Today


Among the world's cultural glories, America's music ranks at the very top. From the invention of recording, which allowed music to be heard far beyond its local performance, American composers and performers have inspired the world. American styles--jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, country, R&R, and even hip-hop--today are admired and imitated worldwide. This universal appeal should be no surprise, since the inspirations of American music are widespread. From the profound influences from Africa and the British Isles to contributions from Europe, Latin America, Native America, and elsewhere, music is a true American melting pot.

No one person did more to preserve and promote this legacy than Alan Lomax. For 6 decades, Lomax traveled throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world recording the musical heritage of common people. Lomax had a passion for the everyday music of ordinary folks, as opposed to the formal traditions of Western classical genres. Lomax is most often described as an ethnomusicologist, but he was also an educator, scholar, archivist, photographer, and musician.

To support and organize his work, Lomax founded the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE; culturalequity .org) in 1983. Last July, ACE placed an enormous digital archive of Lomax's work on its website, a stellar accomplishment. It is a culturally historic step that provides public access to a priceless cultural heritage.

John and Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax's story actually starts with his father, John Lomax. The senior Lomax was raised on a Texas farm and developed a passion for the music of cowboys, farm workers, and laborers. In 1933, with a grant from the Library of Congress, he and his son Alan, then 18, traveled throughout the Deep South and the Appalachian regions to record the people's music. These early adventures became legendary. The Lomaxes used a 200-pound acetate recording device and recorded music in Louisiana's Angola and Mississippi's Parchman Farm prisons. This was a daring venture in the 1930s because of the purity of the prisoners' music. Although the Lomaxes concentrated on unknown performers, they helped start the careers of Jelly Roll Morton, Lead Belly, and Muddy Waters.

In 1946, Alan, then working alone or with other collaborators, started using the newly invented tape recorder. During the Red Scare in the 1950s, he became concerned for his own security because of his left-wing associations and left for Europe. He recorded extensively in the British Isles, Spain, and Italy, making his passion an international effort. Lomax returned to the U.S. in 1958 and resumed work in his richest territory, the Deep and mid-South, but he also conducted lengthy recording trips in the Caribbean and elsewhere. He retired in 1996 and died in 2002.

The Association for Cultural Equity

Lomax's goal for ACE was not just to manage his vast collections but also to promote his vision of "cultural equity," which recognizes the value of all cultures and the intrinsic worth of their arts. Lomax was particularly concerned that centralized, uniform educational systems and mass media were undermining unique indigenous performance cultures.

In addition to the curation and dissemination of Lomax's collections, ACE carries out a variety of educational, research, and "repatriation" programs, which involve returning copies of music and video to the places where they were originally recorded. The repatriation projects are usually done in partnership with a local library or cultural center. In 2004, the collections were transferred to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where they join the Lomax material from 1933 to 1942.

The Lomax Collections

The material now available on the ACE website is vast in size, scope, and cultural value. It includes a variety of content gathered or produced by Lomax from 1946 through 1990. The collections are meticulously cataloged, and they are browsable and searchable by genre, event or performance, performers, location, and date. …

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