A Historian of the Present: Alan Lomax and Me

Alan Lomax

If you’re a folklorist, Alan Lomax is a legendary figure.  Unlike say, anthropology, whose great men and women who lived and worked in the 19th and early 20th centuries, in folklore many of our legends walk among us.  That’s the cool thing about attending the annual American Folklore Society meetings. The “big deal” scholars are all there, extremely friendly and willing to talk to you.

Alan Lomax and I overlapped in our field by a few years, but I never had the opportunity to meet him.  If that opportunity had come up I might have shied away from it.  Or at least asked one of my Penn professors to do the introductions.

I love music, but folk music has never been my thing.  I’m amazed at the work Lomax and his father John did traveling around the country collecting folk music, just about everywhere.  Down back country roads where old-timers lived. In prisons (which really was a stroke of genius–who collects in prisons?).  They went everywhere.

The enduring image of the John and Alan Lomax ideal is this photo of John Lomax’s car trunk, full of recording equipment (below).

John Lomax's trunk full of recording equipment.  memory.loc.gov
John Lomax’s recording equipment. memory.loc.gov

I never saw my work having a direct connection to the Lomax collections until I started teaching the field school in 2011.  I’ve always seen myself as an ethnographer–I started this blog in 2006, naming it “Living Ethnography” because that’s what I do: live an ethnographic life.  Ethnographic collection has always been my strong suit–I love the work.  I enjoy the thrill of meeting new people and figuring out how they live their lives and build their worlds.  I plan to always be involved with some sort of field collection.  But the field school has taught me that one of my lifetime goals is to be a collector. A major collector.

I don’t see myself or my collections having the type of notoriety associated with the Lomax family –if you read Alan’s obituary it explains why he is a legend. He discovered many artists who went on to have amazing careers. My goals are  more modest: to document the everyday, ordinary person and help them tell their story.

Where I see a connection to Alan Lomax is through volume: I want to collect and document.  I want to teach students to collect and document.  There will always be periods of thinking and writing, but I want to be one of the major collectors of the 21st Century; a historian of the present.

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