Kramer, Alan Lomax’s Transatlantic Journey: From Regionalist to Globalist

Research topic:

Better understanding Alan Lomax as a transatlantic figure in order to ask new questions about both his significance within the study of folk music and to better understand the connections between transatlantic cultural study and ideas of internationalism as the so-called US Pax Americana emerged out of WWII. Also how technologies, from radio to the digital computer itself, figured in this story.


Lomax in the US South 1930s

  • field recording trips with father John Lomax for Library of Congress
  • Important relationships with Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Elizabeth Barnacle, among others
  • works in New Deal media efforts, cultural front, WWII media efforts, trying to use radio as a 2-way communications medium, notions of cultural democracy within anti-fascist ideology broadly conceived
  • very much a 1930s “regionalist”
  • first writings are in travelogue style, with dialect
  • radical politics at Harvard, perhaps even earlier around Austin, Texas?
  • recording African Americas at Parchman and other prisons
  • Huddie Leadbetter

Key trips to the Caribbean late 1930s/early 1940s

  • these field recording trips may be very crucial to Lomax’s changing sense of folksong beyond the US
  • the role of the Caribbean in transatlantic cultural history: how do we continue to historicize this area in relation to new conceptualizations of circulations and flows? How does it relate to legacies and continued force of colonialism, to Gilroy’s Black Atlantic scholarship, to Joseph Roach’s circum-atlantic framework, to other scholarly framings?
  • How does that framework relate to ideas and politics and economics of liberal internationalism emerging in the US during and after WWII from its earlier so-called isolationism (in fact already an imperial power, and a colonial entity its entire history)? But…internationalism as a 1930s/40s development (think United Nations) in its cultural forms as a modernist movement keenly interested in certain configurations of tradition.

To London and UK field recording trips in early 1950s

  • in part due to anti-communist Red Scare in USA
  • BBC radio
  • Field recording trips around Ireland, Scotland, England and competition with other folklorists

Spanish and Italian field recording trips in mid and late 1950s

  • Ideas of a global song style comparative anthropological approach begin to emerge more fully, Lomax as a transnational figure
  • What did it mean to be moving through rural areas as an American folklorist in immediate years after WWII? Lomax thought he was hearing the last vestiges of an older European folk culture (a typical folkloric imagining), but how much had the influence of transnational cultural circulations reached in the mid 1950s?

Back to US in 1959.

  • development of computational “cantometrics” global folk song style project in early 1960s-2002.
  • the influence of Ray Birdwhistell and kinesics concepts from linguistics: communication happens through far more than simply meaning of language, all the other cues. The key idea for Lomax: song style (not just the words, but the whole mode of expression of a song) is actually quite repetitive and stable and collectively shaped, so potentially contains information about long stretches of cultural formation and meaning. Also Margaret Mead‘s influence.
  • Later field trips to West Africa and deep interest in African music and culture.
  • leads to the Global Jukebox project, CD-Rom and then, posthumously, a website.


5 thoughts on “Kramer, Alan Lomax’s Transatlantic Journey: From Regionalist to Globalist

  • September 27, 2018 at 8:46 am

    Hi Michael, the Global Jukebox is really great. I have two questions !
    Did Lomax get support from the Panamerican Union for the Caribbean trips? Were did he go in West Africa? _ Anaïs

    • September 27, 2018 at 1:13 pm

      Hi Anaïs — These are great questions. Lomax had some kind of connection to Gustavo Durán, who worked for the Music Division of the Pan American Union in Washington DC for a time and seems to have done the transcriptions for Alan and his father John’s 14 Traditional Spanish Songs from Texas in 1942. Durán is an interesting figure—inspiration to Ernest Hemingway’s novels and a fighter in the Spanish Civil War among other things. The connection may have been through Charles Seeger, musicologist and father of Pete. But before that, I believe Lomax’s first Caribbean trip to the Bahamas in 1936 with Mary Elizabeth Barnicle (a figure who needs more study) and the great African American novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston (a major influence on Lomax) was financed by the USA Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song. Then he traveled to Haiti in 1937, again funded by the Archive of American Folk Song. Some interesting research and info here. In 1962, he traveled to the Caribbean with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. The recordings can be heard at the Lomax archive and on various CDs. As for the African trips, I believe he went to Morocco in 1967—yes, here are some of the recordings (the Internet amazes me still!) and may have traveled elsewhere, but I need to check my notes. Thanks! Michael

  • September 29, 2018 at 3:21 am

    Now I want to know more about your perspective on the Panamerican Union! What’s its significance to your mind?

  • Pingback: Some Preliminary Reflections on Reconceptualizing Cultural Histories of the Atlantic World, Digitally and Interculturally – Michael J. Kramer

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