OAKLAND, Calif. — I’m remembering a quote from television producer David Simon (The Wire) who when producing his at-the-time new show on post-Katrina New Orleans, Treme, argued for music — not movies — being the United States of America’s most distinct art form.
“If America disappeared off the face of the Earth today, the greatest single cultural loss would be blues, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, rock-and-roll,” he noted in The Progressive while specifically addressing the fact that many of this country’s music traditions come from African-American communities. “If you go into a bar or a shebeen or a tavern anywhere in the world, Timbuktu, London, Ouagadougou, Johannesburg, anywhere you go, if they have a jukebox there will be American music.”
And while American music is so often associated with commercialism and media empires, its roots in folk traditions are worth celebrating and noting. Which is why I was excited to learn about Alan Lomax’s collection of music ethnography, which is available online for anyone to download and enjoy. The collection went online last year, but a recent Dangerous Minds post drew attention to it once more.
The archive, hosted on Cultural Equity’s online research center, contains over 17,400 files of both sound and video, thus offering an incredibly rich view into the instruments and playing techniques of the musicians Lomax interviewed. It spans the 1970s and 80s, from east Texas straight on through the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana and up through the Carolinas and Virginias and into Massachusetts and New York.
What’s remarkable, in the midst of a debate about Robin Thicke and Marvin Gaye, is how much of America’s more famous musical traditions and acts emerged from people playing on porches, in churches and on city streets. Yes, the collection misses most of the country west of the Mississippi, but it sets a clear bar for what a thorough folk music archive should look like. These rich collections and interviews aren’t just a window into American music; they’re a window into the cultural heritage of the United States as a whole.