Nathan Salsburg, archivist and producer for the Alan Lomax Archive, has been keeping office hours at SPACE the last couple of weeks for our first arts administrator residency. We’ve enjoyed having him here while he works on his projects and we work on ours, with bits of cross-interest popping up as we discover our shared interests such as John Jeremiah Sullivan’s writing and the music of African Tuareg guitarist Bombino.
I wanted to ask him a little more about Alan Lomax, in advance of a screening event that will take place here at SPACE on Saturday, April 7.
Nat May: What was your initial interest in Alan Lomax?
Nathan Salsburg: I grew up with folky parents: my dad sang me to sleep with “Railroad Bill” and “Goodnight Irene” and that sort of thing; I got deep into my mom’s Dave Van Ronk and Mississippi John Hurt records in high school. When I moved to NYC in 2000, I got a horrible lunch-time serving shift and wrote the Woody Guthrie Archive, then in Midtown, to see about volunteering. Did some cataloging of song lyrics for a couple afternoons when they told me the Alan Lomax Archive was hiring. I knew the name – knew his connection to Lead Belly and Woody and the Parchman prison recordings – but that was about it. I started working there in October 2000 and have been involved since.
NM: Guthrie was only a few years older than Lomax, did they work together or influence each other?
NS: They did – Alan first met Woody and saw him perform at a benefit concert for the Spanish Republicans in NYC. 1940, I think? He was totally blown away, both by his music and his synthesis of folksiness with deep artistic and political self-awareness. Lomax invited him down to the Library of Congress for a series of recording sessions of music and Woody’s “life story,” embellished as it often was. They became friends for the rest of Woody’s life, collaborating on the People’s Songs “movement” (such as it was) and its support of Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign, as well as other radical political undertakings that ultimately served to shoo Lomax out of the country for most the 1950s when the red-baiting got too hot for him.
NM: In a lot of ways, it seems like Lomax’s work recording and sharing really talented yet mostly unknown artists resonates well with SPACE’s mission to find emerging artists to share with our local community. What impact do you think his recordings had on the musicians?
NS: Lomax was devoted to the notion of “cultural equity,” which he defined as the universal right of people to maintain and promote their traditional means of expression, be it music, visual art, foodways, costume. He was horrified by the increasingly corporatized mass communication and centralized education systems, which were crushing (and, of course, continue to crush) local culture, language, and performance style. So he made a point, when making recordings, to play them back to the performers and their neighbors and kin; he called this “cultural feedback” and told several moving stories of how singers and players who had never heard their music recorded and broadcast, as it were, would realize in that playback that their traditions sounded as good as or better than that mass media delivered to them. There are a number of examples of Lomax’s work as a public folklorist – as a radio host, album curator, impresario, and television producer, among other roles; from Cajun Louisiana to rural Spain to the Eastern Caribbean island of Dominica – reinvigorating local artistic communities.
Lomax often said that the problem with modern communication systems is that there are too many receivers and far too few transmitters, which holds more true today than ever, although the Internet goes a small distance in balancing the scales. It’s a thrill to see the comments come in on our YouTube videos edited from Alan’s “American Patchwork” footage; folks who have moved far from their native locales and traditions watch the videos and are filled with pride about who they are, and from whom and whence they came. Like this comment from a clip Lomax and his crew shot of a lining hymn from an Old Regular Baptist church in Mayking, Kentucky:
This is my papaw John Wright lining the song!!!!!! I have been to many of his services and there is nothin in the whole wide world like it!!!! It does my heart such good to see and hear him sing again and he looks so wonderful to me!!!!! Thank You GOD for being able to see him again till i join him!!!!!
Alan would have been overjoyed by this kind of “cultural feedback.”
NM: It’s interesting to think about how Lomax identified Cajun music communities in Louisiana, and Afro-Caribbean communities in Dominica, but these seem like pretty obvious geo-cultural groupings. How might he approach a place like southern Maine in our contemporary culture?
NS: Lomax was by no means a purist. He was deeply interested in cultural creolization – whether it be in New Orleans, South Philly, Tuscon, or Trinidad. He was a big fan of Michael Jackson and Prince, who he thought synthesized the very best of all the intermingling streams flowing into American music and culture. If he spent time in the region now I think he’d interested in exploring the cultural lives of the refugee communities – the Ethiopians in Portland, the Serbs in Biddeford – and perhaps that of the local Greeks, Italians, etc. This isn’t to say he was a fan of that kind of lowest-common-denominator musical “fusion” stuff, so if that’s going on around here (it certainly is in Louisville, where I live), he wouldn’t be rushing on his tape-recorder to document it, but I think he’d be genuinely interested in the ways in which (relative) newcomers to Maine reconcile their traditions with the dominant culture. And I don’t mean just the so-called traditional culture, all sea chanties and lobster, but the cultural complexities of the tourism industry and the really stark urban-rural divide in Maine. (Lomax did like the chanties, though.)
Nathan will be playing a house concert with local musician Matt Rock on Friday, March 30, and will screen selections from the American Patchwork Series at SPACE on Saturday, April 7 at 4:30pm