The Big Idea
Lomaxing DIY Culture
Bringing Alan Lomax's combination of ethnomusicology, archival storytelling and technology to the underground.
Alan Lomax is most-known for his field recordings of work songs and folk music of the 20th century, which formed the foundation for not only the preservation of the music itself, but also its social and historical contexts. His work "attempted to make known the artistry of local cultures and ordinary people" and was recorded anywhere people with music and stories were: in homes, clubs, work camps, and prisons.
He was a pioneer of recording both music and oral histories with "folk" musicians - he recorded Jelly Roll Morton at the Library of Congress in 1938, followed by Woody Guthrie and other legendary blues, jazz, folk and traditional singers. These recordings were used as more than research and library holdings: they became books, radio programs, record albums and documentaries, building understanding, entertaining and archiving all at the same time.
Lomax founded Folkways Records (now at the Smithsonian), hosted radio and TV shows (now at the Library of Congress), and worked to preserve folk music in the face of mass commercial culture. He also saw the importance of technology in cultural work. “The main point of my activity,” he said, “was to put sound technology at the disposal of the folk, to bring channels of communication to all sorts of artists and areas.”
So how do you apply that idea to something like American Punk?
Google searches return 1000s of fan-built Punk sites - some active, some abandoned, built in a range of technologies, subject to personal interest and capacity. Within those sites, there are written and recorded interviews, demos and remixes pulled from aging cassettes, and everything from uncredited photos to hi-res scans of original flyers. Streaming platforms host hundreds of hours of live concerts, pulled from master tapes and 100th generation VHS tapes alike. Academic sites are not much better - each has its own approach to cataloguing and surfacing content, and are limited by resources like staff time, budgets and knowledge.
It's not like there isn't plenty of music journalism or fan-made documentary work - but that's not usually approached as cultural archiving. And until the rise of Podcasting and YouTube, oral histories, interviews and conversations with Punk and other culture-makers were rare and often repetitive - the same, usually high-profile faces sharing their broad personal perspectives.
We are using a Lomax-style framework of preservation and publication, and developing a cultural archive model that works for Punk content and creators by:
preserving the processes, work, media and stories of counterculture artists, and creating new releases built from that archives;
connecting and mapping the relationships of memories, moments and assets to one another so they can be discovered and curated;
creating tools that help volunteers share their artworks and knowledge to build the collection, as well as correct, transcribe and process content;
utilizing emergent technology, creative and social practices to create experiences that inform, excite and spread awareness;
improving access and distribution models, so that royalties can be channelled to artists and help sustain the Archive itself,
sharing the digital and other media we generate back with those who helped create, collect and care for the original artifacts and artwork, and to the public through our publications and platforms.
Given the ways many American art forms intersect with visual and communication arts, and how technology, the entertainment industry and digital arts have expanded the ways we make, distribute and control creative work, we have naturally extended Lomax's work - and remain inspired by the goals we share.
TOO LONG; DIDN'T READ
Alan Lomax was an ethnomusicologist, folklorist, writer, oral historian, archivist and all-around uber-nerd. "Without Lomax," says musician and music theorist Brian Eno, "it's possible there would have been no blues explosion, no R&B movement, no Beatles, and no Stones, and no Velvet Underground."
Our concept is to take the preservation framework developed by Lomax's Association for Cultural Equity - particularly a refreshed approach to the Global Jukebox - and apply it to late-20th century folk, vernacular, and creative counter- and sub-cultures, starting with Punk. By starting with Punk, we leverage first-hand experience, real-world skills, and clear interest from, ahem, consumers to lay the foundation for a system that can be used for many DIY subcultures, from the 1920s to today.
Art by Randy Biscuit Turner
The Dicks, by Bill Daniel
Cover of Strange Wine EP, Government Issue. Photo of J Robbins by Nuit Hansgen.