Vanishing Voices

As a child, Alan Lomax was not in good health.  Born in Texas, he was unable to participate in sports as many other young boys.  His father was a collector of folk songs, so Alan would often accompany him.  This was the start of Alan’s lifelong interest in music and its place in society.

In college at the University of Texas, Alan would often take dates to black-owned night clubs.  If he were caught, he knew he would be expelled from college.  But Alan began to see “race” music as another genre of music that he needed to be aware of.

After graduation, Alan became involved with the Library of Congress (LOC) where he and his father and other collaborators were able to add more than 10,000 recordings to the LOC collection.  As a part of his work with the LOC, Alan helped America discover Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seegar, Burl Ives, and many blues musicians such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and others.

The U.S. Congress ended funding for the LOC to continue its collection of folk music and other music of the people of America.  Alan continued collecting recordings using his own funds.  Sixty years later, the LOC acquired Alan’s collection.

Alan spent most of the latter part of his life advocating for cultural equity.  He felt strongly that all voices need to be preserved, especially voices as captured in song.  In today’s context, Alan’s work would be considered as preserving the endangered species of music.  He also drew a connection between the songs he recorded and the lives of those who sang them.  For example, he showed how blues came from segregation, forced labor, and other realities of the lives of African Americans.

Alan became devoted to preserving the cultural rights of those who did not have the resources to fight for those rights themselves.  In an interview, Alan said:  The stuff of folklore – the orally transmitted wisdom, art, music of the people can provide ten thousand bridges across which men of all nations may stride to say “you are my brother”.

Alan Lomax received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan and was given the Library of Congress Living Legend Award.

There are almost 7,000 languages in the world, but we lose one language on average every two weeks.  Just imagine what these vanishing voices mean for a loss of culture?  When we lose the songs of these voiceless cultures, what does that do to cultural identity?  When people no longer have a heritage of stories, songs, and language, just imagine what that says about how they are viewed by the rest of the world.  How can we promote equity while letting voices vanish?

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“The dimensions of cultural equity needs to be added to the human continuum of liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and social justice.”  Alan Lomax

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