michael naimark




Alan Lomax meeting, New York

Michael Naimark


(If you weren't at Interval last March when Lomax visited, you may wish to skip to the end of this report and read his bio sent out then.)

Tuesday afternoon I met with Alan Lomax and staff at his Association for Cultural Equity at Hunter College in New York. Alan is 77 years old and has spent his entire adult life (and much of his boyhood working with his father) collecting, codifying, and analyzing song and dance from around the world. He has the world's largest collection, including data on 1,400 cultures, and has cross-correlated it with more general cultural data (using Murdoch's Ethnographic Atlas). He has currrently 600 music clips and 600 dance clips coded, and a somewhat clunky but impressive Mac-based demo system using two laserdiscs (straight transfers of two of his four global dance films without any editing). He is considered singly most responsible for the popularization of American folksongs and the blues.

Since he became involved in interactive multimedia in the late 1980s Lomax has had scores of visitors, people representing powerful companies and institutions with stakes in the multimedia industry. And the responses have always been the same: their jaws drop, they say this is the most amazing multimedia database they've ever seen.

Then they leave.

Alan is a bit confused.

Alan's primary passion these days is completing the factor analysis work on his data, "finishing up his research". He says it works well on a micro level (such as finding similarities between two songs from the same culture) but he's convinced it will work on a macro level as well. He claims he can demonstrate the existence of "super factors" for song, dance, and culture using R-factors and cluster analysis. (FYI - these super factors are: form/articulation, gender, role, and organization.)

We discussed how Interval and his group could collaborate. He's understandably protective of his data and can be defensive about their interface design (which works great for him and is cluttered and technical for everyone else). But the untouched archives may offer a clean start, and he seems to be open to further discussion.

Meanwhile, next week is a big one for him: he'll be showing his system for the first time at the annual American Association of Anthropologists meetings in Washington, DC. We joked about how romantically anti-tech most of the anthro community is. (I mentioned that the Society for Visual Anthropolgy section of the AAA, of which I'm a member, tends to love film and hate video and computers. He said he used to head that group years ago, and they're the most progressive of the lot.) He also thinks they'll be critical, "they're so anti-reductionist." Perhaps, but I think it'll be a landmark homecoming for him. He's also sending out probes everywhere to try to meet with Al Gore, since he truly believes his material in schools can help save the world.


(emailed 5 March 1993)

To: everyone@interval.com
From: naimark@interval.com (Michael Naimark)
Subject: lomax

Here are some notes about Alan Lomax, our friday 1-3pm guest.

The discoverer of such artists as Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax first became interested in folk music through his father, John Lomax. During the Depression,they travelled across America, using one of the first portable electric recorders to gather material for the newly founded Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. One of their young assistants was Jerry Wiesner.

In 1941, father and son edited the first set of recordings that any government ever published of its native folk traditions. In all they collected 25,000 songs for the Library of Congress. He also produced a radio series "beginning a widespread folk revival that has echoed down through the rock era" (NY Times).

In 1962, supported by grants from the National Institutes of Mental Health, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford, Rockefeller, and other foundations, Lomax and his team made systematic, scientific surveys of song and dance patterns of 400 world cultures. He compared song and dance with each other, as well as with databases codifying general traits of world culture. "What I discovered," he said "is that the stylistic patterns of these traditions are the oldest and most stable properties of the human spirit. That these distributions of musical styles are the historical distributions of human culture. That is an enormous surprise."

But he started too early. Looking for correlations in the 1960s with a computer meant punch cards and batch processing. He had widely published his codification schemes - cantometrics (song) and choreometrics (dance) - but it wasn't until the late 1980s that he realized he could publish his 50 years of work the right way.

He founded the Association for Cultural Equity at Hunter College in 1989 to produce "The Global Jukebox," with equal representation of the music of all cultures past and present. "It'll produce a thunderburst of knowledge" he told me then. At the time he was struggling for funds - most of his funding was coming from the Grateful Dead's Rex Fund - and he realized that, even with a Presidential Award for the Arts, he was falling in the cracks of standard venues for support, which had been drying up since 1980 anyway.

Then two years ago he received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation for The Global Jukebox, not enough, but enough to get him to what he'll show friday.

I have several papers and articles about Lomax. If anyone is interested, email me.