A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Friday, February 13, 2015

An Interview with AFC Lomax Family Collection Curator Todd Harvey

In honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth and the 75th anniversary of his 1938 collecting trip through Michigan, an upcoming exhibition at the Michigan State University Museum will focus on the extensive upper Midwest materials collected by renown folklorist Alan Lomax. This exhibition, entitled "Michigan Folksong Legacy: Grand Discoveries from the Great Depression," has travelled around the state of Michigan, landing in schools, libraries, museums, and community spaces. It was generated through a partnership between the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress (AFC) Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the Michigan State University Museum (MSUM); the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Culture, University of Wisconsin, and the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE). The exhibition is part of a larger project that includes innovative publications, community engagement, digital educational resources, and the repatriation of copies of collections to their home communities. It inspired concerts, public programming, and even a collaboration between the Earthwork Music Collective and seven underserved northwest lower Michigan schools (read more about that here).

Photo courtesy of the MSU Museum website
These programs have been made possible in part by a grant from Michigan Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities; with additional support from the Michigan State University Museum and its the Great Lakes Traditions Endowment; the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress; the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures at the University of Wisconsin; the Association for Cultural Equity; and the Finlandia Foundation.

I interviewed Lomax Family Collection Curator Todd Harvey to get a better understanding of the exhibition, the collection, and the role that archives play in current society. Here is a look into our conversation:

What is your role at the American Folklife Center with the Lomax Collections? What do your daily responsibilities entail?

I am the Curator of the Lomax Collection. I oversee processing of materials and am the content and reference specialist. I help to promote and interface with other organizations. You could say I am the "point person for all things Lomax."
Every day I get queries about the collection. Some of them might be, "Can I have some materials?" or "Can I do some licensing?" Others are more broad, such as an eighth grade student doing a National History Day project on Alan Lomax who wants access to some of our collections or a record producer who wants help with getting proper permissions, content, and track information.
In the longer term, The Lomax Family Collection is engaged in a large-scale digitization and online publication project where all Lomax manuscripts in the collections will be presented online, plus ninety-eight other Lomax family collections. This involves between 350,000-400,000 scans that will be available through the Library of Congress. I help to select and prepare that materials, which then move to the conservation department, then to digital curation, etc. It is an extremely large institutional project. 

Why should visitors to the exhibition care about fieldwork that Lomax did in Michigan? What can we learn about Michigan and the upper Midwest from his fieldwork? 
I think you can learn about the incredible ethnic and cultural diversity of the upper Midwest. That is what really struck Lomax in Ohio and Indiana in the spring of 1938 and in Michigan in the fall of 1938.
He intended a rapid recognizance survey of the upper Midwest cultures, those present in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota,  Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, but he got stalled because, as he put is Michigan was "the most fertile source for cultural expression."
People should care  because some of the earliest documentation of those cultures, certainly earliest fieldwork documentation, occurred during this period. This was one of the first times an ethnographer had worked in the upper Midwest. It is early and unique and precious.
At its core, this fieldwork shows the great depth of expressive culture in Michigan in the 1930s. 
What surprised you about the collecting work that Lomax did in Michigan?
 A lot of things surprised me. Because I went day-to-day looking at his work, I was surprised by the intensity of the work and the constancy of the work. He didn't take a lot of days off. He was always moving from one town to the next, finding performers, recording them, and moving on.
I was surprised by the diversity as well. I think he recorded twelve languages [during his time in Michigan]. It represented so many culture groups for not much geographic space. 
It seemed like a tremendous amount of fun. His correspondence showed a good sense of humor about what he was doing. He seemed to be totally in his element. He would write these messages... "I'm getting such great stuff, I can't bear to leave. Send my advance to the next town." He was always broke because he was always paying performers. He truly embodied that nostalgic sense of the fieldworker, constantly recording, alone on the road but so happy to be there.
One of my favorite stories is that of Ted Lewandowski from Cheboygan, Michigan. Lomax had recorded Ted singing old songs, and then proceeded to ask his two young daughters if they had anything they would like to share. They start singing this cowboy song, "Goldmine in the Sky," which was a title track to a Gene Autry film which had been playing at an area theatre. They copied it from the film. It was popular music of the moment. Here you had a father doing songs from the old country juxtaposed against this pop song from a film. Lomax wasn't just interested in "old people doing old songs." It was real culture.
When you read Lomax's notes, there are all sorts of events like that. For all the successes he had, he would write down the negatives as well. A priest would throw him out of a church, or he would arrive at someone's house to record them only to discover that they had died. He once said "I'm beginning to think I'm death's special messenger."
The 75th anniversary of the Lomax fieldwork in Michigan and the 100th anniversary of Lomax's birth has led to a rich collaboration between the American Folklife Center/Library of Congress, the MSU Museum, and other partners. Can you reflect on this partnership and how it worked?
We started to reflect on the 75th/100th anniversaries with the idea that it should focus on the performers and the cultures they represented, on the documentation rather than the documenter. That was Lomax's way.
We are particularly fortunate because of the strong MSU/AFC bond that already existed. They were the obvious partner for us to approach. When we decided to work together, we agreed that we would use our complimenting strengths to create a viable program. The Library of Congress is great for preserving materials and creating authoritative metadata. We have discovered that the MSU Museum is good at promoting materials throughout the state of Michigan. They are the best at it! Who did Kurt Dewhurst (MSU Museum Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage) hire but one of the best-known fieldworkers in the state, Laurie Sommers. She knew which venues and communities to talk to and which reporters to approach. The great press snowballed.
We tried to keep things modest in scope. We did what each organization does best and played to our strengths. We involved other organizations as we needed them or as they approached us (The Michigan Humanities Council, the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures at the University of Wisconsin, the Association for Cultural Equity, and the Finlandia Foundation) and were intentional with our branding. 
 Why are fieldwork collections by folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and other scholars held in professional archives so important to us today? 
At the Library of Congress, our goal is to create a universal body of knowledge that represents culture. Much of this is achieved through archives. This includes photographs, sound recordings, etc., of people. For a long time, this meant congressmen, senators, and people in power.
In the 1920s when the folk archive was founded, it gave a richer, truer picture of American culture. Ethnography is that in many ways... that expressed culture of ordinary people, and of everyone. Is this a world of power and ideas and reports? Or of things that are passed down from generation to generation? It is important to represent both of the aspects of culture.
We are only part of a continuum. There is someone who keeps a tradition alive in their world and in their family by practicing it. At some point, this tradition is documented, preserved, then learned and reinterpreted. This repeats. This is how expressive culture is maintained in the digital age. We are all tradition bearers, like it or not, know it or not. 
At the Library of Congress, we are stewards of this material, which is only useful if someone uses it, looks at it, and learns something from it. We have to be inward-facing preservationists, but also face out to the world and present this material. The Michigan Folksong Legacy Project was unique because we didn't just present academic papers, but tried to sew materials back into the communities from which they originated through the exhibition and public programs.
Why do you think that there is growing interest and passion by the younger generations for early recordings?
I hope it is because mass culture is finally beginning to mature, and digital natives are the benefit of that. We don't have NBC broadcasting a "folk show" on Thursday night as the only representation of what traditional culture is. We have a million ways for younger people to grab culture and use it. We've seen an atomization of American culture. We have access to everything, so we are able to ask: what is important? The answer is becoming: our traditions. I think that is what is happening. I am glad to be a part of it. If I can teach some high school students to use our archive, we are relevant for another generation.
I am reminded of Alan Lomax's principle of "cultural equity." In a big way, what happened in the 20th century was a cultural grey out. The growth of media in the 1920s caused people to turn less and less to their own culture and more and more toward mass culture. It's hard to fight that. It's hard not to take the "hee-haw" as a true representation of rural American culture. It was half Vaudeville and half... something else. Lomax proposed equal time for all cultures on the air and in the classroom. In that way we can help to encourage the beautiful cultural diversity that we see in the US and the upper Midwest. This is a foundational principle of the Lomax Collection.
What do you think Lomax might be collecting in Michigan if he were alive today?
He collected folksongs because that was a big way for people to express themselves in 1938. He was especially interested in the way these songs moved across the country and the world. He also collected oral histories and instrumental music. He would be looking at vestiges of traditional culture being expressed... Finnish culture in the Upper Peninsula, children's games, polka music on the east side of the state, dance throughout the state, "the urban strain" as he called it-- urban popular music and how has changed and moved in Detroit. He was also interested in recent immigrant communities, so I think he would take a look at the Arab communities around Detroit as well.
 I wouldn't be surprised if he went over to the Traverse City area to talk to some of the Earthwork Music Collective members because they are transforming folksongs
and keeping them alive. 

Click here to listen to podcasts generated by the Library of Congress about the work of Lomax.

"Michigan Folksong Legacy: Grand Discoveries from the Great Depression" will be on view at the MSU Museum from March 2nd through October 18th in the Heritage Gallery.

Listen to a clip of one of Lomax's recordings here!