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Alan Lomax and the "Grass Roots" Idea.

Alan Lomax's centenary in 2015 occasioned a wide range of releases, exhibitions, and events in his honor. Amid festivities at the Library of Congress, South by Southwest in Austin, and the Brooklyn Folk Festival, the tributes to Lomax included Lost Train Blues (Jalopy Records) and Root Hog or Die (Mississippi Records), new indie-label LPs of field recordings that, taken together, surveyed his life's work of documenting and preserving the world's traditional musical cultures. By the end of the following year, the centenary culminated in the comprehensive digital publication of Lomax's manuscripts at the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center. Earlier this year, it was announced that the Association for Cultural Equity, the foundation that Lomax himself created, would make a reality of his vision of a Global Jukebox, a repository of thousands of recordings mapped by world region, musical style, and social function--once again, online. The concentration of this commemorative and legacy-enhancing activity in new media, or in old media newly reinvigorated, highlights an important feature of Lomax's seven decades as a folklorist and musicologist. It began with his first radio broadcasts of American folk music in the 1940s and extended to his public-television documentaries celebrating a multicultural America in the early 1990s. By the time of his death in 2002, Lomax had left behind an important body of writings on culture, politics, and media that deserves greater attention.

Lomax's bold essay-memorandum "We Need a Grass Roots Communication System," written in 1979 and published here for the first time, is a key text in this body of writings. In 1976, Congress had passed the American Folklife Preservation Act, establishing the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. In 1979, Lomax responded with a provocative challenge to the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) to abandon what he considered the cultural hegemony of a one-way mass-communication system, in which the network, as he saw it, packaged examples of a national culture in the metropol and delivered them out via televisual mass media to the provinces. In "We Need a Grass Roots Communication System," Lomax outlined a three-point plan for decentralizing the System, whose emphasis on the Boston Pops, Masterpiece Theater, the "urban-based amusement industry," and "our civilization-oriented educational tradition" only served, in his view, to "conceal America from itself." What he proposed was a fifty-states approach to PBS that would give independent state bureaus the funds and expertise--technical and cultural--to produce programs relevant to their constituent communities and reflective of "the accomplishments of the local surround." "The aim," he explained, "is to build the morale and the creativity of the whole country."

Lomax's belief in and adherence to what he called "grass roots culture" extended back to his years of federal service as a folklorist during the New Deal. In the summer of 1941, the Library of Congress dispatched its new mobile sound studio to make a record of the people in the Tennessee Valley whose farms would soon be flooded as part of the rural electrification initiative. The recording team included Lomax and two other members of the Radio Research Project, Joseph Liss and Jerome Wiesner. Among the outcomes of the project was the news series Report to the Nation, one episode of which was titled "Grass Roots Democracy." It described the Tennessee Valley Authority as a bulwark for "grass-roots democracy "--grassroots because it involved the direct participation of "tens of thousands" of people, and democracy because it was "based on the consent and understanding and approval of the people and not upon dictation and force and fear." (1) For Lomax, this script was the genesis of the "grass roots" idea. Again and again it informed his ethos: that cultural expression bubbles up from individuals to communities and nations, and that harnessing the mass media to this patchwork would enable its flourishing.

Lomax tried again to unite this grassroots ethos with broadcast media in "We Need a Grass Roots Communication System." It's unclear what level of the PBS hierarchy Lomax's proposal penetrated when he issued it in 1979. Needless to say, perhaps, the structural shift he was agitating for failed to materialize. However, his letter had two productive outcomes. First, in 1980, PBS syndicated The Land Where the Blues Began, the film Lomax, Worth Long, and John Bishop had made two years earlier in Mississippi with the support of Mississippi Educational Television. In Lomax's letter, this film is described as the pilot episode of what was to be a "magazine-style program" with the title "Afro-American Folk" and a specific focus on the Gulf Coast region, but that program was never realized. Second, in 1981, PBS provided funding for the fourteenth "suggested programming idea" listed in "We Need a Grass Roots Communication System": the ambitious American Patchwork series, which would eventually incorporate Lomax, Long, and Bishop's Mississippi documentary.

Taken as a whole, the field trips that Lomax and crew undertook for American Patchwork-- in 1982, 1983, and 1985, along with the 1978 shoots for The Land Where the Blues Began--can be considered the biggest of his career: over three hundred hours of footage shot in eight states and the District of Columbia. This fieldwork also constitutes, for all intents and purposes, Lomax's last documentary effort, except for some camcorder shooting he did in the Caribbean island of Carriacou during Carnival in 1991, and it arguably reached the most people of any to date. The five films premiered in prime time on PBS in 1991, and were rerun for a number of years, in both national and local markets.

The vision that led to this capstone achievement was that of a decentralized media network in which regional centers controlled by local production teams would be tasked with presenting the best examples of regional folk culture from a local perspective. In one sense, the articulation of this vision in "We Need a Grass Roots Communication System" was very much a product of the US bicentennial era in which it was written, an era that would be defined by Jimmy Carter's Democratic presidential administration. Emboldened by the Folklife Preservation Act's declaration that "building a strong nation does not require the sacrifice of cultural differences," ratified by Congress less than three weeks before Carter's inauguration, Lomax was also inspired, as his biographer John Szwed suggests, by a presidential campaign that had been built around Carter's slogan of "an America that encourages and takes pride in our ethnic diversity, our religious diversity, our cultural diversity." (2) This ethos of ethnic and cultural pluralism, says Szwed, reignited Lomax's vestigial New Deal impulses, forged in the years of the Great Depression when his earliest field recordings, with their embrace of distinctive regional, occupational, and ethnic traditions, entered seamlessly into the artistic program of the Popular Front. (3)

In fact, Lomax's contact with the Carter administration--and its influence on his thinking--were direct. In the summer of 1976, Lomax wrote the missive "Toward a Presidential Commission on Grass Roots Culture," which suggested using the tools of federal government agencies--not just PBS, but also the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, among others--to implement policies necessary "to make our ethnicities and our localities self-aware and self-proud, to develop a self-consciously multi-directional national culture." (4) It was a clear precursor to the more provocative, manifestolike proposal of "We Need a Grass Roots Communication System." And Lomax followed it up in the autumn of 1976 with a lengthy assessment he sent to the Carter campaign of the future president's "performance style" on national television, which nearly landed him a job in the soon-to-be administration. This is the immediate context in which "We Need a Grass Roots Communication System" was written.

In another sense, though, Lomax's multicultural vision in "We Need a Grass Roots Communication System" should be understood as an outgrowth of the Black Identity Project he had launched at Columbia University a decade earlier. Conceived as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the urban uprisings that followed, the Black Identity Project also sought to harness mass media in the service of cultural pride, addressing what he considered the core problem facing a community that had been largely marginalized from the mainstream ("a loss of identity") by educating black youth about the African roots of contemporary African American culture. This project, like his intended project to overhaul PBS, failed to materialize in all its proposed forms across print, television, and radio, but it did produce a successful series of broadcasts on black radio stations in 1968-70 called the Black Encyclopedia of the Air. Lomax's seemingly patriotic ethnic and cultural pluralism in "We Need a Grass Roots Communication System" had underneath it the radical edge of an earlier foray into black cultural nationalism. Hence, in the text published here, his disapproving reference to media representations of "angry urban neighborhoods," and his own sometimes strident use of a then still new affirmative language of black identity.

But in both projects, by celebrating as saving graces what he thought of as the uniqueness, originality, and wholeness of particular folk cultures, Lomax opened himself to charges of sentimentalizing the people he wrote about. And any thoughtful consideration of Lomax's legacy must take into account this purported sentimentality. It's no secret that he felt passionately about the music to which he devoted his life, and the people who had made that music. Perhaps his frankest expression of this sentiment is a remark he made in an address to a group of largely academic folklorists assembled for the Mid-Century International Folklore Conference at Indiana University in 1950:
    It seems to me that in one way or another we all feel, we
   that we are making a better present and preparing for some sort
   of juster future for all people. So, let us begin right where we are,
   where we folklorists stand with the simplest value notion. We are
   folklorists because we like folklore, or we like the people from whom
   it comes. We like the way folklore makes us feel and we like the way
   many people make us feel. (5)

This address, titled "Making Folklore Available," recalled an originary moment in Lomax's personal story of intellectual development. It belongs to a conversion narrative of sorts, based on an experience, full of sentiment, that Lomax considered the moment when his mission as a folklorist was revealed to him.

That experience took place during his first recording trip, in the summer of 1933, when seventeen-year-old Alan and his father John A. Lomax visited the Smither Farm, north of Huntsville in the rural northern tip of Walker County, Texas. John explained to the plantation manager that they were looking for "made-up songs" from the black tenant farmers; the manager then took it upon himself to compel all the tenants and their families to gather in the schoolhouse that evening. The scene was uncomfortable. A few spirituals were sung before an old gentleman called Blue bravely volunteered a song he claimed to have composed that afternoon in the field, one that addressed the iniquities of the sharecropping system. After a few lines, he began to address the president, presumably expecting that his message would be brought back to Washington through these white folks from the Library of Congress:
    Now Mr. President, you just don't know how bad they're
   us folks down here. I'm singing to you and I'm talking to
you so
   I hope you will come down here and [do] something for us poor
   folks in Texas.

Alan recalled this experience in 1979:
    When the record was over, we played it back and there was immense
   joy in this group because they felt they had communicated their
   problem to the big world.... They wanted those people at the other
   end of the line to hear what life was like for them. That's why
   were singing for us; they wanted to get into the big network....
   That experience totally changed my life. I saw what I had to do. My
   job was to try and get as much of these views, these feelings, this
   unheard majority onto the center of the stage. (6)

Lomax has been taken to task--in his lifetime but perhaps even more since his death--for this sense of mission. It often expressed itself in epic terms, generalizing when it should have specified, romanticizing when it might have made cooler, more objective considerations. In many instances his field notes were thin and hurried. This embarrassed him, as he aspired to be a scientific folklorist. So he read ravenously--folklore, ethnology, biology. He focused on primary source data and drew extensively upon the work of colleagues in the academy, whom he both admired and envied. And his observations were keen, with a sophistication that deepened with every recording trip.

As much as he was a documentarian, Lomax was also a tireless and prolific promoter of what he documented. His public output traced an arc of media and technological advancement across seven decades: from instantaneously recorded disc to magnetic tape to stereo tape to video tape; in books and records, over the radio, on TV and the concert stage, and, later in his life, in HyperCard and CD-ROM. And it was, to use his word, his fundamental feeling for folk culture and folk communities that inspired his near-constant labors to carve out space in the mass popular culture for site-specific expressive traditions. He felt passionately that his role was to be their advocate, and his advocacy was passionate. "Underneath," he explained at Indiana University, "we are all morally, emotionally, and aesthetically involved with our material ... and there is no escape from that."

Lomax's attachment to his material was not at all that of an antiquarian; nor was his motivation a quixotic attempt to keep folk culture and its practitioners mired in primitivism or some imagined state of purity. Although many of the local folk traditions Lomax held dear might be unrecognizable to him today, culture is seldom "thrown away." It gets plowed up, turned under, rediscovered, recycled, brilliantly reconfigured or cheapened beyond all reckoning. It's always in process, and Lomax knew this better than anyone. As a young man he hated jazz, seeing it as a corrupter of the rural black vernacular music he and his father collected in the early 1930s. But in 1938, he recorded eight hours of Jelly Roll Morton's reminiscences of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, "where the birth of jazz originated." (7) It struck Lomax then that this city--its gallimaufry of races and classes with their rich and messy and fraught creolized culture--was an ideal of American culture at large, and it hit him with the force of revelation. He later heard this essence in Michael Jackson and Prince, whom he loved. He rejoiced over the early iterations of hip-hop--record-scratching, break dancing.

Lomax's concern, then, wasn't cultural synthesis. It was a centralized mediascape through which was broadcast an industrial American monoculture. "Too few transmitters and too many receivers" was his central complaint. He was frustrated with the myopic unilateralism of corporate programming, which he saw operating through an "over-powerful, over-rich, over-reaching" communication system. His answer to this was what he termed "cultural equity": the right for folk communities--what he called "little bubbles of song and delight and ways of life and cookery," encompassing "hundreds of thousands of these little generators of the original"--to have their voices heard and their traditions represented. As he told Charles Kuralt in 1991:
    Cultural equity should join all the other important principles of
   human dignity, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom
   to work and live and enjoy yourself, and freedom for your culture to
   express itself. 'Cause that's all we got, you know.
We're just culture.

At the heart of cultural equity for Lomax was the desire he had acted on since the early 1940s to put mass media in the service of grassroots culture--to increase the number of localities and enclaves with transmitters, not just receivers, and to remake the systems we are all plugged into on the principle of two-way communication.

"We Need a Grass Roots Communication System" marks a pivotal moment in Lomax's life as a folklorist. From notes he made during that period, it's clear that his appeal to PBS in 1979 was part of a serious plan he developed--never realized--to return to federal service after a thirty-year hiatus. During that time, Lomax still moved in federal circles. As late as 1978, he addressed the newly formed Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, part of the Department of the Interior. He advocated for local and regional cultural conservation and laid out a program, but found no traction. Later that year he wrote to Columbia University, proposing what he called an Institution of Human Ecology. He continued along these lines for years, seeking to establish his own organization and no longer hoping to transform the federal humanities landscape. In 1981, Lomax organized a conference with a familiar title: "Working at the Grass Roots." It carried forward his vision for an Institution of Human Ecology and laid the seedbed for what would become a few years later the Association for Cultural Equity, the project to which he devoted the rest of his life.


Earlier versions of portions of this essay appeared in Nathan Salsburg's liner notes to Root Hog or Die: 100 Songs, 100 Years: An Alan Lomax Centennial Tribute, Mississippi Records MRP-060, 2015, 33 rpm.

(1/) Radio Research Project Manuscript Collection, Folder MS 80 (AFC 1941/005), Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

(2/) Jimmy Carter, "Our Nation's Past and Future" (address accepting the Presidential Nomination at the Democratic National Convention in New York, July 15, 1976), American Presidency Project,

(3/) See John Szwed, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (New York: Viking, 2010), 369-70.

(4/) Alan Lomax Collection, Folder MS 09.01.17 (AFC 2004/004), Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

(5/) Alan Lomax, "Making Folklore Available," in Alan Lomax: Selected Writings, 1934-1997, ed. Ronald D. Cohen (New York: Routledge, 2005), 114.

(6/) The statement by the singer Blue, and Lomax's recollection of it, are quoted in Szwed, 36-37.

(7/) Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax, Rounder Records 11661, 2005, compact disc.


The text of "We Need a Grass Roots Communication System" published here is reproduced from the original undated typescript located in the Alan Lomax Collection at the Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC (AFC 2004/004: MS 38.03.39). The author's personal idiosyncrasies in spelling certain terms have been retained; misspellings, unintended irregularities in punctuation, and other errors have been silently corrected. Information in brackets has been added for clarification, and abbreviations have been spelled out where necessary. The original formatting of the typescript has been mostly preserved. The text is published here courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.

Caption: Alan Lomax, 1982, in a publicity photo for the PBS series American Patchwork. Image courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.
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Author:Harvey, Todd; Peart, Andrew; Salsburg, Nathan
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2017
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