Lomax in the Field

Left: Wax cylinder phonograph and portrait of Jesse Walter Fewkes.

When John Lomax first began collecting folksongs, there was only one way of capturing sound — the wax cylinder phonograph, invented by Thomas A. Edison. In 1877, Edison developed a way of recording sound waves on a tinfoil cylinder. A person could talk, sing or play an instrument into a cone-shaped horn, which would translate the sound waves onto a diaphragm; this diaphragm was attached to a needle that would inscribe the sound waves as grooves onto the rotating tinfoil cylinder. By running the needle over these grooves, one could play back the recording by reversing the process: from grooves to needle to a diaphragm that would translate the sound back into waves that one could hear through the horn. Over the next ten years, Edison perfected the phonograph, replacing the fragile tinfoil with more durable wax, and the wax cylinder, with a playing time of between 2 and 10 minutes, became the first permanent way of capturing sound.

Listen to “Snake Dance song” sung by Noel Josephs (You may also download the file.) Recorded by Jesse Walter Fewkes, March 18, 1890, on a wax cylinder phonograph. Passamaquoddy Cylinder Collection (AFC 1972/003).

The anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes was the first to use Edison’s machine to conduct fieldwork in 1890, when he recorded the songs, chants and speech of the Passamaquoddy Indians of eastern Maine. One hundred sixteen years years later, these wax cylinders are still playable and quite clear — they are now held by the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress. John Lomax was among a group of folklorists and anthropologists who followed in Fewkes’s footsteps by taking Edison’s phonograph into the field as part of his equipment to document America’s folklore.

The wax cylinder phonograph was quite simple. With a wind-up clockwork motor, it needed no outside power source, which made it perfect for taking into the hinterlands of America where there was not likely to be electric power. It was easily carried in a wooden case, and the horn was not particularly bulky. Although they were housed in thick cardboard casings that kept them somewhat secure, the cylinders were fragile and easily affected by heat and handling. Carrying a supply of blank wax cylinders was probably the most difficult part of the process.

John Lomax could easily carry his equipment to the plains of Texas to record cowboys, or to the fields of the South, where he documented the songs of African Americans. In 1933, the first time that Alan Lomax accompanied his father on a collecting trip, John was still using a wax cylinder phonograph, and other folklorists continued to use cylinder recorders throughout the 1930s. But the 1930s began the era of disc recorders, which was the equipment of choice for the younger generation of collectors.

Listen to a wax cylinder recording of folklorist Robert Gordon, made as part of a sales pitch for recording equipment sold by the Amplion Company (You may also download the file.). Recorded in Washington, D.C., January 1932.

When John and Alan Lomax began using a disc recorder in 1934, they were part of a technological evolution in capturing sound. Emil Berliner had invented the disc recorder, which he called a gramophone, in 1887. It worked on the same principles as Edison’s phonograph, but it etched sound waves onto a flat disc. Over the next 30 years, the cylinder and disc competed in the marketplace, but the advantages of the disc eventually won out — discs were easier to carry and store, could be recorded on two sides, and generally allowed a longer recording time — about 10 minutes per side. In the 1890s, one could buy commercial recordings on either cylinder or disc, but by the late 1920s, the commercial cylinder recording had disappeared.

Listen to “Ain’ No More Cane on the Brazos,” sung by Rev. Moses “Clear Rock” Platt (You may also download the file.). Recorded by John and Ruby Lomax on a disc recorder, May 10, 1939.

Alan Lomax’s disc recorder was large and cumbersome, and certainly harder to manage than the simple cylinder machine. The Library of Congress supplied Alan with a series of Presto recorders and blank discs, and although the Presto recorder came in a case with a handle, it was hardly “portable” in any real sense. Like other folklorists in the 1930s and 1940s, Alan traveled with the machine in the back of his car — some folklorists used a converted ambulance for the equipment. In order to record in places where there was no electricity, Alan used his car battery, which was attached to a transformer, which was attached to an amplifier, which was attached to the Presto machine. Instead of a horn, Alan ran a cable from the machine to a microphone. In this respect, the way he recorded was much more modern, and of higher fidelity, than the cylinder recordings that his father made.

John and Ruby Lomax made over 700 disc recordings in the southern U.S. for the Library of Congress in 1939, including several of Rev. Moses “Clear Rock” Platt (left).
Photo by Alan Lomax. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. LOT 7414-F, no. N11.

The first field recorded discs were made of solid aluminum, with the grooves etched directly into the metal by the recording needle. These discs were quite rugged, but the grooves were shallow and the sound was not of the best quality. By the mid-1930s, Alan Lomax was using discs that were coated with a kind of lacquer, which allowed deeper and better grooves and made for better recordings. But the whole recording process was still difficult. Beyond the difficulty of transporting and setting up the equipment, Alan had to monitor the recordings continually, wearing a set of earphones as he hunched over the Presto machine, brushing or blowing away the thin spiral of aluminum or lacquer, as the needle cut its groove onto the blank disc. He could not devote his full attention to the singer or musician whom he was recording, which must have been uncomfortable for all concerned. But he could immediately play back the recording for the performer and any other folk gathered around, which was a great novelty and pleasure for people who had never heard their recorded voice before.

By the late 1940s, folklorists began to use a new type of machine, the tape recorder. While tape recorders had been around for many years, the first portable machines became available only around 1947. When Alan Lomax began his European fieldwork in the early 1950s, he used a Magnecord tape recorder, which was the state-of-the-art machine for field use. It was not as bulky as the disc recorder, but still required two cases — one for the recorder and one for the amplifier. As with the disc recorder, where there was no local electricity, the machine needed power from batteries. It was, however, much easier to operate, using a reel of recording tape that could be quickly threaded past the recording heads of the machine and onto a take-up reel. The tape reels were much easier to transport, and did not share the problem of fragility with cylinders and discs. Depending upon the size of the reel of tape, and the speed of recording, one could record more than an hour’s worth of material without changing tapes. The machine did not need constant monitoring, which meant that Alan could concentrate most of his attention on the performer. Freed from the demands of the machine, Alan became an eager and attentive audience, and his reputation for graciousness and enthusiasm, which many of his European informants recall, grew.

Left: Instantaneous recorder inside sound truck, date unknown. Library of Congress, American Folklife Center — Lomax Glass Slide Collection.

The value of these field recordings lies not only in the songs, music and stories on them, but in the field notes and other information that often accompanies them. Alan Lomax was especially good at asking singers and musicians about their lives and their artistry, so that the recordings often give more than simply performance — they give the context of that performance. Like many other folklorists, Alan kept field notebooks that recount his collecting experiences, and give further information on the people he recorded. The labels on the recordings, as well as the sleeves and boxes that house them, are often covered in scribbled notes, song lists, and notes on the quality of the recording — all of which add to the document as a whole. From these notes, we often learn the name, age and occupation of the performer, instrumentation, place and date of the recording, troubles during the recording process, and the opinion of the folklorist on the overall success of the recording effort. A good fieldworker, like Lomax, also took photographs of those recorded.

In the 1940s, Works Progress Administration workers took much of this information and typed out catalog cards for each performance on a disc. These catalog cards are an extremely valuable resource that researchers have mined for information ever since. The American Folklife Center has now scanned these cards and is producing searchable computer files of the information. In addition, the Center has a number of other databases and finding aids that make working with these recordings relatively easy. The Center is also in the process of digitizing the sound from its thousands of cylinders, discs, and tapes to preserve its collection from deterioration, and to make these recordings more accessible to the public through online presentations and CDs.

Today, folklorists continue the work of Alan Lomax. There are always more traditions than any one person or team of fieldworkers can collect in a lifetime, and there will always be a need for folklore collectors. Luckily, the technology used to capture sound has gotten better and easier to use over the years. The kind of open-reel machine that Alan first used continued to be improved upon, becoming more compact and lightweight, and affording better quality sound, until in the 1970s, cassette tape recorders replaced the old open-reel machines. Most folklorists switched to cassette recorders, although professional, state-of-the-art open-reel machines usually gave a higher quality recording.

Since the 1990s, most folklorists have turned to digital media for their fieldwork, and there are several varieties of competing machines: DAT (digital audio tape), CD recorders and mini-disc machines, flash recorders and hard disc machines. All of these machines have their pluses and minuses, but what is interesting about them is that they replicate the cylinder-disc competition of 80 years ago. Some of these digital formats are technological dead ends, but others will evolve into the folklorists’ tool of the future.