Alan Lomax and All the Good

Today, were he still alive, Alan Lomax would have celebrated his 97th birthday.

I confess that I wasn’t familiar with Lomax until after I got married. The long and the short of it: Alan Lomax was a folklorist and an ethnomusicologist. He took his recording equipment around, and recorded people performing the music they performed. He recorded them talking. He taped their dancing. He worked to document and preserve cultures, both within and without the U.S.

His prodigious legwork provided the first recordings of, among others, Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters. He met and recorded Leadbelly in jail. He didn’t really create folk music culture, but he certainly introduced it to those of us who otherwise wouldn’t know it. In the end, the New York Times¬†tells me, he collected 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, 5,000 photographs, and all sorts of memoirs.

The Church is amazing (though not unique) in its attraction of people from all sorts of cultures, countries, and regions. In my ward, we have Utahns, Idahoans, Midwesterners, Easterners, Californians. We have immigrants from Central America, refugees and immigrants from West Africa, members from Korea and Mongolia. We have people whose history intersects with the Church for generations, and people whose history intersects for months.

In 1997, speaking at BYU, President Hinckley¬†said, “Bring all the good that you have and let us see if we can add to it.” It seems to me that this is a call for us, as church members, to become amateur folklorists and ethnomusicologists. Through our fellow-saints, we can learn and experience other cultures, and in our ward families, we can preserve the cultures the mix by virtue of geographic, and not self-selected, boundaries. And, by doing so, we can benefit from the good that people bring with them on Sundays.

10 comments for “Alan Lomax and All the Good

  1. I just love the idea of gathering good things from all different cultures and faiths, and I think that’s something that tends to get lost in our enthusiasm for being separate from “the world”. As a teenager I thought it would be bad for me to wear a cross; now I really want to get a necklace with one, because I think they’re beautiful. I felt really uncomfortable attending my friends’ churches in high school because I thought they were just kind of… off. Now I want to visit all kinds of different churches because I find so much to love in their religious traditions. I just think this is a wonderful sentiment and I love the idea of a church of amateur folklorists. “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”

  2. Surely part of this project is the preservation of our own ancestral culture, to the extent it is virtuous and lovely, so that we have something to share. We tend to take our own ancestral cultures for granted, and fail to pass them along to our children. For example, Wales doesn’t sound exotic, but it was that culture that bequeathed us the tradition of choral music that became the Tabernacle Choir.

    In my own family, the fact that we lived in Japan when the kids were young and my Japanese mother is still hale and healthy at 82 has sustained appreciation for that part of our family heritage, including Japanese names for all the grandchildren and a love of Japanese food.

    Preserving our own cultural heritage gives us something we can share with other members of the Church as we seek to learn more about their own cultural endowments.

  3. Incidentally, my wife has a big book of piano music and songs that is based on the folk music collected by Lomax. We can learn about those cultures by playing and singing their music.

  4. The folk music craze of the late 50s and early 60s that saw the rise of such groups as Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio and others, helped introduce Lomax’s name to a great many Americans. Many knew nothing about America’s deep heritage of folk music until that time, but thanks to Lomax, among others, they learned and they enjoyed and hopefully have passed that love on.

  5. i’d never heard of lomax before your post, and then by coincidence (or maybe not…maybe you already know) i saw a story on rolling stone that his archives, some 17000 songs, will stream starting the end of february. if you didnt already know, i hope you find some cool things there when it starts.

  6. I personally think it’s a tragedy that we haven’t developed a very strong tradition of this within the Church. I think it’s tied to our proselytizing culture: we’re used to exporting culture, not importing it. That’s why BYU sends student performing groups all over the world to perform Western/American music for global audiences, but doesn’t have a strong tradition of bringing artists from around the world to teach their cultural traditions to BYU students.

    The Church, and BYU specifically, would have been perfectly positioned to be pioneers in intercultural studies of this sort when fields like ethnomusicology first became academically accepted disciplines. But alas, from the very beginning, such studies, which inherently challenged the notion of Western cultural dominance and exclusive legitimacy, smacked of counterculture–which, of course, many prominent leaders in the Church had little sympathy for in the 1960s and 70s. This surely contributed to our cultural notion that we don’t listen, we tell.

  7. Interesting idea, NG; we’ve certainly (culturally, at least) sacralized a certain set of cultural configurations. I hadn’t thought about it as being countercultural, but I could see that.

    I also think there’s something about our having Truth, which we take as meaning we have everything we need, and that anything not already within our paradigm must be Untrue. And I really like Pres. Hinckley’s reminder (which has been repeated by others) that that attitude is wrong, and that there is value outside of what we already know and accept.

  8. Sam, I really like this post. I have learned so much about living the gospel by listening to testimonies of members of our ward of other cultures. There is a sister in our ward who is from Rwanda. When she bears her testimony, her experiences are incredible and moving. The matriach of a Tongan family in our ward bears her testimony frequently, and I have learned a great deal about the power of family relationships. There have been many others. I feel grateful to live in a ward where we have this multi-cultural influence.

    Oh, I also read your tax posts, but I don’t quite have the mindset to understand all of it, but I am working on it. Keep up the good posts, nephew. Aunt Marsha

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