Berea College Special Collections & Archives, the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, the Association for Cultural Equity, and University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center are proud to announce digital access to The Lomax Kentucky Recordings, an online exhibition of over 70 hours of Eastern Kentucky folk music and lore, collected under the auspices of the Library of Congress between 1933 and 1942.
Four years in the making, this unique collaborative resource makes available for the first time the extensive Kentucky collections compiled by folklorists John A. Lomax, his son Alan Lomax, and Alan’s wife Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold, as well as those of Columbia University’s Mary Elizabeth Barnicle.
Featuring full, free streaming audio of every performance, interview, and narrative segment — some 1300 discrete pieces — along with searchable recording details (performer name, location, date, instrument, etc.), The Lomax Kentucky Recordings presents a breathtakingly diverse spectrum of Appalachian traditional culture and a point of entry into the lives of the farmers, laborers, coal miners, preachers, housewives, public officials, soldiers, children, grandparents, and itinerant musicians who nurtured and were nurtured by it.
There are ballads and lyric songs, play-party ditties and comic pieces, topical and protest material, fiddle and banjo tunes, hymns and sacred songs, children’s games and lullabies, and a variety of spoken lore — religious testimonies, occupational reminiscences, tall tales, jokes, and personal narratives.
Particularly notable is the first version of “The House of the Rising Sun” sung by 16-year-old Georgia Turner of Middlesboro, Kentucky and W.H. Stepp’s sublime rendition of “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” adapted by Aaron Copland for his ballet Rodeo and later reconfigured and broadcast to the nation in the “Beef, It’s What’s For Dinner” ad campaign.
There are ballads of ancient derivation and more recent ones concerning local disasters. There are bawdy songs with lyrics deserving of “Parental Advisory” warnings. High-school girls sing of the murder of “Pretty Polly” in eight-part harmony. There’s a ten-part story of a drunken moonshine spree and the sounds of a hog-calling competition.
Alan Lomax felt that a chief result of his and his father’s efforts for the Library of Congress was that “for the first time America could hear itself.” Thus their intentions were not merely archival. Alan in fact cautioned against the strictly preservational impulse, remarking that “folksongs should not be buried in libraries as they are in Washington and in universities over the country.” This online effort, launched in 2015 — the centennial of Alan’s birth — seeks to realize his vision by providing free and complete access to these historic collections.
Start here to access the Lomax Kentucky Recordings.