Traffic has darkened the façade of the Hunter College-owned MFA Studio Building on 41st Street, between the Port Authority and the Lincoln Tunnel. The interior, a picture of institutional indifference, doesn’t look much better. But a climb to the sixth floor reveals a glittering treasure called the Association of Cultural Equity (ACE), a vast and remarkable assemblage of field recordings, instruments, books, posters and other artifacts collected by the legendary American archivist Alan Lomax over the better part of the 20th century.
In 1983, Lomax founded ACE in this building as a command post for his lifelong mission, to compile and disseminate the sights and sounds of cultures from around the globe, hoping to preserve them lest they be extinguished. Twenty-four years later, and 11 years since Lomax’s death, the building is being sold, and ACE is preparing to move into a smaller space at Hunter’s Brookdale campus, on 25th Street and First Avenue.
Fortunately, floor space has been less of an issue since ACE sold three-quarters of Lomax’s original collection to the Library of Congress in 2004—650 linear feet of manuscripts, 6,400 sound recordings, 5,500 photos and 6,000 moving images—and launched its vast online archive in March 2012. Digital copies of much of the material now fill the shelves, and a cursory stroll through ACE’s web site (culturalequity.org) offers endless hours of viewing (5,000 photographs, 3,000 videos), listening (17,400 files), and reading. One can also surf over to the Alan Lomax Archive YouTube channel, which boasts 77,000 subscribers.
“People used to be happy with published LPs and CDs, but today that’s not really enough,” Lomax archivist Todd Harvey said of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center. “The idea is that if it doesn’t exist in the digital form that’s accessible over the web, then it really doesn’t exist.”
But even with the sale and the effort to digitize, the ACE offices still flow with a trove of relics and heirlooms, so the company is preparing an eBayauction, to begin March 9, as it begins the move from its 2,500-square-foot space to a 1,500-square-foot space. Items for sale will include much of Lomax’s old recording equipment, video/film editing gear and other tools he used to build this archive, as well as odds and ends like his guitar and a few 78s from his personal record collection.
“We love having all this stuff around, but for practical reasons we have to pare it down,” said ACE executive director Don Fleming, who’s overseeing the sale. “This is the first time that we’ve offered anything to the public. We once let R. Crumb have some 78s of Alan’s for doing a picture of Jelly Roll Morton, but this is probably the only time something like this will happen.”
Though its archives can be accessed on a donation basis, and other labels, publishers and institutions often release its material, ACE continues to spread the good word on its own. On Feb, 14, it issued its first release in 12 months, “United Sacred Harp Convention: The Alan Lomax Recordings, 1959.” Mississippi bluesman Sid Hemphill’s “The Devil’s Dream,” recorded in 1942, will come out Thursday. The light-footed archive, with its $300,000 budget, may focus on historical recordings, but it is anticipating the CD’s demise, releasing almost all of them on LP and as digital files. The nonprofit uses the proceeds to help cover operating costs, but also to honor Lomax’s original contracts and make sure that artist royalties still go to their descendants if they can be found.
“We do like to monetize, and we do a lot of licensing, and in the past it’s been very lucrative,” said Anna Lomax Wood, Lomax’s daughter and the president of ACE. (Bruce Springsteen, for example, used two Lomax-derived field samples on his recent “Wrecking Ball” album.) “But we’ve never been in it to make money. My father always said, ‘If you want to make money, don’t go into folk music.’”
He may not have made a lot of money, but Lomax’s cultural impact at home and abroad is incalculable. In the decade before World War II, he and his father, the famed folklorist and collector John Lomax, took several historic trips through the South collecting material while working for the Library of Congress, making the first recordings of Muddy Waters and Fred McDowell, and capturing other legends like Jelly Roll Morton and Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter.
“It is quite possible none of them would be known today, and all the influences they spawned might have never occurred, had Alan not recorded them—and worked to popularize them,” said Bill Nowlin, the founder of Rounder Records, which has released dozens of albums of Lomax material.
Later, through his radio broadcasts in the 1940s, Lomax helped bring wide exposure to such American folk icons as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and continued making field recordings throughout the Caribbean, Ireland, Scotland and Spain. After 1960, he focused on what he called “cultural equity,” an egalitarian approach to expressive forms (particularly music, speech and dance) from around the world. It culminated in the last decades of his life in a forward-thinking creation he called the Global Jukebox Project, an early computer database that organized and compared various forms based on geography, style, and subsistence patterns. Initially available to institutions and researchers, a new version called the Global Jukebox Song Tree will be available online in the fall with a cache of 5,000 songs.
Though the aim of the Global Jukebox is to connect cultures, ACE is working to repatriate copies of archives back into the communities where Lomax originally documented them, even providing lesson plans so teachers in those communities know how to use them. “The physical part went to the Library of Congress, which is important to them, but we don’t need it anymore,” Mr. Fleming said. “One of the advantages of the digital era is it’s now easier to send out the entire collection on a hard drive. Because one of our missions is to get them to use it as a resource and celebrate their culture.”