Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Tracking Through Haiti: The 1937 Lomax Recordings in a New Millennium

The following post is from Matthew Barton, the Curator of Recorded Sound at the Library Of Congress at the National Audio Visual Center in Virginia.  Here he discusses the discs used by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax to record the sounds and music they experienced on their Haitian journey....

One interesting aspect of the experience was that since the discs were copied in the order they were recorded, the whole field trip was relived, in a sense.

In one of the first recordings from this field trip, Alan Lomax can be heard expressing his doubts about his recording apparatus during a microphone test conducted somewhere in Port au Prince, Haiti. I heard his remarks on the first of some 300 aluminum discs that Library of Congress sound engineer Brad McCoy transferred digitally while I took notes from the other side of the turntable for nearly a month several years ago. The aluminum disc system employed for these Haitian recordings was indeed cumbersome and difficult, and this would be the last major field trip on which Alan employed it, switching soon thereafter to the new portable acetate disc cutters that made quieter and more sensitive recordings.   

Clumsy as the old system was, Alan and Elizabeth Lomax had nevertheless made it work in an astounding array of unusual recording situations in the days from Christmas, 1936 through Easter, 1937 in Haiti.  From lone singers to full dance orchestras; from the more polite steps of Port au Prince society to the high-energy rhythms of Mardi Gras drummers; from church services to voodoo ceremonies, they pushed the equipment to the limit. The twelve-inch aluminum discs they used for most of these recordings could only hold about five minutes of sound comfortably, but often, they simply had to hold more. On many discs, Brad and I saw that they had allowed the recording head to keep tracking to within barely an inch of the hole in the center of the disc. This reduced the fidelity and created untold technical headaches more than sixty years after the recordings were made, but in this way, a few seconds, perhaps even a full minute more of priceless documentary recording was accomplished

For more than seventy years, these recordings have lain in obscurity. I doubt if even a single scholar has listened to them all. They are not the only field recordings to have languished for decades, but I wonder if any field recording trip of this scope and importance ever sat on the shelf for so long. The recordings had little or no direct effect in their day, but they at least set a precedent and may have helped facilitate other important fieldwork undertaken for the Library of Congress over the next several years, including Melville and Francis Herskovits’s Brazilian recordings and Henrietta Yurchenco’s Mexican recordings. Now at last, they can reach Haiti and the rest of the world, and I’m very glad to no longer be one of the only people to have heard these precious discs.  

**The image in this post is of a disc sleeve of one of Alan's recordings including his notes.


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