2017 October 19—Global Jukeboxes & Celestial Monochords

alan lomax, harry smith & the digital study of folk music @ amériques/europe: les humanités numériques en partage?—enjeux, innovation, et perspectives, institut des amériques, la rochelle university, france, 19 october 2017.

Alan Lomax; Harry Smith.

This talk looks back to two figures from the twentieth century—the folklorist Alan Lomax and the eccentric artist Harry Smith—to offer a different genealogy of the digital humanities, one that tilts more toward the field of American Studies and, particularly in Lomax’s case, Atlantic World studies.

Typically, we imagine the deep history of the digital humanities emerging from the turn to computational linguistics by figures such as Roberto Busa, who worked with IBM to create a searchable digital corpus of the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Others might mention the cliometrics fad in history during the 1970s, with its interest in quantitative, statistical study influenced by the longue durée approach of the Annales School. However, a far more diverse range of scholars, librarians, archivists, and computer programmers turned to the digital even prior to the Internet era of the 1990s.

Witness Evan Stein’s “The Use of Computers in Folklore and Folk Music: A Preliminary Bibliography,” published in 1980 as the first in a series of Occasional Papers for the Archive of Folk Song at the United States Library of Congress in Washington DC. Nine entries feature the American folklorist, song collector, and media activist Alan Lomax, whose own professional engagements with folk music began as an assistant in charge of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress itself in the late 1930s, and whose later work in the early 1960s led to the development of what he called a “cantometrics” system for cross-culturally analyzing global song style.

Here is an engagement with digital computation from the early 1960s often left out of digital humanities narratives. Cantometrics eventually fed into Lomax’s “Global Jukebox” project, a prototype in the 1990s that itself presaged more recent digital humanities interests in algorithmic analysis, machine learning, visualization, mapping, and what has become known as “culturenomics,” or the effort to apply computational and statistical methods to culture.

Alan Lomax’s Global Jukebox, ca. 1998.

Lomax’s work is directly computational, and therefore most clearly worth repositioning in the ancestral lineage of contemporary digital humanities. A more surprisingly inclusion might also be the efforts of the eccentric American bohemian artist Harry Smith, curator of the influential Anthology of American Folk Music album, released by Moe Asch’s Folkways label in 1952. Never himself using computers extensively, Smith nonetheless talked about sequencing the tracks on his famous three-volume release, which for many became a sacred bible for the 1960s folk revival, as, in his words, “a way of programming the mind like a punch card of a sort.”

Harry Smith, ca. 1952.

Including Smith and Lomax in a genealogy of digital humanities places clearer focus on fraught dilemmas of technology and tradition, machines and heritage in the decades after World War II, as the United States emerged as a global force, with the modern computer a core technological component of its power. Most of all, turning to Lomax and Smith’s engagements with the digital and computation sheds light on the profound tensions that arise when embedded cultural practices—often in the oral tradition— are treated as digital data. Perhaps their stories also offer some propositions for how to address these difficulties.

Booklet for Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952).

Overall, Lomax’s cantometrics study of global song style—begun in 1959, expanded into the Global Jukebox in the 1980s and 90s, now an online interface—and Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music—released in 1952, rereleased on CD by the Smithsonian Institution in 1997—change the refrain we typically sing about the development of the digital humanities. Deeply flawed but fascinating projects that attempted to organize music systematically, as data treated computationally, they sharpen the ways we can more critically use digital approaches as part of contemporary American Studies and Atlantic World methodologies, as part of digital humanities. …

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