2023 June 06—The Global Jukebox & the Celestial Monochord

alan lomax & harry smith compute folk music in cold war america, work-in-progress talk, john w. kluge center, library of congress.

A presentation from the book-in-progress, This Machine Kills Fascists: Technology and Folk Music in the USA. Documentarian, ethnomusicologist, and activist Alan Lomax and anthologist, artist, and eccentric bohemian Harry Smith offer us two examples of the collision of folk music with technology in the Cold War era. As the digital computer moved to the center of American culture after World War II, Lomax and Smith worked to connect musical heritage to the “computational imagination.” They absorbed ideas associated with the rise, in the 1950s and 60s, of cybernetics, informatics, systems theory, statistical approaches, and computational thinking. Lomax applied these theories to folk music, using computers to develop what he called a “Cantometrics” system for measuring global performance aesthetics—the way people sang. Smith did not have access to actual digital computers, but he combined his childhood exposure to Theosophy’s neo-Platonic and neo-Pythagorean traditions of measurement with his interests in both information theory and the anthropology of folk music to try to transform, alchemically, the seeming dross of castoff pre-World War II commercial folk music recordings into the potential gold of futuristic post-World War II cultural knowledge. Not without their flaws, Lomax and Smith both wanted to wield computation in service of harnessing the power of intangible heritage as a democratic force in Cold War America and the world.

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