2023 March 23—Folk Music Data

alan lomax’s cantometrics, harry smith’s anthology of american folk music & the cold war american computational imagination @ contemporary history institute, ohio university.

Left: Alan Lomax, ca. 1963. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis. Right: Harry Smith with this “brain drawings,” ca. 1950. Photo: Hy Hirsh, courtesy of Harry Smith Archives.

In the decades after World War II, folk music collided with computation in the respective work of celebrated documentarian Alan Lomax and eccentric artist Harry Smith.

In the early 1960s, Lomax’s Cantometrics project sought to measure musical performance styles around the world in a massively ambitious, cross-correlated study that fed over 5,000 coded musical samples into the mainframes at Columbia University’s Bureau for Applied Social Research to identify how music linked functionally to specific social contexts and diffused across time and space, retaining core qualities while adjusting to new conditions. Contending that folk music performance style was the key factor rather—how people sang rather than what they sang—Lomax argued that performance style was quite redundant, in the best sense: it tended to produce shared expectations in a social group to establish communal communication and coordination for collective music-making. Lomax believed that the stability of music-making across anthropologically defined groups around the world enabled him to analyze expressive cultural aesthetics and their social implications. It was an audacious project, and met with many objections by ethnomusicologists and anthropologists when Lomax released his findings. Yet, Cantometrics lives on, its effort to harness computation for measuring culture as data in ways that could register both continuity and change remains tantalizing. What can the way people sing tell us about how they live? Eventually, Lomax’s Cantometrics data and analysis became the Global Jukebox, a CD-Rom that now resides on the World Wide Web and Internet streaming services such as Pandora even made use of Lomax’s ideas to design their recommendation algorithms of musical association.

Smith, meanwhile, edited the 1952 Folkways Records Anthology of American Folk Music, a compilation of pre-World War II commercial 78 recordings, mostly so-called “hillbilly” sounds, “race” records, and other “ethnic” genres. Shifting away from anthropological and ethnographic organizing principles, he instead employed computational strategies descended from his studies of neo-Platonism, neo-Pythagorean concepts, alchemy, theosophy, and other esoteric traditions to create a kind of kaleidoscopic vision of folk music in the United States. He never used digital computers themselves; rather, Smith applied a kind of proto-cybernetic strategy to the Anthology, producing a strange, almost magical album organized into four volumes (one finally seeing the light of day posthumously) by the elements of earth, water, fire, and air. In what amounted to a bootlegged recording of commercial recordings on whose cover he placed a Theodore de Bry image of a celestial monochord that he lifted from Robert Fludd’s 1617 book De Musica Mundana, Smith sought to realign the crassly material, castoff, surplus-store throwaways of an earlier US vernacularity with the spiritual transcendence of the heavens through computational re-tuning. The Early Modern scientist and alcehmist Fludd was a key inspiration. Not only was Fludd interested in numerically calculating how the earthly and the godly aligned along the monochord, he was also fascinated by perpetual motion machines. One might think of Smith’s Anthology as just such an invention: an endlessly recomputing algorithm of sounds that spat out unfixed, generative results. Here was cultural heritage as activated search engine, always modulating its feedback based on infinite recombinations, unexpected connections, and unanticipated potential.

Harbingers of our own digital era, in which we increasingly treat culture as data, Lomax and Smith help us notice how what scholar Ross Cole calls the “folkloric imagination” collided with what we might describe as the postwar computational imagination, which arose in the wake of the digital computer’s emergence. In the process, Lomax’s Cantometrics and Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music offer intriguing implications for how we consider issues of technology, tradition, information, and the concept of authenticity itself both then and now.

1 thought on “2023 March 23—Folk Music Data

  1. John Cohen told me that he once asked Harry Smith *why* he assembled the Anthology. Smith’s reply, “I did it to subvert the youth of America.”

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