Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, and the Proto-Digital Study of Folk Music @ NUDHL, Northwestern University

I’ll be speaking at Northwestern’s Digital Humanities Lab this Friday. Topic: “Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, and the Proto-Digital Study of Folk Music.”


Alan Lomax’s controversial “cantometrics” study of folk music worldwide, begun in 1959, was an early use of quantitative data and digital technologies (punch cards) to study verncular music and culture. Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, created in 1952 for the famous Folkways label, offered a different mode of research: a whimsically annotated, quasi-mystical collection of rare American folk, blues, and ethnic commercial recordings from the 1920s and 30s. As two distinctive sonic and informational conceptualizations of how to organize musical traditions, these “proto-digital” projects offer valuable lessons for thinking about the representation of folk music within contemporary digital humanities research, particularly when it comes to assembling and interpreting what a digital archive can be and do.

Lomax Smith Talk Photo


Friday, March 8, 2013, 12-2pm.


Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities Conference Room, Kresge Hall, 1880 Campus Drive, #2-360, Evanston, IL 60208 (map:






Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, and the Proto-Digital Study of Folk Music

Michael J. Kramer

What can a digital archive be? What can it do? My research on the Berkeley Folk Music Festival has me thinking about how the digital might crack open the previously sealed rooms of the analog archive, bringing artifacts and objects up to the surface of online study. As I work on what is becoming a multifaceted project about the US folk revival of the 1950s and 60s, one that includes book writing, database construction, multimedia design, and tool building in equal measures, I am increasingly understanding that there is an opportunity to think through the potential of the digital archive for expanding and enriching knowledge. In my case, the focus is on what the digital archive might become for the study of folk music, though as I think you will see, there are broader implications here for the archive in relation to digital history and digital humanities in general.

Northwestern’s Special Collections Library has held the Berkeley Folk Music Festival collection since 1973, when it purchased the 30,000 object multimedia archive from festival director Barry Olivier. The Festival ran on the University of California-Berkeley campus from 1959 to 1970, and became perhaps the preeminent West Coast festival of that period, the left coat equivalent to the Newport Folk Festival. Joan Baez, Doc Watson, Phil Ochs, Mississippi John Hurt, the Jefferson Airplane, Pete Seeger, Jesse Fuller, just to name a few luminaries, performed at Berkeley. But while there is some audio in the collection, when I began to spend time in the Special Collections room, at those quintessential big oak desks, I was struck by something odd: for an event constituted by sound and music, it was so quiet in there, so still, so, well, lonely! This led me to start thinking about the digital as a means for revivifying, re-enlivening, re-sonifying the collective experiences of the Berkeley festival. When placed online in a dynamic fashion, made accessible for study through a suite of analytic digital tools, could the materials in the Berkeley collection come roaring back to life, as it were? Could we see into—or, in this case, better said, hear into—”archival silences” quite literally? Could an archive, when digitized, become, in a sense, a festive space, extending and elaborating the best aspects of the folk festival while providing a platform from which to assess it critically and historically? Could we, as Australian digital humanities scholar and programmer Tim Sherratt puts it, bring together the archival stuff and the people using that stuff in more robust ways? Could the digital archive help individuals and collectives assemble around a topic of study, take pleasure in it, learn from it, and listen to and sound out its significance all at once?

These are the kinds of questions I am confronting in my own work, which I can discuss more during the discussion after my presentation, but it turns out I am not the first to think about them when it comes to folk music. And that is what I wish to talk about today. Certainly before me, many participants in the folk revival have sought to move between the archive as a space of preservation and as a space of investigation, discovery, and interaction. Two figures who did so loom large in the history of the folk movement: Alan Lomax and Harry Smith. These two men moved between the archiving and the enlivening of folk music traditions in the United States in ways that presaged both the opportunities and the challenges that arise when adopting a digital approach to folk music—and to cultural heritage and history in general.

…And now…we move from this introductory discussion of the Internet “tubes” to another tube: the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel in Manhattan. There, in the fall of 1991, as a senior in college, I entered Hunter College’s Fine Arts Building to start an internship at the Center for Cultural Equity, folklorist Alan Lomax’s research office. [SLIDE] Lomax, famous for his popularizations of folk music in the 1930s and 40s at the Library of Congress, had spent his career since the late 1950s developing a project called Cantometrics, a kind of Casaubonian effort to use a massive data set of coded audio recordings to map out the song cultures of the world in a unified, cross-cultural framework. Lomax’s goal was to use music (and later dance) both to demonstrate the diversity of human expressivity and to identify commonalities and correlations across populations. Working in an updated mode of salvage anthropology, Lomax feared that mass communications technologies created what he called a cultural “grey out,” homogenizing the diversity of expression around the globe into a bland, westernized kitsch. His response was not a Luddite rejection of technology, but rather an effort to use the most cutting edge recording and computing techniques to bring back cultural expressivity in spectacular color, to accentuate its range of distinctiveness by, paradoxically, showing how it was all linked together.

Drawing upon the growing stock of ethnographic audio recordings that documented global musical culture (and later using ethnographic film footage of dance for a project he called Choreometrics that went along with Cantometrics), Lomax and his team of researchers used coding cards—and quickly thereafter computer punch cards—to code thirty-seven parameters of performance style of over 4,000 discrete songs. Then they statistically analyzed them using factor analysis. By the early 1990s, with the support of Apple Computer, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and others, the project had taken the form of the “Global Jukebox Project,” a computer prototype that used this massive data set and its algorithmic analysis to develop a digital tool for cross-cultural comparison and exploration of musical expression and its potential links to social organization and economic production. My job as intern with the Global Jukebox Project was to help transfer Lomax’s massive archive to digital form, at that point digital audio tape. My strongest memory is taking notes on a recording of New Guinean Pig Killing ceremonies: two minutes three seconds, pig squeals. Of course, the job was eye-opening—or better said, ear opening. Being exposed to all this music from around the world made me realize the vast range of sound expression among humans. Being around Lomax’s office gave me a glimpse of the struggle, the problems, the dangers, and the possibilities, of making sense of it all through a mix of computational power and interpretive humanistic and social scientific inquiry.

The same year I started working for Lomax—1991—I also worked as a DJ for a bluegrass and old-timey radio show at my university. The closet that served as the show’s recording library had become overcrowded, with stacks of records out of order and at risk of being damaged. I set myself the goal of getting the library back in some kind of semblance of organization. [SLIDE] At the very bottom of that closet, like a treasure box unearthed from some kind of archeological dig (in this case a consisting of LPs and CDs), appeared a set of three mysterious and alluring phonograph albums. Each front featured a mysterious looking instrument that seemed quite out of place for bluegrass, old timey, or folk music: it wasn’t a musician’s face or a bucolic country scene, but what I would learn later was a photostatic reproduction of Theodore de Bry’s etching of a celestial monochord, taken from 16th century alchemist Robert Fludd’s De Musica Mundana (Mundane Music). What was this obscure reference to the music of the spheres from an early Modern mystic doing on the cover of a compilation of American folk songs from the 1920s and 30s?

[SLIDE] When I got to the front page of the booklet included with the compilation, things got even weirder. As folk music scholar Robert Cantwell points out, it is covered in “quaint old printer’s devices”: the liberty bell, pointing fingers, a blacksmith, a pig, an eagle, a cow, an Arcadian piper, a beehive, and an eighteenth century music master who seemed to be conducting an electronic sound wave into existence. The page has a few quotations, “The tone—without the scratch!” in a box at the bottom of the page; “All please sound” written vertically by the bearded music master. American Folk Music it read at the top, and in a black box, “edited by Harry Smith.”

Smith was a mystery to me then. But the Anthology had a kind of aura too it, almost glowing at the bottom of that closet, in the dust bunnies and cobwebs, at the root of all those other recordings. As I began to look through this collection, which had been released in 1952 and seemingly had not been played since, it led me, eventually, to the story of Smith himself. [SLIDE] He was, it turned out, an infamous bohemian in the downtown art scene of New York. Born in rural Washington state, his father was an occultist and his house filled with obscure books; he recorded Lummi Indian ceremonies on a nearby Native American reservation as a teenager, and eventually created paintings and ground-breaking films in the 1940s and 50s while based in…Berkeley, California. He acquired thousands of obscure old-time blues and jazz 78s after WWII (they had been gathered in various locales to be melted down into shellac for the war effort) and put them together into the Anthology of American Folk Music, releasing the collection—essentially a bootleg recording—on the Folkways label owned by fellow folk enthusiast Moe Asch.

Always on the verge of poverty, an alcoholic, homosexual, and all around eccentric visionary oddball in the intolerant climate of Cold War America, Smith settled in New York City at the Chelsea Hotel in the 1960s and 70s, in a backroom of Allen Ginsberg’s apartment in the 1980s, and, eventually, as the “resident shaman” at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Obsessed with patterns, he not only collected and organized folk songs, but also string figures, Ukrainian eggs, Seminole patchwork, and other cultural ephemera. Smith was what his estate executor Rani Singh calls an “ethnographic modernist,” but for our purposes, we might think of him as a radical collagist, a man as obsessed with cross-cultural patterns and meanings as Alan Lomax, but in a very different register: avant-garde and esoteric instead of social scientific and statistical.

[SLIDE] Despite their differences, both men were keenly interested in what it meant to bring order to folk music culture through the archive, the anthology, the compilation, the cross-sectional sample, the collection. They wanted to grasp the overwhelming, sublime diversity of human expression, its staggering range and complexity, its nagging mystical elements of commonality and communion, by bringing order to the anarchic chaos of sound and culture, by discerning the deep patterns underlying surface structures, by bringing a certain kind of impossible unity to the multiplicity of their fellow beings. And they wanted to do so through various mass communications technologies of capturing and processing information: the audio recording, the film, and computational data transformed into interpretive meaning. In his book on the Cantometrics project, Lomax talked of how, “For the first time, predictable and universal relationships have been established between the expressive and communication processes, on the one hand, and social structure and culture pattern, on the other.” To him, “A science of social aesthetics which looks at all social process in terms of stylistic continuity and change may now be envisaged.” Hence Lomax’s turn to computation to study folk style.

Similarly, Smith, always a bit more “out there” than Lomax, once mused of the Anthology of American Folk Music in similar universalist terms:  “The type of thinking that I applied to records, I still apply to other things,” he remarked in 1968. “like Seminole patchwork or to Ukrainian Easter eggs. The whole purpose is to have some kind of series of things.” Seeming to presage the recent digital turn to visualization studies, Smith dismissed print for other modes of informatics presentation: “Information as drawing and graphic designs can be located more quickly than it can be in books,” he claimed, saying, “The fact that I have all the Seminole designs permits anything that falls into the canon of that technological procedure to be found there. It’s like flipping quickly through.” And then the kicker: Smith, who did not so far as I know use computers, argued that his approach was computational: “It’s a way of programming the mind,” he concluded, “like a punch card of a sort.”

Both Lomax and Smith were taken with the idea of giving cultural expression order by organizing its bits, so to speak, into patterns: re-processing, programming, and giving a shape, rhythm, a metrics to a body of objects. In this sense, both offer proto-digital examples of what a digital archive grounded in folk music might be and do. First, let’s look a bit more closely at (and listen a bit more closely to) their projects. Then I will close with a few thoughts about how we might fuse their approaches to grapple with the digital archive now—what it can be, what it can do, and what this all suggests about contemporary digital humanities research.

[SLIDE] Let’s turn to Alan Lomax’s Cantometrics, Choreometrics, and Global Jukebox Project. Lomax began the project in 1959 after returning from a self-imposed exile in Europe during most of the 1950s at the height of the Red Scare. Before that, serving as assistant in charge of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, Lomax had participated actively in Popular Front politics in FDR’s New Deal Washington, DC. These had led his career to be in danger in the anti-communist context of the 1950s. He came by his Marxist-oriented politics by way of his time among sharecroppers in East Texas, where he grew up, as well as during his shortlived studies at University of Texas in Austin and at Harvard. But most of all, he was radicalized by experiences recording folk music in the field with his Texas father John Lomax, a collector of cowboy songs but no radical himself. [SLIDE] On a tour of the south in the early 1930s, traveling with an acetate disc recorder that took up the entire trunk of their Ford sedan (don’t complain about the weight of your laptop computer in your bag again), they met the African-American musician Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and helped him leave Louisiana’s Angola Prison Farm, where he was serving a sentence for attempted murder, to begin a performing career in New York City. Lomax became friends with Leadbelly, inspiring the Louisiana songster to write “The Bourgeois Blues,” as well as with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and many others. He went on additional field trips with the novelist Zora Neale Hurston and others later in the 1930s and early 40s.

[SLIDE] By the early 1960s Lomax was back in New York City, where he returned to his role as a fieldworker, collector, organizer, interpreter, and popularizer of vernacular music—only now, after his experiences abroad, as much in a global as in a national dimension. The Cantometrics project emerged from his travels as well as out of Lomax’s studies with Melville Herskovits, Margaret Mead, and especially the kinesics anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell. Drawing upon new ideas in anthropology about repetition and communication, Lomax decided that “style” was the key aspect to folk song—modalities of expression such as timbre, cadence, rhythm, and the like were not accurately captured by conventional Western musicological scores and yet they were the definitive link between social situation and cultural expression.

He and his colleagues on the Cantometrics project—the Columbia anthropologist Conrad Arensberg, the ethnomusicologist Victor Grauer, the musician Roswell Rudd, and others—set about developing a new coding system for analyzing musical expression. Cantometrics at times included categories up to the hundreds, but Lomax’s group eventually settled on 37 factors, orchestral relationship, tonal blend, words to nonsense ratio, glottal range, embellishment, melisma, and so on. They eventually coded over 4000 songs—about 10 songs per culture group as specified in George Murdock’s Human Relations Area Files—using the Cantometrics parameters. This was, by the way, quite a feat of human labor, and one that remains quite necessary in the digital humanities today, though it is, I fear, increasingly obscured by fetishizations of technology as a kind of automated, magical labor-saving knowledge device, not just the means of production anymore, but the producer itself with but the push of a few buttons.

[SLIDE] Not so for Lomax and crew. Cantometrics started with the human ear and the hand-coded card. First, upon the suggestion of Margaret Mead, they began to render the cards as graphs that might be more easily read by a novice, a kind of proto-digital visualization. Then, using computers at Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research, they went fully digital, turning their Cantometric data into punch cards and processing them using the statistical approaches of Q factor analysis. Now, they claimed—and not uncontroversially given the currents of anthropology away from cross-cultural, quantitative approaches in the 1960s and 70s—they could map correlations between song style and other social, political, and economic factors: modes of production, social differentiation, technological norms of tool use, governmental structures, sexual mores. They added to this project a parallel statistical study of dance, titled Choreometrics, using many of the same approaches to body movement that they applied to song.

A central claim for Lomax and group was that song’s repetition and redundancy made it ideal for studying cultural expression within one culture group—song was stable, they argued, as a body of statistically eligible data. Their turn to repetition and sameness was, of course, ironic to some degree because the overarching goal of the project was, after all, to accentuate cultural diversity, variety, and difference. They worked on the model of homogenous group culture, heterogeneous global culture. I would argue that the tensions in the Cantometrics project between sameness and difference are indicative of the statistical imagination that intersects with contemporary digital humanities. Statistics demands, I think, a certain kind of modularity of data in order for results to be produced. There must be ways of sampling and quantifying comparable dimensions of diverse objects. The question becomes one of scale: at what level does one demarcate sameness for statistical analysis and at one level does one demarcate difference?

Toward the end of his life, Lomax moved to incorporate Cantometrics and Choreometrics into the computerized realm fully. The Global Jukebox Project brought the two into an interface—really quite cutting edge for its time, though now it looks very 1990s—for interactive display and study. Here is a video produced in 1998 about the Global Jukebox that gives you a sense of this proto-digital humanities project focused on folk music. It’s about 10 minutes long, but I think it is worth watching together in its entirety:


If Lomax and company were interested in trying, as Lomax put it, “to make a platform for all the multiple cultures of the planet,” if he used computation to create an “orientation” through a “democratic educational machine” that aspired to be all-inclusive in both tantalizing and problematic ways, then Harry Smith offers a different proto-digital pre-history: that of the individual artist offering a visionary, esoteric, almost hallucinogenic personalized archive in the form of the radical juxtapositions of collage and jarring re-orientation. If Lomax founded the “Association for Cultural Equity,” we might say that Smith created a one-man “Dis-association for Cultural Equity.”

[SLIDE] The discs of the Anthology of American Folk Music recovered half-forgotten modes of cultural expression in the United States, what sounded, even by 1952, like ancient recordings from a pre-modern America. They were, actually, fairly recent recordings, only 20 or 30 years old, and not from an ancient but rather a modernizing America. But that’s not what they sounded like to Smith and, even more so, to the listeners to the Anthology in Cold War mass consumer America. Smith intensified the disorienting qualities of these songs by radically rearranging and repurposing them. He pulled them out of their original locations and, from their lostness at the bottoms of record bins in the backs of post-World War II salvation Army stores, into an alterative vision, in miniature, of a quirky, nonconformist, violent, weird American polity in sound: what music critic Greil Marcus would later call, writing about the Anthology, the “invisible republic” of Smithville.

[SLIDE] To borrow a term that digital humanists themselves have borrowed from new media artists, Smith engaged in a sort of act of deformance, a reworking of his source materials, his corpus, into new iterations in search of underlying patterns that might reveal themselves. This was, to borrow from digital literary scholar Stephen Ramsay, a kind of “screwmeneutical” operation. Smith’s photostatic assemblage of zany song notes, ephemera, bibliographic detail, and the like, all mysteriously numbered to be in some kind of important order whose aura emerged from Smith never quite explaining what the recombinant larger form meant, proposed that the Anthology was a kind of remix, a radical alteration, a re-canonization, or was it just a randomization of the American folksong tradition. “The whole Anthology was a collage. I thought of it as an art object,” he explained. [SLIDE] This was fitting for an artist who, roughly around the time he was compiling and reworking older folk recordings into the Anthology, was also obsessively trying to correlate the music of Dizzy Gillespie and other bebop jazz musicians to specific visual gestures in his paintings

[SLIDE] And yet, while Smith seemed almost anti-technological in his retro-printer’s shop iconography and quirky turn to obscure, forgotten 78s gathering dust in the thrift stores of the West Coast in the glossy, conformist, nuclear-powered (and nuclear-familied) sheen of the postwar US, he too, like Lomax, was obsessed with modern mass communications technologies, such as the film camera and filmstrip, the audio recording machine and tape or disk. And he too wanted to imagine a kind of cross-cultural whole for humanity that at once accentuated difference and emphasized commonality and sameness in the name of an implicit political project of democratic transformation. As Smith put it, “I felt social changes would result from it. I’d been reading Plato’s Republic. He’s jabbering on about music, how you have to be careful about changing the music because it might upset or destroy the government.”

[SLIDE] The Anthology pursued this politically-infused changing of the music in esoteric ways: Smith did not organize the original recordings by region or musician or other sociological category. Instead, he moved away from conventional markers of cultural difference to his own formulations of what mattered. He created three volumes for the Anthology: Volume 1: Ballads, Volume 2: Social Music, and Volume 3: Songs. These were colored green, red, and blue respectively, to signify, Smith would later explain, three of the mythical elements: water, fire, and air (a fourth volume was planned, and after Smith’s death, in fact released; it focused on the final element of earth and including what Smith described as labor songs). Connecting vernacular American music to quasi-mystical themes and motifs, Smith made the choice of removing performers from their fixed historical racial and class positions, putting them instead in transhistorical relations, patterns, and dynamics of identity. Deformance at work.

[SLIDE] The liner notes did something of the same thing. Simplifying the stories to humorous telegraph-like plotlines, as if they were skittering across the listeners’ consciousness in a Twitter stream, Smith also included bibliographic notes—proto-hyperlinks we might call them, that buzzed out in multiple directions: toward old record catalogs and ballad collections, but also into Smith’s own whimsical and strange auditory imagination. That is to say, he created a document that played with what was old and new, present and past, distant and close, documented and fantastical, very real and bizarrely made up. He worked in between these modes, making surprising leaps between scales, among rhetorics, between discourses official and vernacular, skipping around locales, and recontextualizing even as he rigorously contextualized.

These were the crucial moves here aesthetically and, by extension, ideologically. Systematic coherence based on externalized statistical knowledge was not the goal so much as a kind of visionary suggestiveness rendered through an eccentric sensibility. One was to hear this music through Smith’s ears, based on his choices of radical re-arrangement, alteration, and adjustment. Only then, Smith claimed, could the songs become “things that gave a heightened experience in relation to the environment.” Bringing objects together in search of intensifying potential connections among them that otherwise went unperceived was Smith’s ultimate goal. “All my projects,” he remarked, “are only attempts to build up a series of objects that allow some sort of generalizations to be made.” His Anthology was revelatory in the visionary sense because it proposed that if ordered correctly in relationship to each other, American folk songs revealed a community of singers and songs from a mass of strangers. Disordering produced a new order, or so Smith hoped with his creative project of archiving as radical collage.

[SLIDE] Here was a vision of the folk archive as something quite different from Lomax’s Cantometrics project and global jukebox. It was not epic in scale, but a kind of miniature, a consolidated curio cabinet of American folk song; it was not computational, but compositional; it was not statistical but anecdotal; it was not verifiable so much as transformational; it was not music as sampled and coded data, but music as interconnected artifact and object. But there were also many commonalities between Lomax and Smith’s projects, at least in terms of intentions.

Smith himself pointed out as much in 1968 when he argued the Anthology was outmoded, that he could not achieve the systematic study that he had hoped to accomplish. “I was just fiddling with those ideas then…Everything is computerized now,” he decided. “You wouldn’t dare bring out such a thing as the Anthology now, for it first has to be analyzed for how many C sharps there are, etc.”

Indeed, in the 1968 interview with John Cohen, a folk musician with the New Lost City Ramblers and filmmaker and ethnographic artist himself, Harry Smith framed the Anthology of American Folk Music in terms that parallel Lomax’s Cantometrics research and even presage interests in the digital humanities today. He spoke of completing a “content analysis” of folk music recordings, one that would contain “phonetic transcriptions of all the words in the songs,…The content analysis was like how many times the word ‘Railroad’ was used during the Depression and how many times during the war.” Sounds like certain modes of contemporary text analysis and topic modeling to me. Smith continues: “The proportions of different words that might have some significant meaning beyond their exterior. Certain ideas becoming popular, the word ‘food’ was used increasingly during the Depression.” But this is the aspect of digital humanities that I find least interesting. Yes, people were more hungry! Tell us something we didn’t know

[SLIDE] The more important aspect of the Anthology to me remains its effort to re-organize a folk song tradition into a quirky, visionary, personalized collage: a collection of compositions that have been decomposed and recomposed. Smith’s remixology is what makes the Anthology important to contemporary efforts to see patterns within archival evidence anew through digital means. But even at this level of compositional rather than computational work, Smith’s Anthology pointed to still another key commonality with Lomax’s Global Jukebox project. Both men thought that folk song was important because it merely revealed deeper social patterns.

There was a tension on the Anthology between the singularity, the irreducibility, of particular songs and their potential to be pieces of a larger puzzle, just as in Lomax’s Global Jukebox there was a tension between song as significant for its stylistic redundancies as compared to its distinctive diversity. Smith claimed to pick out songs for the Anthology based on their illustrative unusualness, their weirdness. But he sought to bring these oddball examples into relation with each other to produce some larger universal social truths. It was the organizational whole that mattered in the end; folk songs were just a means to get there. Smith wanted to reach down to underlying rhythms of common life through folk song rather than accentuate the special qualities of particular performances. What he was most after was “correlating music into some kind of a visual thing, into some kind of a diagram,” as he put it in 1968. It need not even be songs that led to this. It could be any kind of cultural expression. “I’m sure that if you could collect sufficient patchwork quilts from the same people who made the records,” Smith remarked of the Anthology‘s musicians, “you could figure out just about anything you can from the music.”

As with Lomax’s computational turn, the lurking problem in Smith’s compositional approach was that he ultimately heard his “data” as interchangeable. This is, to me, where both Smith and Lomax alike expressed a particularly proto-digital sensibility, one that we have to grapple with now. Both men treated songs, dance, and other material objects as transpositional, as translatable from one form to another. The particular song mattered less in the end than the arrangements they produced for the interpreter. There was some kind of aura to be felt not in each song itself, but rather from their relations to each other. It was movement along the network, not any one resting place on it, where the magic happened and the code of culture could be cracked. We live in this world where clicking from one link to the next feels more important than where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Lomax and Smith remind us that this has been a long-developing tendency and one we need to grapple with in the digital humanities.

The issue of modularity and mutability—when the flow feels as though it matters more than the stuff flowing, when the potential correlations threaten to overwhelm the cultural power of the objects being correlated, when the form seems to trump the content, when the medium replaces the message, when the link itself almost erases the different things it connects—this is what is at once the problem and the possibility of the digital. After all, when digitized into an online archive, the distinctive properties of images, text, sound—none of these are really materially different anymore; they have become interchangeable, fungible, convertible. At the material level, there is no more friction between previously untranslatable forms. The photograph, the audio recording, the printed text—everything is simply code: bits and bytes, ones and zeroes, ons and offs, electrical pulsations that can be rendered into different outputs based on desires and goals, interests and needs. And yet those human desires, goals, interests, needs—they were in the end the important thing to both Smith’s celestial monochord of an Anthology and Lomax’s Cantometric Global Jukebox. The underlying interest in accessing the human through the machine was what put the humanities into these proto-digital humanities projects.

[SLIDE] One final note on these global jukeboxes and celestial monochords: their attempts to process, order, and interpret massive bodies of musical evidence into some unified, meaningful understanding suggests a funny underlying aesthetic that, I would argue, also lurks in contemporary digital humanities. It is the sublime. The longing, present in Lomax and Smith, and now, I would argue, also in digital humanities, is to take us swimming into an immense ocean of human expression, one in which at the detailed level there are endless, infinite permutations and details, singularities and distinctions, but pulling back, there is an abundance so big as to feel immeasurable. This is the very definition of the sublime. We feel eager to dive in and yet we fear the shortcomings of our aesthetic and rational faculties for grasping such a massive density of information at all scales of perception and in all complexities of interrelationship. In the digital humanities, particularly in its big data incarnations, this is truly what Kant called the mathematical sublime. It is certainly what has been called, in more recent times, the technological sublime: the feeling of human bewilderment in the face of computational power.

The sublime is paralyzing, at least as understood in its classic definition. It would seem to take mad geniuses such as Lomax and Smith to even come close to functioning in this dizzying register. And yet, the intellectual possibilities for making our way, as best as possible, through the mathematical and technological sublime are tantalizing. Might we be able to bring together Smith’s compositional approach with Lomax’s computational one to do so? Can big data and close readings, statistical analysis and deformative reprocessing—what evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi calls Lomax’s Cantometric “song of songs” and the Smithian making of strange small notes within it—be the most productive approach to the digital study of folk music? To digital humanities work in general?

[SLIDE] In my case, the goal in the Berkeley project has increasingly become to develop a digital archive that might bring together Smith’s and Lomax’s sensibilities. The archive hopes to draw together masses of material, not only from the 30,000 object Berkeley collection but also related archives of folk and vernacular music and culture. These will be systematically coded, rendered interchangeable at various levels of metadata, and statistically manipulable as such. But the digital archive will also contain a suite of digital tools for Smithian re-processing: for rendering unlikely mini-collections and mini-anthologies from disparate objects; for repurposing archival holdings into context or, potentially, out of context, or better said into new contexts that might shed light on the meaning of the materials. These tools would be for quite literally manipulating and re-composing the data of the archival objects into new outputs (since the data is, as digital code, interchangeable after all). The hope of such a project is that we might pursue close reading within its framework of big data, which is to say we can include the personal, idiosyncratic, distinctive, visionary, and eccentric interpretive filter of an individual’s mind within the abundance of materials and data that the digital can connect together. Which is to say, we need to keep difference and sameness, the irreducible and the repetitious, the specifically material and the interchangeably modular, in play. In sum, studying folk music culture in the digital archive of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, or indeed studying expressive culture at all through digital means, requires a new hybrid of Smith’s Anthology and Lomax’s Global Jukebox.


More on The Berkeley Folk Music Festival and the Digital Study of Vernacular Music Project at

Alan Lomax’s Global Jukebox Demonstration Video (1998):

A Cantometrics coding card:


Armand Leroi, “The Song of Songs” – Evolutionary biologist uses data from the Global Jukebox Project (video, 2007).

Cover of liner notes booklet to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952):


The rest of the liner notes are here.

Gadaya’s “Old Weird America”: an online study of the Anthology of American Folk Music.

Drew Christie’s “Some Crazy Magic: Meeting Harry Smith”: short animated film about John Cohen meeting Harry Smith:

Excerpt from documentary film about the Anthology of American Folk Music (From The Harry Smith Project: The Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited):

Alan Lomax’s Association for Cultural Equity.

Harry Smith Archives.

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