When Folk Music Met the Computer

the surprising story of how two american folklorists, alan lomax & harry smith, used ibm punchcards & new ideas about computation to study folk music during the cold war era.

Alan Lomax in front of a Cantometric coding chart and audio equipment in the archives of the Association for Cultural Equity, ca. 1978. Photographer unknown. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity. Harry Smith, ca. 1970. Photographer: John Palmer. Courtesy of the Harry Smith Archives.

New essay published: Michael J. Kramer, “The Global Jukebox and the Celestial Monochord: Alan Lomax and Harry Smith Compute Folk Music in Cold War America” Modern American History uses archival research to uncover the surprising ways in which Lomax and Smith used computers and ideas about computation to study folk music in the United States and the world. Linking what Ross Cole describes as the “folkloric imagination” to what we might call the Cold War “computational imagination,” Lomax and Smith each examined folk music not through conventional ethnographic or musicological modes, but rather through computational lenses of data analysis, systems theory, informatics, and cybernetics. Both sought to expand cultural democracy by doing so, carrying 1930s Great Depression-era Popular Front ideals into the postwar milieu. Digital humanities scholars before such a term existed, they also presaged dilemmas found in today’s fraught context of data analytics, artificial intelligence, and the application of digital technologies to almost all aspects of human culture.