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entry Nov 2015

lan Lomax in Italy and Campania

contains audio                               

Alan Lomax (1915 – 2002, pictured) was an American field collector of folk music of the 20th century. He did not invent the field of ethnomusicology (the study of folk music), but he collected many thousands of examples of traditional music from the United States, the Caribbean, the British Isles, Spain and Italy; that, plus his activities as an archivist and his ability to promote the music he had collected, helped strengthen the study of traditional music as an academic discipline. His work encouraged fellow musicologists to expand their own activities and, in that sense, helped to foster the “folk revivals” of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s and to regenerate interest in traditional music in many countries, interest that developed into the current world music movement. His original recordings from the United States and Europe are stored in the Library of Congress in the United States. (See this external link to the Association for Cultural Equity, an organization that Lomax founded.)

There have been folk singers forever and professional musicians at least for a few centuries, but by the 1930s, when Lomax began his work with his father John Lomax, radio and recording technology had already begun to erode local musical traditions in favor of a “greyed out” (Alan Lomax's term) standard of commercial and professional popular music. Lomax was not afraid that folk music would change (just as we should not be afraid that language will change). Cultural contexts change and music and language will reflect that. He was afraid, however, that more and more traditional cultures were being forced "off the air," by large and overbearing communications media. The thousands of small "bubbles of song and delight ... the generators of the original" (as he termed such traditional cultures) were being repressed. He said things such as ''we are on the verge of sweeping completely off the globe what unspoiled folklore is left''. Yet, he often expressed optimism at the ability of recording technology to revitalize traditional cultures and spoke joyfully of the experience of letting folk singer villagers hear themselves for the first time (!) and seeing their pride rekindled when they heard that they were "just as good as anybody else." So while you can use technology to flatten small cultures, you can also use it to rejuvenate them, as well. There are new groups of musicians in many countries interested in preserving the past just as there are Wikipedia pages in many “dialects” (including Neapolitan) that might have died without the new technologies of preservation and regeneration. Interestingly, some of Lomax's recordings are very, very far away by now, having been included on the Voyager Golden Records aboard both Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. They contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth.

                         Alan Lomax in 1991
From June 1954 to January 1955 Lomax and Italian ethnomusicologist Diego Carpitella traveled the length of Italy, from Sicily to the Alps and produced 3,000 recordings. Lomax was interested in the music, itself—what musical “style” means, why you say, for example, that this Italian music “sounds” northern and that style sounds southern, and whether you can develop a so-called “grammar” of music in order to put "it sounds" on a more rigorous footing. That is, when we compare languages, we say that this language has cases (the difference between she and her, for example) or this one conjugates verbs (I go, he goes) and that those other language do something else entirely. Thus we build up an entire web of related languages; we now speak of language "families"; we can say that two languages are related even though present-day speakers may be a great distance apart. We infer that at one point in time they lived close together or perhaps were even a single people. Thus, we can trace migrations of peoples over time. Can you do that with folk music? That is, can you develop a discipline of comparative musicology to the point where you have a list of useful markers, features, parameters that make folk music here sound different than folk music over there? —will we be able to speak of "families" of musical traditions? And then (here comes the trickiest part) be able to relate musical features to cultural characteristics? (As an example, Lomax used the change in the singing voices of women in both Spain and Italy; as you moved from sections where there was more sexual freedom to regions where women were repressed, their voices went from mellow to stressed.) You might ask about vocal quality (raspy? nasal?) or use of vibrato, or volume, or approach to pitch (does it wander around a while before landing on a note?) or kinds of scales, or instruments used for accompaniment; do they sing in unison? Harmony? Intervals? Do they sing in counterpoint (polyphony)? What kind of rhythms do they use?, etc. etc. Investigating all that is a very tall order, and there is a long way to go in developing a useful "grammar of music," in spite of Lomax's creation of Cantometrics, a system of defining and relating traditional vocal music of the world. His travel companion in Italy, Diego Carpitella, seemed to be more interested in the texts of traditional folk music. What do people sing about? —and How do their songs reflect their social conditions, particularly in southern Italy? Fortunately, Italy is geographically a good place to study such things—it's long and narrow. Just as you can fairly easily trace the movements of those who spoke Etruscan, Latin, Greek and Oscan up and down the peninsula, you should be able to do the same thing with folk music.
Lomax called his experience in Italy of recording fishermen, shepherds, dockworkers, etc. “the happiest year of my life” and there is a book by that title in Italian (L'anno più felice della mia vita) having been edited together from his diaries and notes. Many CDs containing excerpts from the recordings have come out in the last twenty years, most notably, Folk Music and Song of Italy. A Sampler. Italian Treasury. The Alan Lomax Collection. 1999. Rounder Records Corp. Recorded by Alan Lomax & Diego Carpitella. Notes by Alan Lomax. Edited by Anna Lomax Chairetakis & Goffredo Plastino. Series Editor: Goffredo Plastino. The first CD of the collection, for example, includes two samples from Sicily, six from Calabria, one from Basilicata, one from Apulia, three from Campania, one each from Abruzzo, Lazio, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Friuli Venezia-Giulia, Piedmont, and Liguria and two samples from Sardinia for a total of twenty-two pieces.

Some areas seem under-or overrepresented. How can Campania have only three samples? Yet, we have to remember that these researchers of folk music are not interested in the so-called “Neapolitan Song” ('O sole mio, Come back to Sorrento, etc.) They may be world-famous songs, but it isn't folk music; it's composed popular music —like "Tin Pan Alley" in the United States. So for the Campania region of Italy, they recorded all three pieces down in the southern province of Salerno: a lullaby, a tammurriata (from tammorra or tammurro, dialect for tamburo=tambourine) a dance piece with improvised lyrics accompanied by a hand-held frame drum and other percussion instruments. The most interesting selection is the Olive Pressing Song, a call-and-response work song from the area around Positano, on the Amalfi Coast, sung as the farmers work the heavy olive presses.

 [click for an excerpt from the Olive Pressing Song]

Tuna fishermen singing, Vibo Valentia Marina, Calabria.
 Photo by Alan Lomax, Aug 03, 1954.

In the “cantometric” terms of Lomax's approach to the anthropology of music, a lot of traditional music from southern Italy “sounds” Middle-Eastern or North African. That surprises people who have come to areas near Naples expecting to hear Funiculì-Funiculà. Why does local folk music sound Middle-Eastern? Here is where Lomax's and Carpitella's approaches overlap. There are very real physical reasons having to do with the movements of peoples through the centuries, instances in which cultural boundaries have changed or disappeared, all of which changes what people sing about and how they sing it. That is to say that we have to take a closer look at some of the assumptions we make about music just as we make about language. It's common to hear people say that "writing stabilizes language." Well, to a certain extent that makes sense, but if that's all there were to it, then the languages of literate cultures wouldn't change. Yet we all know that even a single generation is enough to change language. You don't speak exactly the same as your parents. So perhaps it is also true that writing records change as much as it prevents change. What about music? Do recordings stabilize music? Yes. Do they also record change. Yes. Can they have a  "flattening" effect on music? Yes. Can all these things be true at the same tine? Yes. (I said it was tricky.) Folk music has always had the reputation of being stable; it is reasonable to feel that people in separated rural communities will sing the way their ancestors did. But in Italy, what if their ancestors were from North Africa and took over Sicily and the southern peninsula over a thousand years ago and held it for a couple of centuries? (That's why southern Italian folk doesn't sound like the folk music of Genoa.) A lot of knowledge in comparative musicology is still in the future, no doubt, but we  should be thankful that for a brief time in the mid-1950s, Alan Lomax, this remarkable man, spent the "happiest year" of his life assembling this magnificent collection of recordings.

external links:
[There is a relevant item in the U.S. Library of Congress by Stephen Winick, editor at the LoC’s American Folklife Center.]
[There is a free downloadable .pdf file of Alan Lomax, Selected Writings 1934-1997. Ed. Ronald D. Cohen, Routledge, New York-London, 2003.]

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