"Recording Race: Memory and Mystery in the Library of Congress's Folklife Archive"

Jon Stone
Ph.D. candidate, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Rhetoric and Cultural historiography

In this poster session I will explore the ways that music, memory, and mystery comingle in the archive. I will draw on Jonathan Sterne’s observations about the ways that temporality and technology come together in recorded sonic artifacts to reify notions of the “modern” and the “primitive.” Discovering strangeness, Sterne argues, was part of the early draw for listening to reproduced sound. We will question together whether or not early recordings of black vernacular music in African American prisons may have also had a progressive impact on racial understanding. Participants at the table will have the opportunity to both see the transcriptions of songs collected by the collectors, John and Alan Lomax, and listen to the voices on the recordings. We will consider the ways that both textual and sonic artifacts might have “colored” the interpretation of the content represented there in the mid 20th century and how these interpretations continue to reify the mystery of racial difference in the collective memory of the United States today.

Below is a short compilation of some of these recordings. These excerpts preview the variety of the recordings made by the Lomaxes in African American prisons during their field recording trips in the early 30s. Some of the voices you hear in this compilation are identified by name or nickname as part of that recording process--others, such as the group singing the work song "God A'mighty"--are simply listed as "unidentified."