In the Spring of 2011, I was able to work on a project with the collection of noted ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who was the first to record “The House of the Rising Sun,” “Black Betty,” and other American folk songs that would later become internationally known.
I love digitization, information systems, and massive libraries with secret underground passages, so this was a fantastic internship opportunity. I processed a collection of files relating to Lomax’s relationship with Pete Seeger, and evaluated pieces for possible digitization.
As an ethnographer, my absolute favorite part of this experience was creating a working inventory for digital scans of Lomax’s reel-to-reel tape boxes. Going over hundreds of these tape boxes was a rare opportunity to see the raw data and working style of a master field worker. In one of my favorite Lomax recordings, for example, there is a low knocking sound that seems to accompany the singing. On his tape box from the original recording, Lomax writes about how he came upon three women selling olives from a cart in Calabria, Italy, who agreed to sing a traditional song from that region. Beneath their voices, he explained, you can hear the olives and their buckets sloshing in the cart.
Later, as an Information Architecture student, I also spent a lot of time looking at the American Folklife Center’s web presence and drafting a potential redesign. You can read more about this project here: [LoC Redesign pdf].
First known recording of “House of the Rising Sun,” sung by Georgia Turner and recorded by Alan Lomax:
Most recognized version, 1964, by the Animals:
Another well-known take by Bob Dylan:
Contemporary reworking by Cat Power: