Right here in Austin sit 80 hours of Texas folk music recorded in the 1930s and 1940s. It’s currently on obsolete aluminum acetate discs stored at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. But very soon, Texans and music lovers all over the world may have access to this treasure trove thanks to the Association for Cultural Equity.
When you think of Texas folk music, you probably think of cowboy songs, African-American field hollers, or perhaps the Tejano music blending Mexican melodies with the accordion sounds of Central Europe. All of these caught the attention of John Avery Lomax, a University of Texas at Austin graduate and professor who founded the Texas Folklore Society. In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, Lomax and his son Alan, then 18, went out on the road to gather field recordings of Texas’ folk music. They had some state-of-the-art equipment – a 315 pound phonograph disk recorder. Since rural electrification didn’t become common until Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, they had to travel with their own generator for power. But they went all over Texas, from Brownsville to Austin to Abilene, and everywhere in between. The Lomaxes rightfully went on to earn fame as pioneers of American musicology. The artists they discovered and the songs they recorded have become part of the American folk canon.
The recordings themselves, however, haven’t been available to the public because the discs they’re stored upon are fragile. I visited the Briscoe Center this spring and listened to digital files from tapes of the discs made in the 1970s included in the Lomax Archive. Even though the audio quality was poor, the music took me to another time and place–it’s something that deserves to be accessible to all. As with any project of this scope, the effort to transfer, digitally restore, catalog, and disseminate the music will require financial support.
The Association for Cultural Equity, a nonprofit organization that was founded by Alan Lomax to explore and preserve the world’s expressive traditions with humanistic commitment and scientific engagement, is raising money to get this done. To encourage philanthropic organizations to fund all of this, the Austin Music Commission–an advisory group for City council on music development issues–has passed a resolution to help the City celebrate its rich culture by supporting concerts that feature music from the Lomax Archive. The commission is committed to lining up local venues, finding local musicians to get paid fair wages, and promoting concerts to the African American, Tejano and cowboy communities that created the folk tradition in the first place.
The Austin Music Commission wants to hear this music played again today and share it with the communities that created it 80 years ago. As part of its duties to study the development of the music industry, assist in the implementation of programs to meet the needs created by the development of the industry, and review matters that may affect the music industry in Austin, the commission’s goal is not just the preservation of the music, but its revitalization. The Austin Music Commission is committed to further expanding the Lomax legacy with the support of the Association for Cultural Equity.
This is the music of Texas, and it should continue to be played, heard and enjoyed by the Texans of today.