Some of the most important audio recordings of the 20th century are being made available to the public this year, and the man with his finger on the Play button is sitting in Montclair. Musician and producer Don Fleming is the Executive Director of the Association for Cultural Equity and Director of the Alan Lomax Archive, which means he’s heading up what might be the single most ambitious cultural project in the world: loading thousands of hours of musical field recordings into a Global Jukebox.
Starting in the 1930s and continuing until he was sidelined with a stroke in the early 1990s, Lomax traveled around the U.S. (and eventually the world) recording local musicians and tracing the history of songs and musical styles. “We’ve digitized about 17,000 recordings and now have them online,” says Fleming. “It’s about 1,000 hours.” Plus, his team has scanned around 5,000 photos and uploaded nearly 300 videos—culled from 400 hours of footage Lomax shot in the 1970s—to the ACE’s YouTube channel. “And we’re kind of in the middle of the whole project,” Fleming says with a laugh.
The scope of the Lomax project is truly amazing, and it’s also kind of surprising to see this particular Baristaville resident heading it up. In the late 80s and 90s, Fleming was part of the American punk and independent rock scene, playing with his bands Gumball and the Velvet Monkeys, and producing albums for noisy guitar bands like Sonic Youth, Hole, and Teenage Fanclub.
So what is the man behind Rotting Corpse Au-Go-Go doing in the middle of the effort to bring traditional folk, blues, and world music to modern audiences? “I certainly came from a punk rock background, but I was always into all kinds of music and was a fan of Alan’s music,” says Fleming, who traces Lomax’s early recordings of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie into the historical line running through all of rock and roll. Plus, his time in the DIY punk scene prepped him for the task currently at hand. “I feel like it’s a punk rock ethic, the way we approach the business model,” he says. “I’ve always been a very hands-on, DIY musician, and I think the world has come back around to the model of having your own label, having to do it yourself, which is conducive to how we do things with the Lomax material.”
Fleming has been working with the Lomax archive since 2001, and he feels like today’s technology makes this the right time for the current phase of the project, getting the material out into the world in digital and physical formats, and repatriating the original materials back to the communities where they were recorded. Toward the end of Lomax’s life (he died in 2002, at the age of 87), Fleming explains that “he was building a contraption he called the Global Jukebox, a software program that was like a music recognition program for the examples he found, and he coded them sort of the way Pandora does, but with more complexity, tagging variables across cultures, tracing the migrations of songs. At the time, the Internet didn’t exist yet. But we can do this now, we have the means.”
Fleming says he splits his time working on the Lomax project from his home in Montclair—where he has lived since 2001 with his wife and two children—and ACE’s offices in Manhattan. And living in a house in the suburbs allows him to indulge in a passion he shares with Lomax: amassing a large and unusual collection of music and memorabilia. “I’ve gotten into this thing of buying collections of 45s that belonged to celebrities or musicians,” he says, referring to a recent acquisition of a collection that belonged to country singer Marty Robbins (to hear Fleming spin samples from Robbins’ collection, listen to this recent segment on WNYC’s Soundcheck).
And Fleming still has plenty of work ahead of him when it comes to Lomax’s collection. “He realized he couldn’t get to every place on Earth, so he started collecting recordings that other people had made,” which Fleming estimates is another 4,000 hours of recordings to sort through, digitize, an prepare for distribution. Plus there’s the 400,000 feet of 16mm film Lomax collected of dancers from around the globe. “That will all take years,” says Fleming, who expects he has at least another decade to go to fully populate Lomax’s Global Jukebox.
For more information on the Association for Cultural Equity and the Lomax Archive, visit culturalequity.org.