Dr. Velia Ivanova (GSAS '21, Historical Musicology) has published an article titled “Defining the Songs of Incarceration: The Lomax Prison Project at a Critical Juncture” in the February 2022 issue of the Journal of the Society for American Music.
The article illuminates an underexplored moment in the formation of the well-known archive of recordings of incarcerated people collected by the folklorists John and Alan Lomax. In 1934 John Lomax wrote to 350 correctional institutions across the country, asking officials to transcribe the texts of songs “current and popular among prisoners or ‘made up’ by them.” Despite contacting institutions incarcerating people of many races, ethnicities, genders, and ages, however, the Lomaxes ultimately continued to center on music performed by Black men in Southern prisons. Because of this, the letter is a critical juncture in the formation of the Lomaxes’ prison work. Choices made by prison officials (whether to respond to the letter and in what manner to respond) and by the Lomaxes themselves (whether to express interest in songs addressed by correspondents) were influenced by perceptions of the role of music in relation to criminality, imprisonment, reform, and race. These perceptions in turn defined the boundaries of the Lomax prison project. The correspondence considered in this article therefore offers a counternarrative to popular representations of music and incarceration and suggests the limits of the well-known Lomax prison song collection.
The article can be accessed here.