Recording History

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“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
Homer, The Odyssey

Recording History


If you've read The Odyssey or The Iliad, then you know why they've been literary classics for almost 3,000 years. But did you know they date to the earliest origins of the alphabet? It's believed that Homer's poems and speeches were so revered that early scribes dedicated themselves to writing them down. In fact, half of all Greek papyrus discoveries contain Homer's works. Homer must have been one cool dude to influence all of Western literature.

Now put on your time-travel caps and flash forward to the 1933. It's the early years of recording audio. Huddie Ledbetter was incarcerated in a prison in Louisiana when a father and son recording team came by. John and Alan Lomax were traveling the south on the dime of the Library of Congress to record and document African-American folk and blues musicians. John had found the LOC collections woefully inadequate and got funding to buy a "portable" (315 lbs.) disc recorder. There in the Angola Prison was the singer and 12-string guitar player better known as "Led Belly." Their collaboration over the next several years cemented Led Belly's place as a folk and blues legend.

Humans have long been documenting events with paintings on cave walls; sculptures; writing on papyrus; photographs; records and tapes; and film and video. One way we're doing it today is with oral histories. "Oral history" is a term used to describe recording someone relating personal experiences on audio or video. It's often used to supplement documents, pictures, artifacts, and visuals about an event or time period. Scholars say oral histories are a unique part of understanding history. Just hearing speech inflections and emotion in one's voice speaks volumes that printed text cannot.

Searching for key words in printed or digitized text is easy. Searching recordings can be extremely time consuming. In the past, recordings were done on disc or tape, so one had to listen to the whole recording. If they were lucky, a transcript existed. Recordings were usually only transcribed If funds, personnel, and time were available. But most recordings are in boxes collecting dust.

These days, oral histories are recorded digitally, an obvious quality advantage over analog. But the not-so-obvious advantage is search-ability. Doug Boyd of the Louis B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky has developed a novel searchable method called OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchronizer). Any content in the Nunn Center's online files can be searched using current speech recognition algorithms. It's not perfect, as Boyd points out, but it's a step in the right direction.

Anybody that's used Siri or Google voice search will understand that speech recognition is not perfect. OCR (Optical Character Recognition) was at this stage about a decade ago. Now, document scanners can scan, ingest, and convert paper text to a digital file in seconds with few errors. But the complexity of speech patterns, accents, and recording quality will demand more intricate software solutions. This will come, and oral history repositories will reap the benefits.

All this bleeding-edge technology like the alphabet and records lead me to wonder what the next thing is? Thought recording? Memory mining? Oh boy, now everyone will know I really wasn't that cool in high school. I was really a nerd. Oh wait, you already figured that out.

Did You Know?


Four generations of the Lomax family have contributed immensely to American music through recordings, archives, productions, management, and journalism.
  • John Lomax grew up and Texas in the late 1800's and was influenced by cowboy folklore and songs.
  • Some of John's professions were as an English professor, college administrator and banker.
  • John co-founded the Texas Folklore Society, a chapter of the American Folklore Society.
  • During his travels in the south recording folksongs during the 1930's, the entire Lomax family was heavily involved in the recording and research.
  • Alan Lomax, John's son, continued his father's legacy of archiving folksongs. He was also a ethnomusicologist, writer, and filmmaker.
  • Grandson John Lomax III is a music journalist and artist manager, having represented Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle.
  • Great-grandson John Nova Lomax is a music journalist and author.

Tech Notes


  • John Lomax's first field recordings were on wax cylinders. Fidelity was inferior to disc recordings, but disc recorders were not yet portable. Instead of a microphone, players performed into a bell or horn.
  • John and Alan Lomax used some of the earliest disc recorders in the field. These were uncoated aluminum, in which the heavy vibrating needle would etch the surface. The discs were robust, but the grooves were shallow, and thus noisy.
  • Alan started using lacquer-coated aluminum discs in the mid-30's. Fidelity was better, but the recording process was difficult. Spirals of shed lacquer and aluminum had to be continually brushed and blown away from the needle.
  • Like the immediate feedback that digital cameras give us today, Lomax could immediately play the record back to the musician.
  • These early disc recorders were so heavy that recordists often installed them in the back of old ambulances. They required alternating current (AC), so Lomax often used his car battery in conjunction with a portable transformer to power the recorder.

Neil Kesterson

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