Theses Doctoral

The Musical Heritage of Incarceration: The Curation, Dissemination, and Management of the Lomax Collection Prison Songs

Ivanova, Velia

This dissertation examines the mediation of the public’s encounters with recordings of field hollers, work songs, and blues music collected by the folklorists John and Alan Lomax in prisons of the U.S. South from the 1930s to the 1950s. These recordings have, over the years, reached audiences through numerous songbooks and commercial recordings and have become important documents of the musical and cultural heritage of the United States. At the same time, they raise important issues about prison labor, the profits and practices of ethnography, and the racial politics amplifying both of these issues, given that they were collected by white folklorists and primarily feature the voices of Black men incarcerated in segregated prisons.

I trace the histories of the recordings’ acquisition, management, and dissemination—histories that involve not only the Lomaxes and the people whose voices are recorded, but also a variety of individual and institutional agents including prison administrators, public research facilities, non-governmental charitable organizations, and commercial corporations. I argue that these individuals and institutions have dealt with the Lomax prison recordings in a manner that has both responded to and shaped discourses about incarceration, race, gender, class, and morality in the United States. Over four chapters, I track the changing status of the recordings between 1933, when the Lomaxes first traveled to prisons and, in many ways, set the standard for prison song collection going forward, and the present day, when questions of musical heritage, justice, and repatriation largely motivate discussions around the collection and its management. My focus on this changing status over a span of nearly a century requires me to take approaches throughout: extensive archival research, historiographic examination, musical analysis, and an inquiry into heritage studies, among others.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Hisama, Ellie M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 14, 2021