There are times when the dead send for us—at times they call to us in hushed tones, and at other times their screams are peppered with urgency. Sometime they come to us in the recognition of a familiar cadence whose origin we cannot quite recall or the eerie familiarity of a place on first arrival. The difficulty then comes from trying to differentiate between past lives, our ancestors beckoning, and trying to grapple with whether or not the two are mutually exclusive.
Sometimes the dead send for us when they are ready to return home.
The Alan Lomax Collection boasts hundreds of sound recordings and photographs collected from New Providence, Cat Island, and Andros on Lomax’s initial trip in 1935 and a subsequent trip back to Andros in 1979. Manuscripts from Lomax’s return trip address the absence of field notes from the first, “The experience of the 1935 fieldtrip was overwhelming. I took no notes. Had to return to fill in background.” The sparse documentation of the initial trip shrouds the archive in mystery, making it near impossible to locate the descendants of those whose likenesses appear in the collection some eighty years later; but, the dead continue to speak through the materials.
Alan Lomax had already been collecting folk materials for two years when he enlisted the help of an unorthodox ethnographer known for embodying the folk cultures she studied. Not only was Zora Neale Hurston “the only professionally trained black folklorist in town,” she was a Florida native who would help Lomax navigate Black cultural spaces with an unprecedented degree of access that the color line would not typically allow—until then, Florida was the only southern, American state where the Lomaxes had not previously collected recordings (Szwed).
In correspondence back to the Library of Congress dated August 1935, Alan credits Zora with introducing him to Bahamian migrant workers, “For the first three or four days we recorded work-songs, ballads, spirituals of the usual sort, then Miss Hurston introduced us to a small community of Bahamian Negroes. We then heard our first fire-dances and for the first time, although we and other collectors had searched the South, [for] the heavy, exciting rhythm of a drum. The dances and the songs were the closest to African I had ever heard in America…In Miami we decided that the only thing for us to do was to make a visit, however brief to the Bahamas where we would hear the fire dances in their own country.”
The summer of 1935 proved formative for then twenty-year-old Lomax, accompanied by Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, Professor of the Ballad at New York University, Alan continued his journey to The Bahamas where his enchantment with what he called, “these fairy islands” gifted them with, “…the livest and most-varied folk-culture we had yet run into.” The Lomax-Hurston-Barnicle expedition to Georgia, Florida, and The Bahamas gifted Alan with recordings in African dialect and Haitian Creole; this—his first recording trip in the Caribbean—seemingly jumpstarted his inquiry into folk-culture throughout the region.
This exhibit is made possible by the American Folklife Center at the United States Library of Congress and the Association for Cultural Equity in conjunction with the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas and Tamika Galanis, MFA who is the current Jon B. Lovelace Fellow for the Study of the Alan Lomax Collection at the John W. Kluge Center at Library of Congress.