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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Folklorist Alan Lomax spent a lifetime documenting folk music traditions from around the world. Now thousands of the songs and interviews he recorded are available for free online. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, it's part of what Lomax envisioned for the collection long before the age of the Internet.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: When you're dealing with the staggering amount of folk music that Alan Lomax recorded, it's hard to know where to start.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA DON'T ALLOW")

FRED MCDOWELL: (Singing) Drive down baby and let your daddy see. You've got something really worry me.

ROSE: Lomax's career stretched from the 1930s to the '90s, taking him from the Deep South to the mountains of West Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSE: All the way to Europe, the Caribbean, and Asia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSE: When it came to bringing all of that music into the digital era, the people in charge of the Lomax archive weren't quite sure how to tackle the problem either.

DON FLEMING: We err on the side of doing the maximum amount possible.

ROSE: Don Fleming is executive director of the Association for Cultural Equity, the non-profit organization Alan Lomax founded in New York in the 1980s. Now Fleming and a small staff made up mostly of volunteers have digitized and posted some 17,000 sound recordings on the Internet, where anyone can stream them for free.

FLEMING: For the first time, everything that we've digitized of Alan's field recording trips are online, on our website. Every take, all the way through - false takes, interviews, music.

ANNA LOMAX WOOD: Alan would have been thrilled to death. He would've just been so excited.

ROSE: Lomax's daughter, Anna Lomax Wood, is president of the Association for Cultural Equity.

WOOD: He would try everything. I mean Alan was a person who looked to all the gambits that you could. You know, but the goal was always the same.

ROSE: Throughout his career, Alan Lomax was always using the latest technology to record folk music in the field, and then share it with anyone who was interested. When he started working with his father John Lomax in the 1930s, that meant recording on metal cylinders. Later, Alan Lomax would haul giant tape recorders powered by car batteries out to backwoods shacks and remote villages.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)

ALAN LOMAX: Get on board everybody and ride with me. This is Alan Lomax, your ballad man, inviting you for another ride on the folk song train, the train that runs wherever the people make their music...

ROSE: Lomax wrote and hosted radio and TV shows. And he spent the last 20 years of his career experimenting with computers to create something he called the Global Jukebox.

Here's a clip from a 1991 interview with CBS about the project.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOMAX: The modern computer with all its various gadgets and wonderful electronic facilities now makes it possible to preserve and reinvigorate all the cultural richness of mankind.

ROSE: Lomax had big plans for the Global Jukebox. He imagined a tool that would integrate thousands of sound recordings, films, videotapes and photographs by himself and others. It was supposed to make it easy to compare music across different cultures and continents using a complex analytical system he devised - kind of like Pandora for grad students. But the basic idea was simple: make it all available to anyone, anywhere in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOMAX: It's the first democratic educational machine that's ever been, that's ever existed, because it contains everybody's culture.

ROSE: Lomax left the Global Jukebox unfinished. But now that his archives are online, the organization he founded is turning its attention to that job.

FLEMING: So Alan moved into these offices in the '80s. And he had always kind of been in New York...

ROSE: The Association for Cultural Equity is housed in a run-down building near the Lincoln Tunnel in Manhattan. Most of Lomax's original recordings and notes are now stored at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. But Don Fleming says the New York offices still exude the DIY vibe they had when Lomax was working here - right down to the collection of cast-off chairs and desks, none of which seem to match.

FLEMING: There was never any money in it for Alan.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLEMING: Alan scraped by the whole time, and left with no money. He really just did it out of the passion he had for it and found ways to fund projects that were, you know, closest to his heart.

ROSE: Money is still tight, but that never stopped Alan Lomax. And it hasn't deterred Anna Lomax Wood, either.

WOOD: He just believed that all cultures should be looked at on an even playing field. Not that they're all alike. But they should be given the same dignity and - or they had the same dignity and worth as any other.

ROSE: Lomax was forced to stop working when his health declined in the 1990s. Almost 10 years after his death, his heirs are still trying to make his vision a reality - one recording at a time.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA DON'T ALLOW")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Drive down baby and let your daddy see, you got something really worry me. Lord, my, my, my, she don't love me...

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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