Listening to the Lomax Archive

The Sonic Rhetorics of African American Folksong in the 1930s

Subjects: Music, American Studies
Paperback : 9780472038558, 258 pages, 4 illustrations, 6 x 9, November 2021
Open Access : 9780472902446, 258 pages, 4 illustrations, 6 x 9, November 2021

Open access edition funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The University of Utah’s Department of Writing & Rhetoric Studies and J. Willard Marriott Library provided financial support towards the production of and free access to this book.
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Exploring the rhetoric and cultural significance of African American folk music during the Great Depression

Table of contents

For Pete’s Sake: Audio Preface
Introduction. Finding Folkness in Rhetorical Studies (Turn, Turn, Turn)
Interlude I: Resimplifications
Chapter 1. Sonic Rhetorical Historiography: Re-Orienting Authenticity During the Inter-War Period
Chapter 2. Rhetoric, Representation, and Race in the Lomax Prison Recordings
Interlude II: Oral History’s Exigence
Chapter 3. Inventing Jazz: Jelly Roll Morton and the Sonic Rhetorics of Hot Musical Performance
Interlude III: Popular Front Education
Chapter 4. Folksong on the Radio: The Sounds of Broadcast Democracy on Columbia’s American School of the Air
Conclusion. Hearing the Lomax Archive
Appendix: List of Audio Resources
Works Cited



In 1933, John A. Lomax and his son Alan set out as emissaries for the Library of Congress to record the folksong of the “American Negro” in several southern African American prisons. Listening to the Lomax Archive: The Sonic Rhetorics of African American Folksong in the 1930s asks how the Lomaxes’ field recordings—including their prison recordings and a long-form oral history of jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton—contributed to a new mythology of Americana for a nation in the midst of financial, social, and identity crises. Stone argues that folksongs communicate complex historical experiences in a seemingly simple package, and can thus be a key element—a sonic rhetoric—for interpreting the ebb and flow of cultural ideals within contemporary historical moments. He contends that the Lomaxes, aware of the power of folk music, used the folksongs they collected to increase national understanding of and agency for the subjects of their recordings even as they used the recordings to advance their own careers. Listening to the Lomax Archive gives readers the opportunity to listen in on these seemingly contradictory dualities, demonstrating that they are crucial to the ways that we remember and write about the subjects of the Lomaxes’ archive and other repositories of historicized sound.
Throughout Listening to the Lomax Archive, there are a number of audio resources for readers to listen to, including songs, oral histories, and radio program excerpts. Each resource is marked with a ♫ in the text. Visit to access this audio content.

Jonathan W. Stone is Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric Studies at the University of Utah.

“Through excellent scholarship and mind-blowing archival research, Listening to the Lomax Archive elucidates the details of American history that are normally hard to hear and always impossible to see. Stone helps us to better understand the myth-making that creates both a mythic America and the lived experience of race. Scholars will appreciate the theoretical interventions and the development of the argument and its proofs. Students of history, cultural studies, music, and rhetoric will enjoy the descriptions of folkness through music and radio. Here it is both a good read and an effective argument.”
—Greg Goodale, Northeastern University

- Greg Goodale

"Including links to a collection of wonderful online recordings, this thought-provoking, enlightening book is for scholars of folklore and rhetoric."


"Listening to the Lomax Archive is an important book for its techniques of listening for the implicit, non-musical aspects of a documentary recording. It also introduces distinctive selections as toeholds in the vast archive of Lomax recordings..."
ARSC Journal

- Edward Komara

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