Listening to the Lomax Archive

The Sonic Rhetorics of African American Folksong in the 1930s
Jonathan W. Stone
Exploring the rhetoric and cultural significance of African American folk music during the Great Depression


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.

Praise / Awards

  • “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
  • "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

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Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 258pp.
  • 4 illustrations.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2021
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-03855-8

Add to Cart
  • $24.95 U.S.

  • Open Access
  • 2021
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-90244-6

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  • rhetoric, sonic rhetoric, sonic rhetorics, folksong, Lead Belly, Jelly Roll Morton, sound studies, historiography, sonic historiography, rhetoric and composition, writing studies, composition studies, folklore studies, folklore, Alan Lomax, John A. Lomax, Folklife Archive, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, folkness, African American history, African American history, folk song, folksong, African American folklore, African American folksong, Golden Gate Quartet, radio studies, American School of the Air, Kenneth Burke, Great Depression, Interwar period, 1930s