Back in 2010, a friend tipped Nathan Salsburg off about a box of records at the dump. He hurried to the scene and rescued what turned out to be a portion of the private collection of “hoarder” Don Wahle, a Louisville-native and collector of early country records. Wahle had died and his estranged family, eager to be rid of his squalor, ordered a purge of his entire home.
Nathan, with permission from the waste removal company, organized a full sweep of Wahle’s home and recovered the remaining 78s, many of which had never been reissued, and compiled Work Hard, Pray Hard, Play Hard (Tompkins Square, 2012), an effort that would earn him a Grammy nomination and a seat at the round table of contemporary 78 record collectors.
As a 21st century archivist, he alternates working with old and new mediums, and must navigate between the romantic and pragmatic aspects of collecting. Curious how he does it, we asked him about the apparent juxtaposition between his vinyl collection and his digital collection. He explained to us that, when compared to the uniform appearance of digital track lists, vinyl has a usefulness in its physical form; the artwork, the label, the liner notes and the multitude of other visual details help one to contextualize and situate the music in its time and place. “Yet those four hard drives,” he said, pointing at the entire digitized Alan Lomax Collection, “are what pay my mortgage.”
Nathan has worn the title of curator for the Alan Lomax Archive for the last four years. It’s a position that he has worked up to after starting out as a twenty-two-year old gopher and admin assistant. “To give you a feel for the era,” he said, “my first task was writing accession numbers on DAT tapes.” Today, he oversees the digital iterations of Lomax’s vast collections and perpetuates the vision of the pioneering folklorist.
In addition to the 17,000 some audio files currently available through the online Lomax Archive (culturalequity.org), Nathan said, “We have fifty hours of ‘30s Kentucky recordings, forty hours from the 1954-55 Italian trip, fifty hours of 1937 Haitian recordings and three hundred some hours of video that are still being processed for inclusion.” The task, he explained, is to not only make this material available, but to present it in manageable formats. Just what the ideal format is for disseminating aural and visual material, however, is a global work in progress.