LOMAX SITS BLIND WILLIE NEXT TO BEETHOVEN

by

Cover of The Golden Record, currently scuttling through empty space.

from www.artslaboraustin.com:

ALAN LOMAX SITS BLIND WILLIE NEXT TO BEETHOVEN ON A WONDROUS VOYAGE

In 1977, astronomer Carl Sagan was chosen by NASA to head a team to select contents of a record to be placed on the unmanned Voyager I spacecraft, which was designed to explore Jupiter and Saturn, but now, nearly 38 years later, has traveled further from Earth than any other man-made object. The idea behind the two-hour disc, to be played back at 16 2/3 RPM with a stylus and cartridge provided, was to preserve “presents from a small, distant world” to any extraterrestrials who could conceivably happen upon the spaceship. And you thought Dark Side of the Moon was trippy.

President Jimmy Carter provided an introduction to the record as, “A token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” This two-hour, multimedia presentation of life on Earth was encoded onto a disc coated with copper and gold for protection, which gave it the nickname The Golden Record.

The selections from Sagan’s team were initially drawn solely from Western classical music, so Sagan enlisted the help of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who had just compiled an anthology of world music, consisting of 700 pieces that illustrated the full gamut of human musical expression. Lomax and his team of folklorists operated under the banner of “cultural equity,” the idea that music made on a Texas chain gang or a Spanish fishing village is as valid as that of the world’s great symphonies.

“Our job is to represent all the submerged cultures in the world,” Lomax told interviewer Charles Kuralt in 1991. “We give an avenue for those people to tell their side of the story.” Alan Lomax, inspired by his father John, spent six decades trying to restore the balance that wealth and privilege had taken away.

There was a bit of head-butting when Lomax was brought aboard and chucked DeBussy in favor of Peruvians and their panpipes and Chuck Berry playing rock n’ roll. In Murmurs of Earth, a book recounting the Voyager project, Sagan wrote that Lomax was “a persistent and vigorous advocate for including ethnic music even at the expense of Western classical music. He brought pieces so compelling and beautiful that we gave in to his suggestions more often than I would have thought possible.”

In the end, Lomax was responsible for 15 of the 27 musical recordings on Voyager 1, including Blind Willie Johnson’s moaning “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” which accomplishes the rare feat of being eerie and emotional at the same time. Lomax said he included that guitar-sliding Crucifixion song as the best embodiment of loneliness. Space aliens from the future will no doubt relate better to the blind, guitar evangelist from Marlin, Texas than to Beethoven, who follows Blind Willie to close out The Golden Record.

See also here.

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