I’m waiting at the gate at Washington Dulles with a carry-on bag bulging with a ream or so of photocopies. All that paper is my harvest from a week of researching Alan Lomax within the marble halls of the Library of Congress. Being loaded down never felt so good.
My research in the American Folklife Center wasn’t all paper, all the time. I got to see a piece of 1940s-vintage recording equipment — ostensibly portable, but you wouldn’t want to be the one lugging that thing around. I got to listen to the very first recordings of Leadbelly, his showmanship and musical skill gleaming through the gravelly surface noise of the aluminum disc used to capture those sounds in 1933. And I was able to see silent but full-color footage of 1937 Haiti and Kentucky, viewing everyday dancers and musicians through the eyes of my subject. That, especially, was something else.
But for the most part, I read — old letters, manuscripts, radio scripts, field notes, and so forth. What I’m bringing home is just a sliver of what I saw this week, yet it’s a ton more than one might think necessary for a 128-page book about someone whose seven-decade career has been pretty well documented elsewhere. The most important thing I’m returning to Texas with, though, is understanding — a sense that, through all these materials, I know the person I’ll be writing about and that I can finally grasp the way his life is intertwined with the larger story of the cultural shifts and technological advances and global developments that took place during his 87 years.
I’m also returning to Austin with a whole lot of gratitude — to my family for putting up with my absence this week, and to the generous and truly helpful staff at the Folklife Reading Room for putting up with my presence. I’m going to give them all — and myself — a break by taking a week off from this project and most other writing-related stuff. After that, I plan to start putting all this paper to use.