When Alan Lomax accepted a position as the Assistant in Charge of the Archive of American Folksong in the Library of Congress in 1936, he became a gatekeeper to the largest repository of recorded folk music in the country and solidified his preeminent status in the world of public folklore. To Lomax, folk music was the music of the American “people,” a category that included racial and ethnic minorities as well as the economically dispossessed and politically disenfranchised. From the beginning of his career Lomax worked to infuse folk music into mainstream culture and, in so doing, to publicize his interpretation of American culture and society—an interpretation that placed these citizens at the center of the nation's identity. During the 1930s and 1940s, he pursued this goal by developing radio programs that highlighted the music of American folk communities. Rather than simply talk about the “people” on these shows, however, Lomax enabled singers from these communities to speak for themselves through their music. In so doing, he sought to instill a sense of pride among marginalized Americans in their ethnic and racial cultural heritage while educating mainstream listeners about the diverse nature of their national cultural heritage.

Alan Lomax began collecting examples of folk music tucked away in rural regions during his teenage years. He cut his teeth as a folklorist by accompanying his father, John Lomax, on a song-collecting trip around southern penitentiaries in 1933 when he was eighteen.1 In fact, his career in folklore began even before he completed his bachelor's degree.2 Once he began working at the Library of Congress, Lomax started devising ways to bring folk music to a public audience. Among the many programs Lomax developed were radio shows for both adults and children. For the latter, he designed a weekly show called Folk Music of America for CBS radio's American School of the Air. Lomax used this program as a forum to teach children about American cultural and political democracy by highlighting the music of socially, economically, and racially marginalized communities, often including guests from these groups to sing and explain musical traditions on the air. An examination of the principles that motivated Folk Music of America, along with the artists, songs, and commentary that Lomax included, reveals a strong connection between the ideas of cultural pluralism that emerged during the World War I era and popular constructs of Americanism that developed during the later decades of the twentieth century. By basing his concept of American national identity on the civic ideals of democracy and cultural pluralism, by seeking to preserve cultural difference, and by giving voice to marginalized American communities, Alan Lomax's radio work helped lay the foundation for the multicultural movement that developed during the early 1970s.

Theories of multiculturalism began to circulate in American society after the cultural factionalism of the late 1960s. The political and social turmoil of the sixties and the economic crisis of the seventies dealt heavy blows to American culture and society. Large swaths of the population, according to historian Gary Gerstle, lost faith in the promise of American ideals and ceased to identify with the national body. To deal with what seemed like a waning of American unity, those on the Left attempted to generate the idea of a national community that incorporated ethnic, racial, and gender identities. Influenced by the cultural nationalism of the black power movement, early multiculturalists sought to abolish policies and programs of assimilation in favor of celebrating the cultural traditions found in ethnic and racial communities throughout the country (Crucible 345, 348). Multiculturalists ultimately hoped to generate, in the words of Nathan Glazer, “a new image of a better America” that did not privilege any particular race or ethnicity, nor discriminate against any other, where “American culture is seen as the product of a complex intermingling of themes from every minority ethnic and racial group, and from indeed the whole world” (11). Multiculturalism therefore began as a program to redefine an American national identity.

Although the national image Glazer provides is connected to theories of multiculturalism, the pluralism he describes had roots that stretched back to the early twentieth century when Horace Kallen and Randolph Bourne advocated for cultural diversity through their normative social theories of cultural pluralism and cosmopolitanism. Kallen developed the concept of cultural pluralism in 1916 as a way to grapple with the question of how to assimilate recent immigrants into American life. Kallen scorned the popular melting-pot theory as a program of forced homogeneity that stripped away citizens’ ethnic heritage. Through cultural pluralism, Kallen advocated a unity-within-diversity view of American society that characterized the United States as a multicultural nation that should protect the rights of the various ethnic groups living within its borders (Akam 3, 57). By explaining that American society was a plurality of ethnic cultures, Kallen argued that communities of naturalized citizens were as American as communities of native-born citizens. Shortly after Kallen proposed his theory of cultural pluralism, Randolph Bourne debuted his own suggestion for how America should deal with ethnic diversity. Labeling his theory “cosmopolitanism,” Bourne proclaimed that the heterogeneous character of American society should not only be tolerated but should be actively encouraged. America needed the flow of new immigrants, he argued, both to thwart cultural “stagnation” and to become a cosmopolitan nation that incorporated the best aspects of different global cultures (267). Although they both sought to protect ethnic diversity, they diverged in one key respect: while Kallen saw clear boundaries separating ethnic groups and believed that individual identities were predicated on ethnic heritage, Bourne viewed group boundaries as permeable and encouraged individuals to borrow from various group characteristics in constructing their own identities (Hollinger 11).

In many ways, Lomax carried the ideas of cultural pluralism and cosmopolitanism through the 1930s, but whereas Kallen and Bourne directed their theories to intellectual circles—public and academic—Lomax taught the value of American cultural diversity to school children and other listeners of daytime radio. Before Lomax began his radio work, public intellectuals, government officials, and radio broadcasters had long debated the role that the media would play in American culture and society. During the early years of the Depression, political and economic elites feared that the crisis would either heighten preexisting social schisms or generate new ones, and they looked for ways to avert this factionalism; many turned to radio as the solution. These figures saw radio as a means to unite diverse Americans because it transcended regional and socio-economic differences. After all, most families— whether their breadwinners were employed or not—owned radios (Lacey 29). During the domestic turmoil that accompanied the deepening of the Depression, the unifying potential of radio became even more evident. Anning S. Prall, the first chief commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, announced in 1936 during a live radio broadcast that the medium had become a public forum that united Americans through common education, entertainment, music, and theater, and thus served as a powerful determinant of national culture and identity. Public intellectuals, business leaders, and educators largely agreed (Hilmes and Loviglio xi).

By the mid-1930s, the Roosevelt Administration began using radio to shape American identity and politics. The recognition of ethnic pluralism and an advocacy of cultural democracy were central components of New Deal nationalism, and the Administration soon began to broadcast these ideals over the national airwaves. In the fall of 1935 Franklin Roosevelt provided funds to the Office of Education for radio programs that commemorated American social and cultural diversity. One such example was Americans All … Immigrants All (1938–39), a series of radio shows that focused on different ethnic groups. Episodes focused on topics like the following: “Negroes in America,” “Slavic Contributions to American Life,” and “Our Hispanic Heritage.” Other shows were dedicated to “Jews,” “Italians,” “Orientals,” “Irish,” and “Germans” in “American Life.” FDR could symbolically embrace ethnic Americans because by the 1930s there were few concerns over ethnic divisions, racial distinctions or cultural differences, a situation resulting from the 1924 National Origins Act, which severely curtailed the number of new immigrants (Crucible 132, 137). The decline of post-World War I 100-percent Americanism, and the government's rhetorical acceptance of cultural pluralism sparked a different kind of nationalism during this period, one that focused on “the uniqueness of American ideas and values, not the purity of any single racial or cultural stock,” according to historian Alfred Haworth Jones. Furthermore, because the Depression affected almost all Americans, those who sought to define the American national identity emphasized the broad-based “national experience” as the essence of that identity (718).

Even before the Roosevelt Administration used radio to push a political agenda, educational groups began harnessing the technology for their own purposes; many state educational departments and public schools worked with universities to develop radio programs for children. The Federal Communications Act of 1934 and the establishment of the Federal Radio Education Committee effectively solidified the commercial dominance of radio at the expense of public programming, but the two national networks NBC and CBS agreed to provide airtime for public and educational shows. This arrangement opened the door for educators to get involved in radio programming, an opportunity that they gladly accepted. One such example was the CBS program, The American School of the Air (ASA), a series of educational programs that aired during school hours. The series began in 1930 and highlighted such educational topics as history, literature, science, current affairs, and music appreciation. The intention was for teachers to play the shows in their classrooms and incorporate the material into their lessons (Woody 16, 18). In 1939 CBS commissioned Alan Lomax to host a program on American folk music.

Although Lomax was not a trained educator, he worked with a variety of specialists connected to Columbia University's Department of Education, the Music Educator's National Conference, and the National Education Association to compensate for his lack of educational credentials. Like many progressive educators, Lomax emphasized the concept of applied learning by prompting students to sing along to the songs that he featured on the program; telling them to seek out music for themselves in their homes, schools and communities; and encouraging them to attend music festivals, square dances and other community gatherings that featured local folk music. During the first season Folk Music of America ran on Tuesday mornings from October through May, and Lomax's duties included serving as a script advisor, commentator and occasional singer.3 CBS officials estimated that over 120,000 classrooms across the country would tune into the program, and Lomax aptly used this as an opportunity to both popularize folk music and spread his gospel of the American democratic and pluralist heritage, a project that was well suited for the era.

The real value of folk music for Lomax was its status as a multifaceted cultural form that people generated in response to their own circumstances. Furthermore, Lomax held that folk music was a democratic art that came from local communities, both rural and urban. Since the music was an oral tradition, various community members amended traditional folk songs as they passed from generation to generation; and, since it was a people's art, anyone could generate a folk song based on his/her life experiences. Lomax believed that folk songs were living traditions that granted insight into the various folk communities; when viewed collectively, these songs provided a deeper understanding of the nation as a whole. Lomax's view of folk music was particularly influenced by the anthropological theory of functionalism. Popularized by British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, functionalism held that cultural practices existed because they served functions in the communities that maintained them. Throughout the ASA program, Lomax championed folk music as a vital part of contemporary culture, stipulating that “[w]herever possible the interest of the class should center on the living oral tradition rather than on things to be found in books” (ASA Manual 16–17).

Throughout the series, Lomax emphasized historical and contemporary work songs, dedicating episodes to such themes as railroad, teamster, lumberjack, “forecastle,” and “Negro work” songs. Occasionally, a show would feature other topics such as children's games, “nonsense,” square dancing, and love songs. In most of the episodes Lomax sang and he almost always had help from musical guests: the Golden Gate Quartet and Lead Belly performed on the “Negro Work Songs” and “Railroad Songs” episodes; his sister Bess accompanied him on love song duets; John M. “Sailor Dad” Hunt sang sea shanties; and Woody Guthrie fittingly contributed to an episode on hobo or “vagabond minstrels” tunes. Most likely because of the show's focus on work songs, it tended to be a male-dominated program. Apart from Bess Lomax, all of the guests were men who sang about the trials and tribulations of male labor. Even though the show's themes were very specific the content was consistently national in scope. At the end of the February 20th, 1940 show, the announcer Niles Welch repeated a request for listeners to send their favorite folk songs for the last two episodes, which were to be dedicated to listener submissions. Welch implored listeners across the United States to contribute their songs because, as he stated, “We want to have all parts of the country represented” (FMA 2/20/40, 22).

Each episode of Folk Music of America generally followed the same format. After Welch's introduction Lomax explained the day's topic and described the different aspects of the show's subject. He and the guests then sang songs pertinent to that theme. Lomax described his singers not as professionals but as untrained yet authentic experts in their fields. “Sailor Dad” could sing sea shanties because he came from a seafaring family; Lead Belly accurately sang field hollers and chain-gang songs because he had experienced both forms of misery. After Lomax and the guests bantered and sang a bit the show launched into its second, more formal half. Each episode featured a particular song that Lomax first sang in a folk-style, after which different composers attempted to express the song's theme and tune with a professional orchestra. After this segment Lomax closed the show by introducing the theme song of the next week's episode so that the children would be familiar with it and thus more apt to sing along themselves. As Lomax explained to the listeners, he chose certain topics and invited specific guests “to show this connection between music and the basic human needs and ideas from which it springs,” an effort that demonstrated Lomax's desire to use folk music to teach children his views of the national community in which they lived (WM 3/1/41, 1).

Before delving into the American traditions that folk music illuminated, Lomax needed to explain how this music was embedded in the American national heritage. This task was not so difficult with songs that had already been established as part of the American folk canon. Cowboy songs, Appalachian ballads, and older work songs like lumberjack and seafaring songs were largely accepted as “traditional” folk music by the time Folk Music of America aired. In this program, however, Lomax introduced listeners to new music that people created from contemporary circumstances. For example, Lomax presented Woody Guthrie's topical song “Do Re Mi” as folk music (even though Guthrie wrote it to address the contemporary concerns of migrant families moving west) because it expressed a uniquely American experience. This view of folk music illustrates Lomax's rather unconventional interpretation compared to the way academics in the field, particularly those connected to the American Folklore Society (AFS), classified American folk music. One year prior to the start of Lomax's program, folklorist Stith Thompson declared in the Journal of American Folklore that American folklore came from the following communities: “American Indians, the French Canadians and the Louisiana French, the Spanish Americans, the Negroes, and the descendents of English stock in America,” a list that left little room for contemporary songwriters like Guthrie who wrote about American experiences, or members of more recent immigrant communities (1).

Disregarding academic stipulations, Lomax explained to listeners that the music he aired was indeed the music of the American “folk,” and was thus part of an authentic national identity—past and present. After establishing that fact, he used folk music to define that identity; for Lomax, folk songs represented the inherent diversity of the American people. One aspect of this diversity was the ethnic pluralism generated by waves of immigration. As Lomax wrote in a letter to folksong collector Joanna Colcord in 1941, he wanted to begin a project recording the songs of ethnic minorities living in New York City because “America should make clear her concern for the cultural riches of the peoples whom she has welcomed into her borders.” Lomax also stipulated that the members of this project should work with foreign language associations and social organizations to generate material that would enhance similar cultural programs (Alan Lomax, Assistant in Charge 232). Gary Gerstle argues that although liberal reformers and intellectuals in the thirties idealized the “folk” as “Americans, past and present,” they usually defined them as “native-born Yankees or white southerners whose families, over the course of generations, had sunk deep roots into the American soil” (“Protean Character” 1068). Gerstle's assessment, however, does not apply to many progressive folklorists of the era, including Alan Lomax. Even before beginning his work with the ASA, Lomax envisioned a folk festival as part of the 1939 World's Fair in New York City, featuring folk cultures of ethnic communities in the United States. In a letter to Olin Downes, the director of music and dance activities for the fair, Lomax stipulated that the Fair should feature four main pavilions: one a “Negro honky-tonk” and second a “mountain square dance hall” and two more drawn from such “almost endless” possibilities as the New Orleans French Quarter, a Pennsylvania Dutch tavern, a “Haitian house with voodoo dances,” a western saloon, “a down-Easter fish house,” a “Mexican patio,” an “Acadian Fais-do-do hall,” a Hawaiian house, and a “Negro church social” (Alan Lomax, Assistant in Charge 81).

Lomax expressed his desire to credit ethnic and racial minorities for their contributions to American culture and to represent their traditions as a part of the American heritage in several Folk Music of America episodes. During a show dedicated to railroad songs, Lomax presented a particularly romantic view of American pluralism that was exemplified by the construction of the national railroad system. The show opened with the songs of Irish immigrant laborers in the North and then proceeded to the songs of African Americans laying down tracks in the South (WM 4/14/41, 2). This emphasis on cultural diversity as a defining feature of American strength and identity became even more pronounced in the show with the escalation of World War II. For the episode “The Composer Looks Abroad” during the 1940–1941 season, the manual opens with a cosmopolitan assessment of American culture: “In the three hundred-odd years that a new American culture has been building, foreign influences from all over the world have gone into its make-up. Our folk music is complex, [with] influences from Africa, Spain, France, England, Ireland, [and] Scotland” (ASA Manual 36). Lomax's script for the January 1, 1941 episode on British Ballads takes a more idealistic view in light of current events:

America is the land where men from all over the world, speaking different languages, singing different songs, liking different kinds of cooking, have been able to meet and say, “Hello stranger, where are you going? Stop a minute and let's have a talk. Where are you from? It's mighty good to know you.” America is the land where all men have been friendly to strangers, because everybody was strangers and they all agreed to talk things over and listen rather than fight first and listen later.

Again, he illustrated the diverse nature of American folk music by explaining that “Spanish, French, German, Russian, Armenian, Latvian, [and] Lithuanian” ballads and songs have helped shape the nation's folk music and, in a blatant swipe at fascism, that “[i]t is not against the law to sing in any language you happen to know here in America” (WM 1/1/42, 1).

By citing the civic ideals of democracy and diversity as the defining features of American identity, Lomax exemplified the type of nationalism that characterized the New Deal era and continued into the World War II years. Even though Americans did not live up to their democratic creed, as evidenced by entrenched racial discrimination, there was a general consensus that the United States embodied certain civic beliefs and values that were rooted in a broad concept of American democracy. These ideals developed into an ideology of democracy that became, according to historian Philip Gleason, a key feature to American national identity (Gleason “WWII” 344, 352–53). When war broke out in Europe, the need for national unity became more urgent, accelerating efforts to combat prejudice, promote diversity, and thus make American democracy more inclusive of marginalized groups. More than simply generating an appreciation of American diversity, the war sparked an ideological renaissance centering on the values to which Americans committed themselves. This “ideological revival” promoted a resurgence of assimilationist tendencies but along civic rather than ethnic/racial lines. Now, cultural leaders pushed an “ideological consensus” that promoted tolerance and an appreciation of diversity as American characteristics (“Americans All” 500–03).

This celebration of democracy, while heightened during the wartime years, was actually an extension of the pro-democratic, anti-discriminatory Americanism that New Deal liberals and left-wing activists like Lomax generated during the Depression era, rather than a wholesale “ideological revival.” Lomax continued to promote democracy during the war, only now his language directly addressed the international situation. In the first season of Folk Music of America, the teacher's manual situated the show within the national and international contexts. The author commended the growing appreciation of American folk music because, “As one European nation after another has, in recent years, rejected democracy or compromised it, throughout America there has come the realization that our refuge and strength lies in the cultivation of our own democratic tradition”; this tradition is best exemplified “at its musical core—American folk music” (ASA Manual 16).4

Lomax was on the bandwagon of American democracy and anti-fascism long before the war largely because of his Popular Front sympathies. Historian Michael Denning describes the Popular Front in the United States as a social movement consisting of “non-Communist socialists and independent leftists working with Communists and with liberals” to generate their own vision of American culture. Beginning in 1935, left-wing organizers tried to create a “civic culture” that united working-class industrial laborers with middle-class white workers; they sought to form ethnic and racial alliances that would lead to an “Americanism” that incorporated ethnic workers’ culture into the national identity. Additionally, Popular Front activists adopted a platform that was anti-fascist, anti-imperialist, and against labor and racial repression (5–6, 9). Because the Popular Front sought to establish ties with the New Deal in the fight against fascism, Lomax was able to be a New Deal figure while ideologically connecting himself to the Popular Front. By presenting an interracial, working-class view of American history, Lomax clearly situated himself within the Popular Front's cultural politics. In addition to inviting leftists (e.g. Charles Seeger and Woody Guthrie) to be guests on the show, Lomax reflected the Front's populist rhetoric by crediting common people for their contributions to the national cultural heritage. After all, as the manual explains, American folk music was “[c]reated and preserved by the common people, the pioneers, the farmers and the workers [and] these songs reflect the independence of spirit of the people who sing them” (ASA Manual 16). But Lomax's political and social proclivities revealed themselves most clearly through one of the show's main themes: African-American folk music.

Throughout the thirties and forties Lomax stressed the importance of black musical traditions for shaping larger folk music styles—an idea that sharply differed from prior concepts of American folk music, according to folklorist Gene Bluestein. Bluestein argues that Lomax “operated with a fiercely egalitarian point of view,” one that “identified itself with outcast and oppressed groups such as the Negro.” Lomax believed that black folk music focused on a theme of freedom, a theme that was also an intrinsic part of American identity. Furthermore, the black tradition evolved as a hybridization of multiple musical strains—African and European—that merged on American soil and reflected American conditions. To Lomax, this process of cultural exchange was the essence of the American folk tradition (55, 58). Indeed, Lomax continued to view American folk music as a cultural tradition that was pluralist, inclusive, and transcended racial and ethnic prejudices long after the Popular Front had ended. For example, in an article that he wrote for the New York Times in 1947 Lomax cites the folk song “John Henry,” which includes the lyrics: “‘A MAN ain't nothin’ but a man!’” to argue that “America has reached out and welcomed the folklore of all the minority groups, racial and national. Jim Crow prejudice has been inoperative in folklore” (“America Sings” 41). While this statement ignores the conservative elements of folksongs and greatly exaggerates the genre's “egalitarian” spirit, it is indicative of the kind of worldview that Lomax tried to impart to the American public.

Lomax's views of racial equality, however, were much more subdued in Folk Music of America. By dedicating shows to themes such as spirituals, black work songs, and railroad songs, he did emphasize the importance that black traditions had in shaping American folk music. Many of the episodes pertaining to black folk culture, however, tended to romanticize the conditions from which the music developed. The closest that Lomax came to commenting directly on American racial injustice, past and present, occurred at the beginning of an episode dedicated to blues music when he explained that “[t]he blues arose as a direct expression of the suffering and sorrow of the Negro people in the South” (FMA 4/14/40, 2). The strongest, and most controversial, racial statement that Lomax made with the show, however, was not in the music or the script, but rather in the show's design. The program featured an integrated cast, which was rare for the early 1940s. More importantly, Folk Music of America was a show on commercial radio that featured black performers singing and reflecting on their own culture, and not white actors performing in oral blackface—a situation that also rarely existed at that time. In so doing, Lomax enabled black musicians to present their own traditions to the listening audience. Although the show was scripted, the singers were able to speak for themselves through their music. The ASA teacher's manual even credited African American culture for its contributions to national and international music because “[w]ithout songs created or inspired by the American Negro, American music would have lost half its soul.” The author further noted that spirituals, generated by the combined “sorrows of slavery” and religious faith, were most likely one of the nation's “noblest contributions to world music” (ASA Manual 25).

Through his presentation of American folk music Lomax did indeed make a powerful statement on the value black culture and life had in shaping the American national cultural heritage. However, as much as Lomax believed in social and political equality, there were several shortcomings in the pluralist vision of American identity that he presented in Folk Music of America. While he respected the cultural diversity of immigrant folk music, he never actually played songs in other languages and only represented traditions that were sung in English. Some immigrant groups were omitted altogether, particularly those of Asian communities. For example, Lomax could have mentioned Chinese folk music in the episodes that focused on the railroad construction, but he only referenced the Irish immigrant workers. In this respect, Lomax's ethnic myopia largely reflected the nature of WWII era cultural pluralism. Historian Richard Weiss point out that much of the American celebration of minorities on the eve of WWII focused on those groups who were being oppressed in Europe (e.g. Jews and Eastern Europeans) rather than those who bore the brunt of American prejudice (e.g. Asians, Indians, and even African Americans) (566). Also, the show was designed to encourage student participation, which partially explains why Lomax always presented the songs in English.

Native Americans were another group that did not fare well on the show. Lomax often failed to include their traditions in his musical portrait of America, and when he did reference American Indians, his language was surprisingly demeaning. In a particular episode that focused on cowboys and pioneers in the West, Lomax referred to the Sioux Indians as a “real antagonist” who were “[a]-killing poor drivers and burning their trains.” The trains, of course, belonged to the white pioneers, the “unsung heroes,” according to Lomax. While he did mention that the government encouraged the buffalo slaughter, he did not reflect on it any more than to muse “when the buffalo vanished, the power of the plains Indians was broken,” thus leaving the prairie open for industrious Americans to “conquer” (WM 4/1/41 4, 8). For all his progressive social views and his broad understanding of folk music, it is remarkable that Lomax presented a group that even the AFS recognized as part of the “American” folk in such a derogatory manner.

Sometimes listeners noted the shortcomings in the diversity of folk traditions that Lomax presented. In one letter, the correspondence committee of Damascus High School in Maryland informed Lomax that the program introduced the fifty-one students in their seventh grade music class to the vast cultural diversity of American folk music. However, one of the writers asked Lomax about two omissions in the show: first, the role of Spanish and Mexican traditions in shaping the music of the Southwest, and second, the role of American Indians, “the original Americans,” in developing American folk music (Correspondence Committee 2). Most letters sent to Lomax, however, praised Folk Music of America. Mrs. E. C. Ottoson of the folk music research department of the Pennsylvania Federation of Music Clubs commended Lomax for bringing folk music to the radio because the club members had “been trying for so many years to bring about an awakening among our musicians and friends of music to the amazing field of folk music lying unrecognized at our doorstep” (Ottoson 2). Sometimes listeners wrote about how they were personally affected by the show. A listener from New York City, Peyton F. Anderson, complimented the episode “Negro Work Songs” and remarked, “In them one sees the courage and a rhythmic dignity even in adversity which makes me rather proud of my antecedents” (Anderson 1). In addition to individual letters of support, Lomax often received packets of letters from different classes that listened to the show. The 1940–1941 Evaluation of School Broadcasts Research Project of Ohio State University informed Lomax that his show received positive feedback according to the weekly evaluations submitted by teachers who used the American School of the Air series in their classes. Eventually, however, the show was cancelled in 1942 after the ASA adopted a pan-American approach and replaced Lomax's Folk Music of America with Music of the Americas, a program that included music throughout North, Central, and South America, rather than focusing on the United States.

As a progressive, pluralist educational show that aired during the early forties, Folk Music of America was akin to a series of educational programs referred to as “intercultural education.” Schools involved in “intercultural” or “intergroup” education initiatives incorporated curricula that provided information on different ethnic groups and their historical backgrounds, organized cultural assemblies, and banned books that demeaned ethnic and racial groups. These activities were predicated on the belief that the dissemination of information could successfully challenge negative stereotypes of ethnic and racial communities. Intercultural education efforts, however, did not continue past the 1950s, and they largely failed to become ingrained in mainstream education because they occurred in isolated pockets, largely in areas of high diversity such as cities, rather than becoming a part of curricula across the nation (Practices 8). While many historians recognize intercultural education initiatives as a precursor to multiculturalism, some, like Glazer, criticize them for advocating a watered-down version of cultural pluralism—one that promoted tolerance rather than “the maintenance of cultural difference and identity” (29). Yet, again, this description does not apply to Lomax's educational efforts. Clearly, Lomax placed cultural diversity at the heart of the American national identity and taught students to appreciate the rich—and varied—folk traditions that he presented in the show. By encouraging appreciation over mere tolerance, Lomax's show foreshadowed the “multiethnic education” initiatives of the 1970s that incorporated ethnic and racial diversity into traditional school curricula.

Multiethnic education, also referred to as “multicultural education,” was a program designed for schools across the country, not just for those in culturally diverse areas, during the late 1970s. By maintaining that ethnic diversity gave the United States its cultural identity, the multiethnic educators incorporated aspects of cultural pluralism into their educational initiatives; by focusing on individuals as well as groups, they also included elements of cosmopolitanism. According to this theory, ethnic and racial identities were a fact of American life, but the lines separating these groups were permeable and citizens usually formed their own identities by adopting elements from a variety of cultural groups. Multiethnic programs therefore aimed to inculcate ethnic/racial pride among minority students as well as to provide students with the requisite “skills, attitudes, and knowledge they need to function within their ethnic culture, the mainstream culture, and within and across other ethnic cultures” (Banks Theory 8–9).

In several ways, Lomax anticipated the type of cultural pluralism that multiethnic educators later adopted. For example, he presented minority groups like African Americans as important contributors to the nation's development, and he made this presentation to classrooms across the country—even in schools that lacked racial diversity. Lomax emphasized folk groups throughout his radio shows; all his guests explained their experiences and the music that they knew from their distinct ethnic, racial, and regional communities. While this type of presentation reflected the cultural pluralism of the World War II era, it also served as a harbinger of later multicultural programs. Despite the cosmopolitan bent of some early multiculturalists such as the multiethnic educators, according to Arthur Melzer, Jerry Weinberger, and Richard Zinman, multiculturalists as a whole have actually been far more concerned with the welfare of groups over individuals because they see the groups as the source of “socially constructed identities of individuals.” They therefore have focused on enhancing the self-esteem and dignity of members of minority groups by building a strong sense of identity among those who have been traditionally marginalized by mainstream society (3–4). Although it is unclear if he consciously sought to generate racial or ethnic pride among minority citizens, by focusing on the contributions that African American and immigrant communities gave to the American democratic national identity, Lomax clearly cited these groups for contributing to the identity formation of the nation and its citizens. Sometimes this act alone helped to generate racial pride, as it did for listeners like Peyton Anderson.

By explaining that diverse folk traditions constituted the American identity, Lomax helped pave the way for a “soft” version of multiculturalism that also emerged during the 1970s. Soft multiculturalists believed that ethnic and racial diversity were the qualities that gave the nation its specific character, and thus cultural diversity was “compatible” with American nationalism and patriotism (Crucible 349–51). Through his radio show, Lomax aimed to stimulate children's interest in folk music as well as to teach them to recognize that these different musical traditions were part of a cultural heritage that was still shaping their own lives (ASA Manual 16). The myriad folk traditions actually reflected the intrinsic diversity of American society. If multiculturalism is a way of “describing how American society, particularly American education, should respond to its diversity,” as Nathan Glazer claims, then through his radio work, Lomax clearly served as a forebear to a movement that pushed the rest of the nation to value the diverse traditions of American minorities (8).

Despite Folk Music of America's brief lifespan, it did reach thousands of school children and introduced them to the genre of American folk music. Through the program, Lomax explained to listeners that minority communities made important contributions to the canon of American folk music, and, in so doing, aided in the construction of an American identity. By celebrating cultural differences, advocating racial and ethnic pride, and giving voice to minority communities, Lomax helped build a foundation for the multicultural programs that developed during the 1970s. In particular, the views he articulated helped to generate a program that aimed to showcase American diversity and encourage cultural pride among minority communities: the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The Festival, which began in 1967, combined black studies, ethnic studies, and southern civil rights activism to provide a forum for the “public representations” of these groups. Like Lomax before them, the folklorists who planned the festival were advocates for “the people” and wanted the Festival to enable the participants to speak for themselves (Abrahams “Interview”). Lomax soon became involved in the activities of the festival and brought his views of folk music and multiculturalism to the program. In the program book for the bicentennial festival in 1976, Lomax wove these strands together by writing, “By giving every culture its equal access to audiences, its equal time on the air, and its equal weight in education, we can come closer to the realization of the principles of Jefferson's declaration” (“Of People and Their Culture,” 5). An annual event, the Smithsonian Festival today still carries Lomax's message, a message that he began with Folk Music of America, into the twenty-first century by giving American folk communities a public forum to speak—and sing—for themselves.

  1. 1

    John Lomax was an early public folklorist who specialized in collecting cowboy songs and tradition African American music from prisoners in southern penitentiaries. Although he and Alan shared a strong interest in the music of marginalized Americans, they did not share similar social and political views. John was far more socially and politically conservative than his left-wing son.

  2. 2

    Alan Lomax first entered college at the University of Texas when he was fifteen. After a stint at Harvard, Lomax returned to Texas and eventually completed his studies in 1936.

  3. 3

    From 1938–1939, CBS had aired a music program as part of the ASA called Music of America but this show featured popular as well as folk music. During the second season, the title of Lomax's show changed to Wellsprings of Music, but in this article I refer to the entire series as Folk Music of America for consistency. I do reference both names to maintain accurate citations.

  4. 4

    The author of the material on Folk Music of America in the teacher's manual is not provided. While it is not certain that Lomax wrote the passages, the fact that the writing clearly reflects the ideas that he presented in the program scripts indicate that Lomax was either directly involved in the writing, or that the author closely followed the messages that Lomax presented in the show.

Works Cited

  1. Top of page
  2. Works Cited
  3. Biography
  • Abrahams, Roger. “Interview with Roger Abrahams with Kate and Ralph Rinzler.” 1 Feb. 1993. FP 2006-CT-00039. Ralph Rinzler Papers. Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Washington, DC. Audio tape.
  • Akam, Everett Hemut. Transnational America: Cultural and Pluralist Thought in the Twentieth Century. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002. Print.
  • Anderson, Peyton F., M.D. Letter to Alan Lomax. 25 Feb. 1940. Archive of Folk Culture. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington DC, box 139/002, 1/1 “Alan Lomax CBS Radio Series Collection,” folder: “American School of the Air Fan Mail.” Print.
  • Banks, James. Multiethnic Education: Theory and Practice, 2nd edn. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1981, 1988. Print.
  • Bluestein, Gene. “The Lomaxes’ New Canon of American Folksong.” Texas Quarterly V (Spring 1962): 4959. Print.
  • Columbia's American School of the Air Teacher's Manual and Classroom Guide (ASA), produced by the Columbia Broadcasting System Department of Education, 10 Oct. 1939. Library of Broadcasting. University of Maryland College Park, box: 45, folder: 3156. Print.
  • The Composer Looks Abroad,” Folk Music of America Teacher's Manual. Library of American Broadcasting, University of Maryland College Park, box 45, folder 3157 “American School of the Air, 1940–42.” Print.
  • Correspondence Committee, Damascus High School, Damascus, MD. Letter to Alan Lomax. 26 Feb. 1940. Archive of Folk Culture. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington DC, box: 139/002 1/1 “Alan Lomax CBS Radio Series Collection,” folder: 4 “Correspondence Feb. 1940.” Print.
  • Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. New York: Verso, 1996. Print.
  • Folk Music of America (FMA) script, 20 February 1940a. Archive of Folk Culture. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington DC, Box: 04.01.01 3/3 “ASA Scripts 1939–1940,” Folder 2/3. Print.
  • Folk Music of America (FMA) script, 14 April 1940c. Archive of Folk Culture. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, box: 04.01.01 3/3, folder: “ASA Scripts 1939–40” 2/3. Print.
  • Gerstle, Gary. American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. Print.
  • Gerstle, Gary. “The Protean Character of American Liberalism.” American Historical Review 99.4 (1994): 104373. Print.
  • Glazer, Nathan. We are All Multiculturalists Now. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997. Print.
  • Gleason, Philip. “Americans All: World War II and the Shaping of American IdentityReview of Politics 43.4 (1981): 483518. Print.
  • Gleason, Philip. “WWII and the Development of American Studies.” American Quarterly 36.3 (1984): 34358. Print.
  • Hilmes, Michele, and Jason Loviglio, eds. Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.
  • Hollinger, David A. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. New York: BasicBooks, 1995. Print.
  • Jones, Alfred Haworth. “The Search for a Usable American Past in the New Deal Era.” American Quarterly 23.5 (1971): 71024. Print.
  • Lacey, Kate. “Radio in the Great Depression: Promotional Culture, Public Service, and Propaganda.” Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio. Eds. Michele Hilmes and Jason Loviglio. New York: Routledge, 2002. 2140. Print.
  • Lomax, Alan. “America Sings the Saga of America.” New York Times Magazine 26 Jan. 1947: 16, 41. Print.
  • Lomax, Alan. “Of People and Their Culture … and the Pursuit of Happiness …Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife 1974–76. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Center for Folklife and American Heritage, 45. Print.
  • Lomax, Alan. Alan Lomax: Assistant in Charge: Library of Congress Letters, 1935–1945. Ed. Ronald D. Cohen. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, forthcoming. Print.
  • Melzer, Arthur M., Jerry Weinberger, and M. Richard Zinman, eds. “Introduction.” Multiculturalism and American Democracy. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1998. Print.
  • Ottoson, Mrs. E.C. Letter to Alan Lomax. 5 Feb. 1940. Archive of Folk Culture. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington DC, box: 139/002 1/1 “Alan Lomax CBS Radio Series Collection,” folder: 4 “Correspondence Feb. 1940.” Print.
  • Thompson, Stith. “American Folklore after Fifty Years.” Journal of American Folklore 51.199 (1938): 16, 103. Print.
  • Weiss, Richard. “Ethnicities and Reform: Minorities and the Ambience of the Depression Years.” Journal of American History 66. 3 (1979): 56685. Print.
  • Wellsprings of Music (WM) script, 1 March 1941a. Archive of Folk Culture. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington DC, box: 04.01 1/3, folder: 1 “ASA scripts 1940–41.” Print.
  • Wellsprings of Music (WM) script, 14 April 1941b. Archive of Folk Culture. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington DC, box: 04.01 1/3 Folder: 1 “ASA scripts 1940–41.” Print.
  • Wellsprings of Music (WM) script, 1 Jan. 1942. Archive of Folk Culture. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington DC, box: 04.01 1/3 Folder: 1 “ASA scripts 1940–41.” Print.
  • Wellsprings of Music (WM) script, 1 April 1941c. Archive of Folk Culture. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington DC, box: 04.01 1/3, folder: 1 “ASA scripts 1940–41.” Print.
  • Woody, Andrea Lynn. “American School of the Air: An Experiment in Music Education and Radio Broadcasting.” M.A. thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 2003. Print.


  1. Top of page
  2. Works Cited
  3. Biography
  • In 2011, Rachel C. Donaldson received her Ph.D. in history at Vanderbilt University, where she is currently a lecturer in American Studies. She has received support for her research from the Smithsonian Institution, the Social Science History Association, and Vanderbilt University's Department of History and Center for the Americas, among others. This paper stems in part from her current book manuscript, Singing America: The Folk Music Revival and National Identity. Her work explores the cultural politics of nationalism over the last century by examining how politically progressive cultural leaders mobilized the music of ethnic, racial, and regional groups worked to popularize a version of nationalism rooted in the civic ideals of cultural and political democracy.