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The rear of John and Alan Lomax's automobile, showing some of the recording equipment they used on their many field trips. Note the disk cutter on the left. Photo: Library of Congress

SLIDESHOWS (will open new window)
Children's Drawings
Pentagon Memorials
Photographs from The American Folklife Center's September 11, 2001, Documentary Project Collection

View a reply to the telegram sent to folklorists on 12/8/41

View the e-mail sent to folklorists on 9/12/2001

Correspondent John Biewen on making this story.

Interviewing the Man on the Street: 1941 and 2001
60 years apart, musicologist Fletcher Collins and folklorist Barbara Lau collected reactions for the Library of Congress.



On the eighth of December, 1941, the day after the "date which will live in infamy," folklorist Alan Lomax sent a telegram to some cohorts scattered across the country and asked them to record interviews with ordinary Americans. That day Lomax himself took his recorder into the streets of Washington, D.C. Lomax died on July 19th, 2002, at the age of 87. He spent most of his career recording music performed by non-famous, non-professional performers in poor city neighborhoods, small towns, and country hollows. He was committed to gathering the sounds of "the voiceless people of the planet," as he once put it. So it was a natural reflex for Lomax, on a day of unmistakable historic importance, to record the thoughts of regular people. The Japanese had launched a sneak attack in the Pacific, and now, finally, America would enter the world war. The powerful and the chattering classes were having their say. What did the voiceless people make of events that would alter most American lives and end hundreds of thousands of them?

The day after the September 11 terrorist attacks, some historians and journalists saw echoes of 1941 and predicted that 9/11, like the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, would change life in America. For Lomax's professional descendants at the Library of Congress (LOC), the parallels prompted a plan: to put out another call for audio recordings of regular Americans. The technology would be different this time around - the call itself made via e-mail, not the telegraph wires, and the recordings done on cassette tape and digital mini-disc instead of the aluminum and glass discs of the early 1940's. The resulting recordings would sound quite different, too - reflecting dissimilarities in the two attacks and their circumstances, as well as changes in American society and culture. But the goal of LOC employees on September 12th was much like that of Alan Lomax on December 8th, 1941: to capture the fresh reactions of Americans after an attack on the country, telling their stories and reflecting on the event's meaning.

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