Folk-Songs of America: The Robert Winslow Gordon Collection, 1922-1932
By Debora G. Kodish
The recordings on this album represent one man's ambitious attempt to document
the extent and variety of American folksong. Like many other folklorists
in the first decades of this century, Robert Winslow Gordon studied English
Literature at Harvard under George Lyman Kitteredge. Unlike other folklorists,
however, Gordon abandoned a career in academia, because he believed the duties
of the profession hampered him in his determination to learn everything there
was to know about folksong in America. He became, instead, a free-lance writer
supporting himself with articles on folksong in popular magazines.
Gordon carried his heavy cylinder recorder (and later, his disc machine)
to the San Francisco waterfront, the Appalachian Mountains, and the Georgia
coast in order to record the diverse singing traditions of this country.
He recorded nearly a thousand cylinders, collected nearly ten thousand
more song texts from the readers of his popular articles, and gathered
many thousand additional song versions from old camp-meeting and revival
songbooks, broadsides, folios, and hillbilly recordings--ephemeral material
of which few of his colleagues were aware. Gordon never believed that his
collecting was finished and never wrote the definitive volumes of collectanea
and theory that he planned. Nevertheless, in his theoretical orientation,
his scientific outlook, his dedication to technical accuracy, and his interest
in phonographic and photographic documentation, Gordon was a pioneer among
the folklorists of the 1920s and 1930s.
The field recordings Gordon made reflect his broad research interests and
his unusual eclecticism. To him, the recordings were exciting aesthetically,
theoretically and technically. To us, listening fifty years later, they are
perhaps even more exciting, for time has added another dimension, and we
appreciate them for what they tell us about the epoch in which they were
recorded and the man who recorded them.
Robert Winslow Gordon was born in Bangor, Maine, on September 2, 1888.
As a youth he was fascinated with technology and tinkered with radios,
airplanes, and cameras. Later, at Exeter and then at Harvard, he continued
his technical experiments. Although Gordon received a privileged education,
he worked hard both in and out of the classroom. He waited table, sold
subscriptions, and took numerous other odd jobs to pay for tuition, books,
and inevitably, radio and camera parts.
Gordon began his study of English literature at Harvard in 1906 and remained
in Harvard's English department in varying capacities until 1916. During
this time he crossed paths with many of the scholars who were to play significant
roles in the development of American folklore studies over the next few
decades. Although he knew these men, Gordon was highly independent. Even
as a student he was known for the curiousness and perspicacity, the thoroughness
and perfectionism that were both to bless and plague his career.
In 1912, while he was teaching literature and composition courses under
his mentors George Lyman Kitteredge and Barrett Wendall, he met and married
Roberta Peter Paul of Darien, Georgia. Their only child, a daughter named
Roberta, was born in 1914 while the couple was living in Cambridge.
Although he had not completed his Ph.D. dissertation, Gordon accepted
the position of assistant professor of English at the University of California
at Berkeley and, with his family, moved west in 1917. His interests in
folksong, material culture, folk belief and technology all blossomed in
Although he taught graduate courses in folklore, supervised theses, and
read theoretical papers to learned societies, Gordon differed greatly from
his academic colleagues. Nowhere was this more evident than in the matter
of collecting folksong. While others typically took down ballad texts from
graduate students, Gordon spent much of his time collecting songs on the
Oakland and San Francisco waterfronts, where he won the cooperation of
stevedores, sailors, captains, hoboes, and convicts. The first two selections
on this record were probably recorded on one of Gordon's waterfront forays
between 1923 and 1924.
During his years in California, 1917-24, Gordon gathered more than one
thousand shanties and sea songs, at least three hundred of which he recorded
on cylinders, making his the largest collection of maritime songs then
in existence. Gordon was not interested in the sheer number of texts; instead
he hoped to learn from this large body of data something of the role that
Afro-American traditions and popular minstrel show materials played in
the development of the sea shanty. He was successful in his fieldwork,
but most of his colleagues in Berkeley's English department failed to recognize
it. Few of them knew what he was doing on the waterfront, and many expressed
the wish that he would spend his time in more orthodox academic pursuits.
Gordon, however, was not inclined to explain his research or his methods.
At approximately the same time he began his fieldwork in the Bay Area, Gordon
launched a collateral program of long-range research. In 1923, he began to
edit the column "Old Songs That Men Have Sung" in the pulp magazine Adventure.
By printing songs that his readers requested and advertising for additional
texts and verses, Gordon used the column to build up an immense and eclectic
collection of folksong as well as a broad network of correspondents and informants
from all over the United States and overseas. His reputation as "the Adventure man" made
his name familiar to many sailors, convicts, and hoboes in the Bay Area before
they met him with phonograph in hand. His connection with Adventure was
to prove more useful in the field than in the faculty meeting, however. The "Old
Songs" column--which was later praised by folklorist Archer Taylor as
the greatest contribution to the study of American folksong of its time--
was another source of dissatisfaction to Gordon's Berkeley colleagues, who
would have preferred his endeavors to find expression in a more conventional
way. Gordon, committed to "a popular scholarly approach," continued
all his life to publish authoritative, interesting articles where they would
be read by wide audiences.
Gordon's California collecting came to an end when English department
politics threatened the job of a lifelong friend and colleague. In defending
his friend, Gordon embarrassed the head of the department. He was sent
on sabbatical for the year 1924-25 and was informed that he would not
be rehired. Gordon left Berkeley and returned to Harvard, planning to
finish his doctorate. But he decided instead to undertake a year-long
trip (1925-26) with the object of making the definitive recorded collection
of American folksong. Gordon arranged to support his first year in the
field through a contract for a series of articles from the New York
Times Magazine (the series title provides the title of this album),
a $1,200 Sheldon traveling fellowship from Harvard, discounts and donations
on equipment from the Edison, Ford, and Eastman companies, and loans
from friends. The variety of his sources for support notwithstanding,
his resources amounted to little, and his trip trembled constantly on
the brink of financial disaster. Nevertheless, with the discovery of
plentiful material and willing informants, he soon abandoned his original
itinerary and stretched one year of fieldwork into four. Gordon felt
that he was discovering material that shed light on the problems of folksong
origin and development. He collected many versions of particular songs
and explored their historical, social, and cultural backgrounds. By reconstructing
the histories of specific songs, Gordon expected to gain insights into
the evolution of folk literature in general. The two versions of "Blow
Boys Blow" presented on side B reflect this theoretical concern.
Gordon regularly traveled many miles out of his way to track down
a bit of information that might aid him in understanding a specific
song history. On his way to Asheville, North Carolina, where he intended
to set up his first field station, he made a detour in order to interview
and record two men who claimed to be the authors of "The Wreck
of Old 97." In 1924, this song (sung by Vernon Dalhart) had become
the first hillbilly record to sell a million copies. Fred Lewey was
one of the pair who claimed authorship, and his historic rendition is
included here. It later figured in litigation surrounding the copyright
ownership of the song a court case that helped establish Gordon's
reputation as an expert witness and to demonstrate the application of
folklore scholarship to practical affairs.
Gordon arrived in Asheville in October and set up his tent in the hills
outside of town. There he typed his transcriptions, wrote his "Old
Songs" column for Adventure, and descended to town only
for mail and supplies. One of the first persons he met in the Asheville
area was a young banjo playing lawyer, Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Lunsford
played and sang into Gordon's cylinder machine and took him around the
mountains introducing him to other musicians and singers. Nancy Weaver
Stikeleather and James Stikeleather, John W.Dillon, Ernest Helton, W.E.
Bird, Julius Sutton, and the Reverend H.G. Holly were among Gordon's
other North Carolina informants. The fiddle tunes, ballads, and religious
songs they perform on this record represent some of Gordon's chief research
interests and favorite "finds."
By Christmas 1925, Gordon had been living away from his family for more
than a year. The separation was difficult, emotionally and financially,
and he decided to move to a field station on the southern coast of Georgia--to
Darien, the childhood home of Mrs. Gordon. The reunited family occupied
a two-room house, and Gordon resumed work, eagerly setting out to record
the Afro-American traditions of the Georgia coast. The rowing songs and
the boat songs which he discovered are represented on this record by the
performances of Mary C. Mann and J. A. S. Spencer. Mary Mann, a deaconess
at a local black church, had organized a school in Darien in which she
taught young black women the domestic skills they needed to find employment.
Mary Mann had a large repertoire herself, and she encouraged her students
and members of her church to contribute their songs to Gordon as well.
Gordon felt that he occupied a special position in the Darien black community.
He had earned the trust and friendship of several local blacks, among
them W.M. Givens, whose niece was sometimes employed by the Gordons. One
day she came running terrified into their home. Her uncle had been bitten
by a poisonous snake. Gordon rushed back with her, put a tourniquet on
the man's leg, cut the bite, and sucked out the venom. Billy Givens was
soon walking again, and Gordon had earned a friend for life--a friend
who also happened to be a fine singer. He can be heard singing "Deep
Down in My Heart" on side B. All of Gordon's Georgia informants lived
within a day's drive of Darien, for Gordon did not have enough cash to
buy gasoline most of the time and was obliged to return to the station
where he had credit. Nor did he always take the car on field trips; he
knew the countryside for fifteen miles around Darien from his long walks.
Money remained a problem, and although Gordon saw no end to his collecting,
he was looking for a steadier source of income than freelance writing
could provide. He wanted the chance to collect, examine, and theorize
about American folksong without financial worry. Gordon had done extensive
research at the Library of Congress, and in the fall of 1926 he brought
his dream to Carl Engel, chief of the Music Division at the Library.
Engel was interested in Gordon's work and considered him America's
foremost authority on folksong. When Gordon asked for institutional
support, Engel responded enthusiastically. Gordon's dream fit neatly
into Engel's own hopes of establishing a graduate institute for the
study of musicology at the Library of Congress, which would include
a national center for the collection and study of folk music. As no
government funds were available, private donors were solicited and
subscriptions raised. In July 1928, Herbert Putnam, the Librarian of
Congress, appointed Gordon "specialist and consultant in the field
of Folk Song and Literature." Gordon later proposed a title that
he thought would appeal more to the imagination of the general public:
director of the Archive of American Folk Song.
During the first year of the archive's existence, Gordon remained
in Darien collecting the shouts, rowing songs, rags, reels, and turning
songs that were of primary importance in the study of American folk
song and of special significance in learning how folksongs start and
spread. The December 1928 meeting of the Modern Language Association,
in Louisville, Kentucky, lured him away from home by providing opportunities
to work in a new region, to publicize his national folksong archive,
and to ask for the cooperation of all interested scholars. It may have
been on this trip to Louisville that Gordon met Nellie Galt and Ben
Harney, both of whom may be heard on side B of this record.
Although Engel, Putnam, and Gordon shared a belief in the importance
of a center devoted to the collection and study of American traditional
music, they did not agree upon the methods by which such a center should
develop. Gordon wanted the freedom of a research scientist--financial
backing and complete support while he went about his independent investigations.
Putnam and Engel, however, felt compelled to write repeatedly to Darien,
requesting information as to his whereabouts and activities. Perceiving
that his great distance from the Library was a barrier to harmonious
relations, Gordon concluded his Georgia fieldwork and, in September
1929, moved with his family to Washington.
Once his archive was installed in the southwest corner of the Library's
attic, Gordon devoted a great deal of time to experimentation with recording
apparatus. He conducted his own tests with cylinder and wire recorders
and stayed in close consultation with commercial firms. Borrowing a new
model of Amplion disc recorder in 1932, he traveled to West Virginia,
Kentucky, and Virginia to try it in the field. His recordings of Betty
Bush Winger and F.H. Abbot on side B stem from this field experiment
with disc recording.
Gordon's difficulties with the Library were only momentarily relieved
by his move to Washington. The depression put an end to the donations
which had sustained his position, and in 1933 the last of these funds
ran out. This, coupled with the Library's disappointment in his performance,
cost Gordon his job. It was a blow from which he never recovered.
He spent his final year at the Library indexing the texts he had
amassed during his tenure as editor of the "Old Songs" column,
the transcriptions of the material he had recorded in his fieldwork,
and the collections of other folklorists which he had acquired for
Gordon's active career as a folklorist ended in 1933, although some
of his most important publications appeared after that. He worked in
the Washington, D.C., area, primarily as a technical editor and as
a professor of English, until his death on March 29, 1961.
It is now fifty years since Gordon was appointed first director of
the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, and therefore
a fitting moment to reexamine and appreciate his achievements, and
to publish some of his collectanea. Many of the original cylinders
considered for this commemorative disc are in poor condition, badly
worn from overuse by Gordon himself. It is probable that he transcribed
song texts from his original field recordings. He also played them
over for informants and colleagues. Thus the very items in which Gordon
was most interested are now the items in poorest condition. His collection
is so large, however, that there is no lack of significant material
of good recorded quality.
We have also been guided in our choices by Gordon himself. We have
tried to put together the sort of album that he might have assembled.
Our selections are items about which Gordon wrote and which seemed
to him to be keys to the comprehension of American folksong, i.e.,
items which document the interplay between black and white traditions
and reflect the influence of popular, commercial culture (minstrel
and tent shows, camp meetings and phonograph records) upon folk traditions.
In his writings, Gordon tried to recreate the contexts in which he
recorded these songs. He constantly lamented that the printed page
could not do justice to the beauty of the music or the skill of the
singer. He wished that his readers could be transported to the mountain
cabin or the lowland church to share with him there the excitement
of a live performance. With a little imagination, we can now, fifty
years later, feel some of that excitement.