Folk-Songs of America: The Robert Winslow Gordon Collection, 1922-1932
by Joseph C. Hickerson
July 1, 1978, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Archive of Folk Song
in the Library of Congress. We are celebrating the semi-centennial year
with a symposium and an exhibit on the archive's history, a special concert
by folk musicians, an article for the Library's Quarterly Journal,
and a commemorative long-playing recording. Throughout these events will
be woven the name and accomplishments of the archive's first director (1928-32),
Robert Winslow Gordon.
The recognition we give Gordon for his role in the archive's beginnings
not only serves as leitmotif for our fiftieth-year celebrations but also
publicizes an American folklorist whose work has been largely unknown.
The reasons for Gordon's lack of acclaim are several. First, he pioneered
folksong documentation at a time when the subject was appreciated by but
a handful of specialists and aficionados. Second, his publications were
few and largely ephemeral; he refused to compromise accuracy and scholarship
for mass publication and exposure. Finally, federal support for folklore
documentation and preservation was tenuous in the late 1920's and early
1930's. It took ten years, the Depression, and the New Deal to assure federally
funded activities in folklore.
Robert W. Gordon's collection of over nine hundred cylinder and disc
recordings, ten thousand songs in manuscript, and numerous ephemeral and
popular publications related to folksong lay in storage in the Library's
Music Division stacks for more than three decades. The accomplishments
of later directors of the archive overshadowed the dormant treasures of
the archive's first director. During the 1940s and 1950s, few scholars
were aware of the Gordon collection, and virtually no one worked with it.
More assiduous researchers such as Benjamin A. Botkin, Austin E. Fife,
and D.K. Wilgus perused it. Others, including Herbert Halpert and Kenneth
S. Goldstein were cognizant of the collection and realized the need to
bring it to light.
I grew aware of the great riches of the Gordon collection soon after
I began working at the archive in 1963. During the next ten years, I was
able to direct a number of researchers to the collection for interesting
song texts, often predating any other report on the songs in question.
Occasionally, scholars were provided with tape copies of particular cylinders
for their comparative and historical studies. Thus Gordon's pioneering
efforts influenced the subsequent scholarship of Archie Green, Norm Cohen,
Judith McCulloh, and a few others.
As time passed, other "champions" of R.W. Gordon stepped forward.
Archie Green spoke of his accomplishments on many occasions, perhaps never
more eloquently than in November 1968 at the annual meeting of the American
Folklore Society in Bloomington, Indiana. Interest also accrued at the
University of Oregon, where Gordon's personal papers had been bequeathed
auspices of Prof. Arthur Brodeur, Gordon's colleague and friend of many
years. University of Oregon folklorist J. Barre Toelken directed students
collection once it was housed in the university library's special collection
as part of the Randall V. Mills Memorial Archive of Northwest Folklore
Duplicating Gordon's original cylinders
onto tape in the Recording Laboratory of the Library of Congress.
From left to right: Robert B. Carneal, Head, Recorded Sound
Section; Debora G. Kodish; Professor Neil V. Rosenberg, Memorial
University of Newfoundland; and Erika Brady, LC staff engineer.
Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, June 1978.
In 1973 my own efforts to make the Gordon collection more
were joined by those of Deborah G. Kodish, a Lehigh University undergraduate
who discovered its variety and extent while on a ballad research project.
Subsequently, as an intern in the Archive of Folk Song, Kodish explored
the many boxes of typescripts, correspondence, and index cards. During
this period and later while working on her master's degree in the Folklore
Department of the Memorial University of Newfoundland under the direction
of Prof. Herbert Halpert and Prof. Neil V. Rosenberg, she made a number
of lists and indexes and helped to prepare the manuscripts for preservation
on microfilm. She interviewed Robert Gordon's daughter, Mrs. Roberta
P. G. Nye, and her family in Shalotte, North Carolina, and also a number
other people throughout the country who had known Gordon. These researches,
which were supported by grants from Memorial University, culminated
in an exemplary thesis.
In 1976 the archive was able to place the Gordon cylinders on the Recording
Laboratory's schedule for preservation duplication (the Gordon discs had
been copied onto tape several years before). In preparation for this, two
archive interns, Rebecca Martin and Susan J. Grodsky, prepared a provisional
shelflist based on Gordon's own card index. The cylinders were copied by
Mark Schellhammer under the supervision of Chief Engineer Robert B. Carneal.
Debora Kodish's study of Gordon at the Memorial University of Newfoundland
spurred Herbert Halpert to order a set of the Gordon tapes for the university's
folklore archive. Once the tapes and shelflist arrived in St. John's, folklore
archivist Neil V. Rosenberg assigned to a graduate student, Robert McCarl,
the task of listening to and further annotating the tapes. Rosenberg and
the new Folklore Department director, Kenneth S. Goldstein, asked McCarl
to give particular attention to items appropriate for issuance on an LP
disc. Goldstein's and Rosenberg's keen interest in a publication of selected
Gordon recordings dovetailed with interest in the Library of Congress in
a suitable commemoration of the archive's anniversary. Initial selection
for the LP was energetically carried out by Goldstein and Rosenberg in
Newfoundland and by Kodish at the Library. Rosenberg and Kodish were on
hand for a final tape duplication supervised by Carneal and assisted by
Assistant Chief Engineer John E. Howell and Erika Brady, staff engineer.
The interest and efforts of many people led to the conception and completion
of this recording. Extreme thanks are tendered to everyone who collaborated
in this project. In addition, we thank the singers and musicians who recorded
for R.W. Gordon and their next-of-kin who, when located, gave us permission
to include selections on this LP. For general encouragement and specific
guidance, we are much indebted to Kenneth S.Goldstein, Archie Green, Herbert
Halpert, Alan Jabbour, Bert Nye, Roberta Gordon Nye and family, and J.Barre
Toelken. Grateful acknowledgement is also tendered to Loyal Jones and to
the James Stikeleather, Jr., family for photographs and to Sharon Cochrane,
Donna Jean Fusione, Frank J. Gillis, John Hasse, Gerald E. Parsons, Jr.,
and Cindy Turpin for their assistance with annotations, transcriptions,
To the memory of Robert Winslow Gordon we dedicate this recording.
Joseph. C. Hickerson
Head, Archive of Folk Song