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American Folklife Center: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

 Folk Music and Song

Anne Warner recording Frank Proffitt, who sings and plays the guitar, as children look on
Frank Proffitt sings and plays for Anne Warner in 1941. Pick Britches Valley,
North Carolina
(Anne and Frank Warner Collection. Photo by Frank Warner)

Frank Proffitt, of isolated Pick Britches Valley in western North Carolina, married into the Hicks family, well-known in the area for their musicianship and storytelling. Anne and Frank Warner had become enamored of a dulcimer made by Nathan Hicks, and in 1938 they traveled from their home in New York to Beech Mountain, North Carolina, for the first of several collecting trips. Frank Proffitt played a number of songs for them, including "Tom Dula," a nineteenth-century local murder ballad. Twenty years later, the Kingston Trio's recording of "Tom Dooley" shot to the top of the popular charts, bringing traditional music, and the name of Frank Proffitt to a new, main-stream audience, and contributing significantly to the 1960s folk revival.

Beginning in 1929, when she collected her first folksong from fellow Vermonter Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Helen Hartness Flanders devoted thirty years of her life to finding and recording thousands of folksongs and ballads as performed by traditional singers from Vermont and other New England states. She said that she was “allergic” to ballads: whenever she got near them she caught them. The history of the Archive of Folk Culture begins as a story of “song-catchers.”

A year earlier, in 1928, when Robert W. Gordon came to the Library of Congress as head of the newly created Archive of American Folk-Song, he brought with him his dream of collecting all American folksongs. While other collectors were typically interested in finding surviving examples of English and Scottish ballads, and were primarily interested in the academic study of song texts, Gordon collected a wide range of songs from a variety of informants. Furthermore, Gordon made sound recordings of the traditional singers he found, in order to secure not just song texts but also their melodies.

Texas folklorist John A. Lomax feared that the radio and gramophone would discourage people from making their own music, and that songs would be forgotten and lost. During the 1930s and 1940s he carried a recording machine throughout the South, traveling with his son Alan (as well as with his first wife, Bess, and later his second wife, Ruby). The Lomaxes visited farms and ranches, schoolyards and churches, night clubs and prisons. Working together and separately, father and son recorded cowboy ballads, work songs, religious songs, field hollers, blues, and many other forms of traditional expression. They were tireless collectors with an uncanny knack for finding traditional singers with large repertoires, and convincing them to sing and play for the cumbersome disc-cutting machine they carried with them.

Ballad scholarship in the United States traces its origin to Francis James Child, of Harvard’s Department of English. Child was the editor of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882 – 84). Folklore studies are frequently associated with departments of English, and both Robert Gordon and John Lomax were encouraged to pursue their interest in folksong by Harvard English professors George Lyman Kittredge and Barrett Wendell. But most American song-catchers, who exploited successive recording technologies beginning with Edison’s wax-cylinder machine, were more than literary scholars. They believed their work had a moral importance that transcended academic study.

Walking for Dat Cake Songster cover showing African Americans dancing
Walking for Dat Cake Songster, "Containing a full collection of new songs, jokes, stump speeches, which have made Harrigan & Hart the champions of the day, among which will be found the following songs. . ." Compiled by Edward Harrington and Tony Hart (New York: A.J. Fisher, 1877).
(Robert W. Gordon Songster Collection)

Gliding Down the Stream Songster cover showing a romantic couple in a row boat
Gliding Down the Stream Songster.
(Robert W. Gordon Songster Collection)

American songsters are pocket-sized collections of texts of vaudeville, minstrel-stage, patriotic, religious, and sometimes traditional songs, presented without music. Popular in the United States in the nineteenth century, songsters were cheaply printed and distributed in large quantities. They were used for promotional purposes by the manufacturers of medicines, tonics, or elixirs; by distributors of other consumable goods; or by popular stage entertainers. Sometimes they were produced by music publishers who used them as samplers of their products. Archive head Robert W. Gordon himself amassed many of the songsters in the extensive collection of about seven hundred songsters, and some may have been sent to him in response to the advertisements he took out asking people for copies of folksongs.

Myrtle B. Wilkinson with her banjo
Myrtle B. Wilkinson plays tenor banjo, Turlock, California, 1939.
(WPA California Folk Music Project Collection. Photographer unknown)

From 1938 to 1940, folksong collector Sidney Robertson organized and directed a California Work Projects Administration project designed to survey musical traditions in northern California. Sponsored by the Music Department of the University of California, Berkeley, and cosponsored by the Library of Congress, the New York Music Society, and the Society of California Pioneers, the project was one of the earliest attempts to conduct a large-scale survey of American folk music in a defined region. About a third of the thirty-five hours of instrumental sound recordings Sidney Robertson made on 12-inch acetate discs are English-language material. The other two-thirds are the vocal and instrumental performances of numerous ethnic groups including Armenians, Basques, Croatians, Finns, Hungarians, Icelanders, Italians, Norwegians, Russian Molokans, and Scots. Portuguese music from the Azores and Spanish music from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Spain are included. In addition to the recordings, the WPA California Folk Music Project Collection contains Sidney Robertson's excellent field notes, which record her ethnographic and personal impressions, many fine photographs of the performers, and drawings of instruments.
This collection is available online as the American Memory presentation California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties.

Operating from motives similar to those of other ethnographers, Frances Densmore, Helen Heffron Roberts, Willard Rhodes, and others documented Native American music, fearing that American Indians displaced from their lands were also in danger of losing their culture. The sound recording was especially important for this work, since Indian song texts are frequently composed not of words found in the singer’s spoken language but of vocables, nonlexical syllables, such as hey or na, that fall into patterns shaped by linguistic, song genre, and musical considerations.

Traditional singers (or musicians or storytellers) are those who have learned their art informally, within the context of family, tribe, community, or another close-knit group. Many traditional songs have been sung within the same family or folk group for generations, and can sometimes be traced back to such places of origin as Great Britain, Europe, or Africa. At some point the song would have been composed by a single individual, but that author may no longer be known. Most folksongs change over time, to a lesser or greater extent, as they are passed from person to person and multiple variants spring up.

In some contexts, traditional songs are an integral part of daily life, and particular songs are performed to accompany particular activities associated with work, religious celebration, or social occasions. Anglo-American ballads often offer cautionary tales and moral lessons, warning young women about the temptations of honey-tongued suitors and warning men about the wiles of unfaithful women. Sea shanties and railroad songs can function to lighten the burden of routine tasks and provide a rhythm that helps workers perform as a team. Lullabies bind together mother and child, and song and music of all sorts performed within the context of family helps to bind one generation to the next.

Since 1976, when the American Folklife Center was created, the Folk Archive’s collections have grown tremendously, both in numbers of items and breadth of coverage, to include a wide range of folklife expressions. But the signature activity at the center’s Folklife Reading Room, where researchers come to use the materials, involves listening to the unparalleled collections of folk music and song, made largely in the field, from the United States and around the world. Researchers come to hear and study traditional performances of Anglo-American ballads or African American blues, work songs, and church music. They listen to railroad songs, cowboy songs, coal miners songs, and sea chanties, or Native American music from tribes throughout North America. They study traditional music from Africa, Central and South America, the Middle East, Europe, South Asia, the Pacific, and other parts of the world.

Huddie Ledbetter with his guitar
Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, with his twelve-string guitar, in a 1940s publicity photograph.
(American Folklife Center )

Letter written by Huddie Ledbetter on his personal letterhead that includes photos of him performing
Letter from Leadbelly to Alan and Elizabeth Lomax, November 4, 1940.
(American Folklife Center )

Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter is remembered both for his twelve-string acoustic guitar playing and his song repertoire, which draws upon nineteenth-century African American traditions. Through his connection with John A. Lomax, Leadbelly became known to the New York City political Left and emerged as one of the stars of the folk revival movement that began in the 1930s and lasted for several decades. Between 1935 and 1940, he recorded more than two hundred songs for the Lomaxes, who then placed them at the Library of Congress. This photo shows Leadbelly in his preferred attire: an immaculate pinstripe suit and bowtie.
The Archive of Folk Culture possesses six handwritten letters from Leadbelly to Alan Lomax, written between 1940 and 1942, which describe his life in New York City and provide insight into his relationship with the folksong collector. In this letter from November 4, 1940, Leadbelly writes of his performance at the Café Society with Josh White, another fixture in the New York folk scene.

John Galusha
John Galusha, known as Yankee John, at eighty-one years of age. Minerva, New York, 1940.
(The Anne and Frank Warner Collection. Photo by Frank Warner)

Four Mexican girls singing into a microphone
Mexican girls sing for a Library of Congress recording,
San Antonio, Texas, 1934.

(Prints and Photographs Division.
Photo by Alan Lomax)

The folksong collectors Frank and Anne Warner first met John Galusha in August, 1939, and over the next ten years recorded dozens of Irish- and Anglo-American songs from his rich repertoire. John Galusha lived with his wife Lizzie in the Adirondack town of Minerva, New York, and worked as a logger, farmer, professional guide, and forest ranger. This photograph was almost certainly taken during John A. and Alan Lomax's field trip to San Antonio, Texas, in May 1934. The girls are Josephine and Aurora Gonzalez, Pearl Manchaco, Lia Trujillo, and Adela Flores. Hastily gathered from the neighborhood by Josephine (probably at center in the photograph), they sang six songs that were issued, ten years later, on the Library's recording Ethnic Music of French Louisiana, the Spanish Southwest, and the Bahamas. The Lomaxes were in south Texas on a Library-sponsored trip to document Mexican American folk music.

Wes Noel with his fiddle
Wes Noel plays the fiddle,
Elk Springs, Missouri.

(Vance Randolph Collection.
Photo by Vance Randolph

Jim Garland event poster
Poster for a performance by Jim Garland, at the 13th Avenue Gallery, 1963.
(American Folklife Center Poster Collection)

Among the most important regional folklorists working in North America during the twentieth century, Vance Randolph became known as "Mister Ozark." He wrote on a wide range of topics, including philosophy, religion, firearms, and western outlaws. He wrote biographies, novels, short stories, and poetry, and met or corresponded with literary luminaries of his day such as H.L. Mencken, Carl Sandburg, and Theodore Dreiser. In 1941, Randolph contracted with the Library of Congress to collect folksongs using a disc-cutting machine supplied to him by Alan Lomax through the Folk Archive's Equipment Loan Program. In addition, the Vance Randolph Collection comprises photographs of performers such as Wes Noel, extensive correspondence, newspaper clippings, and other printed materials.
Jim Garland, a brother of Sara Ogan Gunning and Aunt Molly Jackson, was originally from Bell County, Kentucky. Garland's songs often chronicled attempts to unionize Kentucky miners and include "The Ballad of Harry Simms" and "I Don't Want Your Millions, Mister." He moved to New York City in the late 1930s, where he made recordings for Alan Lomax and others for the Archive of Folk Song. Garland eventually moved to the West Coast, where he performed in 1963 at the 13th Avenue Gallery, which was in Portland, Oregon.

Will Neal being recorded by Charles L. Todd
Will Neal plays a fiddle at the Arvin Migratory Labor Camp, California, about 1940.
(The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection. Photo by Robert Hemming )

Musicians of the Haha Tribe, of Tamanar
Musicians of the Haha tribe, of Tamanar, play the bendir (a tamborine-shaped drum) and the aouada (a long-reed flute), while Paul Bowles records them.
Essaouira, Morocco, August 8, 1959.

(Paul Bowles Moroccan Music Collection. Photographer unknown)

In 1940 and 1941, Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin documented life in the Farm Security Administration camps of Depression-era California. Will Neal was a resident of the migratory labor camp near Arvin, California. In this photo, Sonkin (next to Neal) and Todd (with earphones) are recording Neal's fiddle music, probably in early August 1940, on a Presto disc recorder borrowed from the Library of Congress. The photographer wrote of Neal, "playing since 14 years, Will Neal . . . champion fiddler in Arvin Camp. Won many fiddlin' contests." "The most important single element in Morocco's folk culture is its music," wrote expatriate American author and composer Paul Bowles. In a land with little written literature, where illiteracy has been widespread, instrumentalists and singers have created an oral tradition. In 1959, Paul Bowles conducted extensive fieldwork documenting the folk and art music of Morocco, which was his adopted home. A man of diverse talents and unconventional ideas, Bowles is best known for his stories and novels, in particular The Sheltering Sky (1949). With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, support from the Library of Congress, and assistance from the Moroccan government, Bowles collected examples of every major Moroccan musical genre, over a period of six months, and donated his recordings to the Library of Congress.
This collection is available on line as the American Memory presentation Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd & Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection.

Musical transcription
Handwritten page from Helen Heffron Robert's Round Valley, California, notebooks, 1926, containing transcriptions of two Konkow Burning Ceremony Cry songs from wax cylinder recordings made by Mrs. Jim Stevens.
(Helen Heffron Roberts Collection)

Musical transcription
Handwritten page from Helen Heffron Robert's Round Valley, California, notebooks, 1926, containing a transcription of a Grass Game song from the Maidu area recorded by Anna Feliz.
(Helen Heffron Roberts Collection)

Helen Heffron Roberts was a pioneer ethnomusicologist, known primarily for her work in native Californian communities in the 1920s and 1930s, some of it done in collaboration with John Peabody Harrington. Trained in music as well as in anthropology, Roberts made detailed transcriptions of the field recordings of native music collected by others — including James Murie's Pawnee recordings, Edward Sapir's Nootka recordings, and the Copper Eskimo recordings gathered by Diamond Jenness. Her own field recordings are usually accompanied by field notes and musical transcriptions.

Vida Chenoweth interviews Taaquiyáa
Ethnomusicologist Vida Chenoweth interviews Taaqiyáa, her chief Kaagú Usarufa music and text contributor, Papua, New Guinea, 1967.
(Vida Chenoweth Collection. Photographer unknown )

Portuguese fado musician and singer
Portuguese fado musicians Duarte Tavares and Olivete Maria Poulart perform at the IV Seasons Restaurant, Lowell, Massachusetts, November 14, 1987.
(Lowell Folklife Project Collection. Photo by John Lueders-Booth)

Donations from ethnographers whose international collecting efforts, often over a lifetime, have resulted in large collections of cultural expression from many regions and cultures, have enriched the Archive of Folk Culture. The Vida Chenoweth Collection includes audio and visual recordings, manuscripts, and photographs representing musical traditions from a variety of cultures around the world, including the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. Featured in the collection are songs of daily life and rites of passage, dream songs, and documentation of two events known as "sing-sings." Fado is traditional music from Portugal, of African origin. It traveled to Lisbon from Brazil in the nineteenth century. Sung by both men and women, with a solo vocalist central to the performance, fado songs cover such topics as betrayal in affairs of the heart, destiny, despair, and death. The singer is usually accompanied by one Portuguese guitar and a classical guitar. In 1987, the American Folklife Center documented a range of community events and cultural expressions in Lowell, Massachusetts, primarily among the Irish, Franco-Americans, Greeks, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, and Cambodians who make up the city's largest ethnic groups.

The Library of Congress » American Folklife Center
( January 30, 2013 )
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