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Biography Robert Winslow Gordon (1888-1961)

Robert Winslow Gordon
Robert Winslow Gordon in a portrait taken in 1928, when he joined the staff of the Library of Congress as the first Head of the Archive of American Folk Song. Photo courtesy Mr. and Mrs. Bert Nye.

[The following is an excerpt from the "Introduction" to the Library of Congress LP Folk-Songs of America: The Robert Winslow Gordon Collection 1922-1932, by Deborah G. Kodish, 1978.]

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 the West.

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.

Robert Winslow Gordon
Robert W. Gordon poses with a freshly unearthed specimen during an archaeological expedition in Marin County, California. Ca. 1923. Photo courtesy J. Barre Toelken, University of Oregon.

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.

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. 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. 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.

Robert Winsow Gordon with cylinder and disc recording equipment.
Robert Winslow Gordon, first head of the Archive of American Folk-Song, at the Library of Congress, with part of the cylinder collection and recording machinery, about 1930.

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.

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 the archive.

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


Folk-Songs of America: The Robert Winslow Gordon Collection, 1922-1932 (an online version of the Library of Congress LP album).

Kodish, Debora G. "Good Friends and Bad Enemies": Robert Winslow Gordon and the Study of American Folksong. University of Illinois Press, 1986.