Music and Song
Frank Proffitt sings
and plays for Anne Warner in 1941. Pick Britches Valley,
(Anne and Frank Warner Collection. Photo by
|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
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
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)
Down the Stream Songster.
(Robert W. Gordon Songster Collection)
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
plays tenor banjo, Turlock, California, 1939.
(WPA California Folk Music Project Collection. Photographer
|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
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 "Leadbelly" Ledbetter,
with his twelve-string guitar, in a 1940s publicity photograph.
(American Folklife Center )
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, known
as Yankee John, at eighty-one years of age. Minerva, New
(The Anne and Frank Warner Collection. Photo by Frank
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
||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 plays the fiddle,
Elk Springs, Missouri.
(Vance Randolph Collection.
Photo by Vance Randolph )
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,
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, 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
|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'
||"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.
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)
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 Taaqiyáa, her chief Kaagú Usarufa
music and text contributor, Papua, New Guinea, 1967.
(Vida Chenoweth Collection. Photographer unknown )
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.