When Michael Taft of the American Folklife Center received a call asking if the Center would be interested in an old Lead Belly disc, it seemed impossible that there could be one that wasn’t already in their collection; but when Taft asked what was printed on the label and heard “Presto” he was intrigued. Presto was not a record company—it was a brand of recording blank that the Library of Congress had used for field recordings in the 1930s and 1940s.
The disc included a song never heard elsewhere, and it provided the key for identifying the recording session. Titled Todd blues, the song was an improvisation that referred to “Mister Todd” and “Mister Sonkin”—Charles Todd (left) and Robert Sonkin (below left), who collaborated on several field recording trips for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 1940s.
This blues took the form of a humorous lament on the departure of one of the partners: “Mister Todd went away, Lord, just after Christmas Day/He’s going to California…Mister Sonkin sitting here with his head hung down.” These lines clearly place the recording on 20 January 1942, when the pair recorded Lead Belly in New York City, shortly before Todd left for a new job in California.
This according to “A new old recording by Huddie Ledbetter” by Michael Taft (Folklife Center news XXIX/3 [summer 2007] pp. 13–15).
Today is Lead Belly’s 130th birthday! Below, Pete Seeger recalls meeting and performing with the great singer-songwriter.
John Hartford’s mammoth collection of fiddle tunes (Franklin, TN: StuffWorks, 2018) comprises 176 of Hartford’s original compositions. Most of these tunes are previously unpublished and unrecorded, taken from Hartford’s personal music journals.
Compiled and narrated by the fiddler Matt Combs, John’s daughter Katie Harford Hogue, and the musicologist Greg Reish, the book illuminates Hartford’s creative process through original tune compositions, his own reflections on the fiddle, and interviews with family and fellow musicians.
The volume includes more than 60 of Hartford’s personal drawings—ranging in theme from steamboats and the river, to fellow musicians, home and everyday life—as well as several never-before-seen photographs.
Above, a page from the book: Hartford’s Annual waltz as part of a holiday card and invitation to his 1980 wedding; below, the composer performs the song and tune.
In 2017 the University of Oklahoma Press launched the series American popular music to explore the evolution of folk, blues, gospel, country, rock, jazz, and soul by looking at the ways music relates to the land and people. The primary focus is on music identified with Oklahoma, Texas, and surrounding regions, following regional influences to the farthest extent of their reach.
Of particular interest are individual artists and how they express their ties to land and people uniquely and collectively. This series therefore considers the role that music plays in the lives of artists and the communities that identify with them, and demonstrates how the business of music has shaped their careers and legacies.
The inaugural volume, Sing me back home: Southern roots and country music by Bill C. Malone, presents the story of the author’s working-class upbringing in rural East Texas, recounting how in 1939 his family’s first radio, a battery-powered Philco, introduced him to hillbilly music and how, years later, he went on to become a scholar on the subject before the field formally existed. The book draws on a hundred years of southern roots music history, exploring the intricate relationships between black and white music styles, gospel and secular traditions, and pop, folk, and country music.
Below, Joe Thompson, one of the musicians discussed in the book.
Born in 1906 in Poland, Ben Stonehill (Steinberg) immigrated with his large family to Rochester, New York, while still a young child; in 1929 he moved to New York City, where he eventually became proprietor of a small floor-servicing business.
A fluent Yiddish speaker who cherished his cultural heritage, Stonehill was also a devoted zamler, a collector of folklore. In 1948 he learned of a major gathering point for new refugees: the Hotel Marseilles in upper Manhattan.
Lacking recording equipment but determined to pursue his mission, Stonehill took a sales job at a local wire-recorder dealership and emerged from the showroom with a salesman’s demonstration model. Nearly every weekend that summer he hauled this machine by subway from his home in Queens to the Hotel Marseilles to record songs and stories from the hundreds of survivors he encountered in the hotel lobby.
Stonehill documented an unparalleled cross-section of music then current among Jewish displaced persons (DPs), from traditional Hasidic nigunim to prewar folk and popular songs in Polish, Yiddish, and Russian; from Soviet propagandist ballads to Zionist pioneer anthems; from songs recalled from ghettos and camps to lyrics relating the experiences of recent DPs. His inventory eventually listed 1054 separate titles.
In 1964 Stonehill realized a long-held dream by delivering a lecture on folksong at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. The following year, terminally ill, he abandoned his book-in-progress and bequeathed his recordings (by then copied to magnetic tape) to YIVO, the Library of Congress, and other collecting institutions. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum acquired a set from the Library of Congress in 2005.
This according to Ben Stonehill (2008), part of the Holocaust Museum’s series Music of the Holocaust.
Above, Stonehill around the time he began his recording project. One of his recordings can be heard here; a Library of Congress presentation about his life and work is here.
October 2017 marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of The old-time herald!
Since the fall of 1987, when Alice Gerrard created, laid out, and hand-mailed the first issue, the magazine’s articles and interviews, news and reviews, festival guides, and discussions have become part of the glue that holds the old-time music community together.
Above, a cover from 1990; below, Ms. Gerrard performs in 2014.
In 1988 the U.S. Congress convened four panels of witnesses for and against proposed legislation that would designate square dance as the National American Folk Dance.
Leaders of the nationwide network of recreational clubs that perform what is generally referred to as modem Western square dance campaigned for the bill’s passage, presenting numerous petitions with thousands of signatures gathered from their membership; opponents included recognized African American, Hispanic American, and Native American dance performers, as well as professional folklorists and one square dance caller not affiliated with the sponsoring organizations.
Proponents of the legislation cited the historical depth of square dance in the U.S.—“This form of dance alone can claim a development from the earliest days of our nation, through expansion of our population across the land”—and cited the genre’s association with “old-fashioned values” rooted in the “melting-pot of the dances which our ancestors brought with them when they settled in this nation.”
Witnesses for the opposition noted the absence of people of color from this picture, and generally argued against the whole idea of designating a national dance—“I can’t see how any one dance could be singled out as our National Folk Dance when we are a pluralistic society, a land of geographic, racial, cultural, and religious differences,” testified a representative of the Makah people. “I believe choosing one, any one, would give birth to feelings of resentment and animosity.”
Although the bill was defeated, similar debates continue to this day.
This according to “Reflections on the hearing to designate the square dance as the American folk dance of the United States: Cultural politics and an American vernacular dance form” by Colin Quigley (Yearbook for traditional music XXXIII  pp. 145–57). Below, Bob Dalsemer, the one square dance caller who testified for the opposition.
In Frances Densmore’s broad sweep through Native American communities, practicing what is now considered salvage anthropology, she worked with more Native American cultures than any anthropologist of her time.
After Densmore’s passing in 1957, others found it difficult to assess the results of her decades of work or to fit them into histories of various types. She had participated actively in communities of musicologists, anthropologists, and other professional women, as well as with Native communities as she pursued her social science. These communities were historically imbricated.
Densmore saw her work as the single focus of a lifetime. That work, over time, became but one part of a larger cultural context within which musicologists and anthropologists as a whole, as well as women anthropologists in particular and Native American writers, examined her work.
This according to “Gone but not quite forgotten” by Joan M. Jensen, an essay included in Travels with Frances Densmore: Her life, work, and legacy in Native American studies (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015, pp. 242–83).
Today is Densmore’s 150th birthday! Above, with Susan Windgrow (Maka Waste’ Win/Good Earth Woman), ca. 1930; below, Sitting Bull’s favorite song, recorded by Densmore from a man who had learned it by hearing it sung repeatedly by Sitting Bull himself.
The power of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American folk music, which turns 65 this year, lies squarely in its use of collage.
Smith’s decisions in sequencing and juxtaposing the 84 songs encouraged a play of sounds and lyrical content that calls attention to similarities and differences, opening multiple meanings and allowing for many possible interpretations.
By privileging collage over narrative, Smith created a complex and nuanced work of social commentary. Through collage, the Anthology captures the ongoing negotiation of the various voices—past and present, black and white—taking part in the reconstruction of U.S. history. These voices remain audible today.
This according to “Collage, politics, and narrative approaches to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American folk music” by Dan Blim, an essay included in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American folk music: America changed through music (Abington: Routledge, 2017, pp. 82–99).
Above, Smith ca. 1965; below, selections from volume II of the six-volume set.
In a 2008 interview, Ralph Stanley recalled his participation in the soundtrack of the film O brother, where art thou?, which brought him a level of international recognition that he had never dreamed of—particularly for his haunting rendition of the traditional Appalachian spiritual O Death.
“T-Bone Burnett had several auditions for that song. He wanted it in the Dock Boggs style. So I got my banjo and learned it the way he did it…I went down with my banjo to Nashville and I said, “T-Bone, let me sing it the way I want to sing it,” and I laid my banjo down and sung it a cappella. After two or three verses, he stopped me and said, “That’s it.”
Quoted in “Old-time man” by Don Harrison (Virginia living June 2008, pp. 54–57).
Today would have been Ralph Stanley’s 90th birthday! Below, a performance from later in his career. (Can anyone tell us the place and date? We wonder if it’s his performance for the 2006 National Medal of Arts ceremony.)
While they may not know the title or the composer, millions recognize Jay Ungar’s Ashokan farewell as the melodic centerpiece of the soundtrack for Ken Burns’s celebrated television series The Civil War.
Still fewer of those who love the tune realize that the title refers to a site that is now known as The Ashokan Center, an outdoor education, conference, and retreat located in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York that Ungar—together with his wife and musical partner, Molly Mason—was using for summer traditional music and dance camps.
Decades after Ungar composed Ashokan farwell, and following his performance of it at the White House and in various U.S. ceremonial settings, Ungar managed to leverage its emotional connections in a successful effort to preserve the location and create a $7.25 million campus there dedicated to traditional music, Catskill history, environmental education, and local arts and crafts.
This according to “Catskill cultural center saved, and renewed, thanks to a fiddler’s tune” by Dennis Gaffney (The New York times 12 May 2013, p. A15).
Today is Ungar’s 70th birthday! Below, a performance with Mason and some friends.