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.
On a log sheet typed in the 1940s, Alan Lomax identified a man in a 50-second segment of silent color footage shot in Mississippi as “Charles Edwards” (above).
Mystified folklorists have been unable to find further references to Charles Edwards in Lomax’s materials or anyone else’s; but recently two American Folklife Center staff members noticed that he closely resembled a young David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and even played his guitar in the same way; perhaps Lomax had made a simple error.
To verify their theory, they sent screen captures to Honeyboy’s former agent, who shared them with Honeyboy’s stepdaughter. Her verdict: “That’s my daddy!”
This according to “‘That’s my daddy!’: American Folklife Center staff members identify early color film of David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards” by Stephen Winick (Folklife Center news XXXIII/3–4 [summer/fall 2011] pp. 8–9).
Below, Honeyboy performs and speaks in the 2004 film Lightning in a bottle.
A great mystery surrounded I Hear America Singing, the 13-part series that Alistair Cooke produced in 1938: How had the BBC managed to borrow recordings from the Library of Congress when no other broadcaster was allowed access to them?
The circumstances were extraordinary. First, Cooke wrote an eloquent and charming letter to Herbert Putnam, the Librarian of Congress. “When I first became interested in American folk songs,” he wrote, “I had no idea so little had been done in recording, and how desperately hard it is for an amateur to get within earshot of the music he is interested in and excited about….I found that the Library, and only the Library, has recorded a score or more of the songs which can make my series possible.”
Moved by Cooke’s letter and the goal of the series, Putnam agreed to grant one-time rights with notable restrictions: the BBC would send the Library any copies that were made when it returned the recordings; the series would be broadcast live, and only once; and no recordings of the series itself would be preserved. As a result of this arrangement, many recordings were broadcast that had never before been heard by anyone outside the Library.
This according to “Alistair Cooke: A radio and TV icon in the Archive of folk culture” by Stephen D. Winick (Folklife Center news XXVII/1–2 [winter/spring 2005] pp. 6–8). Above, Cooke interviews an unknown singer for the series in 1938. Below, Vera Hall (1902–64) sings Trouble so hard, recorded by John Lomax for the Library of Congress in the 1930s.
The world knows Pete Seeger as an activist and a performer of traditional and original songs; fewer know of his work as a filmmaker. With his wife Toshi, Seeger documented music and dance performances on hundreds of reels of film between 1955 and 1965.
Having started with a self-produced film of how to play the 5-string banjo, Toshi and Pete branched out into filming the musicians and dancers they came in contact with in their countrywide and worldwide tours. Their subjects include the final performance of Big Bill Broonzy as well as the Irish fiddler John Doherty, the sitār player Imrat Khan, Ghanaian fishermen singing rowing songs, and Indonesian court dancers. The Pete and Toshi Seeger Film Collection was acquired by the American Folklife Center in 2004.
This according to “The incompleat filmmakers: The little-known career of Pete and Toshi Seeger” by Todd Harvey and Stephen Winick (Folklife Center news XXVIII/28 [winter/spring 2006] pp. 3–8). Above, the Seegers in an interview at the Library of Congress in 2006; inset, at the 2009 Clearwater Festival.
You can watch the Seegers’ film of Ghanaian fishermen here.
- Lead Belly and the folklorists (bibliolore.org)
- Folkstreams (an online streaming archive that includes some of the Seegers’ films).
In the mid-1990s a staff member at the American Folklife Center received a note asking if the Center would be interested in an old LP of a cowboy singer named Romaine Lowdermilk. Not having heard of the singer, she stopped by the office of the director, Alan Jabbour. “Romy Lowdermilk!” he exclaimed, “Who’s got a recording of Romy Lowdermilk?”
Jabbour knew the name only through prose accounts of the singer (1890–1970), who had written and published several popular cowboy songs (including Going back to Arizona, which Patsy Montana performed as Going back to old Montana). Lowdermilk had stated that he never made a commercial recording; this LP appeared to be a unique record of his singing. The owner generously supplied the disc in 1999 and the Center digitized it, assuming that it was a solitary specimen.
The discovery of an exact copy in 2006 led to a full unraveling of the story. Lowdermilk had recorded several songs in a recording studio in 1951; the studio then had copies pressed on demand for the singer’s clients at Rancho Mañana, the Arizona dude ranch where he worked.
This according to “Long-lost twins: The curious case of the Romaine Lowdermilk discs” by Stephen Winick (Folklife Center news XXXVI/3 [summer 2006] pp. 11–12). Below, Joanna Joseph and Bill Vernieu sing Lowdermilk’s Lee’s ferry-o.
Founded in Saratoga Springs by Bill and Lena Spencer in 1960, Caffè Lena is the longest continuously running folk coffeehouse in the United States. With its longstanding tradition of nurturing new talent, the venue hosted some of the first performances of Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, and Ani DiFranco, as well as some of the last appearances of the legendary Delta bluesmen Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt.
In August 2009, just in time for its 50th anniversary, the Caffè Lena Collection arrived at the American Folklife Center. This collection—a collaborative effort of the Center, the Caffè Lena History Project, and the Saratoga Springs History Museum—includes vintage photographs, articles, and letters; rare reel-to-reel recordings of performances; and oral history recordings with musicians, patrons, and staff members. The Center is making plans for digitizing the materials.
This according to “Celebrating 50 years of American folk music history: The Caffè Lena Collection arrives at the Library of Congress” by Jocelyn Arem (Folklife Center news XXXII/1–2, pp. 3–6). Above, Dylan, Suze Rotolo, Spencer, and Pasha, 1962. (All rights reserved by the Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC; may not be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the written permission of the Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC.)
Having served as a beloved anthem during the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, Kumbaya now serves as an easy punch line in jokes about naïve idealism. Various theories regarding its provenance have circulated, including a report that it was collected by missionaries in Angola and a claim by Marvin V. Frey that he composed it in 1939.
Archival documents at the American Folklife Center illuminate the real story. The earliest known evidence of the song is in a manuscript sent by Julian Parks Boyd to the Archive’s founder, Robert W. Gordon, in 1927; Boyd had noted it from a former student the previous year (transcription above; click to enlarge). The song’s structure matches that of Kumbaya, and its refrain is “Lord, come by here”. Further archival evidence demonstrates that the song was well known among African Americans by the 1940s, and that dialect performances gradually transformed “come by here” to “kum ba ya”.
This according to “The world’s first Kumbaya moment: New evidence about an old song” by Stephen Winick (Folklife Center news XXII/3–4, pp. 3–10). Below, Joan Baez performs Kumbaya in France in 1980.
Although he never mentioned it in his published writings, the collector and compiler of traditional Irish tunes Francis O’Neill (1848–1936) made wax cylinder recordings of some of his fellow musicians in Chicago, probably in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Once believed lost, 32 of these recordings were discovered in 2003 when David Dunn opened a suitcase that had belonged to his grandfather, who had been a friend of O’Neill. Dunn brought them to the Ward Irish Music Archives in Milwaukee, which contacted the American Folklife Center for help in digitizing them. Several recordings by the renowned uilleann pipe player Patrick J. “Patsy” Touhey (1865–1923) are included, along with performances by four other luminaries of the Chicago Irish music community.
The recordings now comprise the cornerstone of The Dunn Family Collection, an online exhibit hosted by the Ward Archives that also includes manuscripts, artifacts, photographs, and sheet music collected by the instrument maker and repairer Michael J. Dunn (1855–1935). Dunn was also a captain in the Milwaukee Fire Department, while O’Neill—when he was not pursuing his passion for Irish traditional music—served as Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department.
Thanks to Patrick Hutchinson for alerting us about this collection! Patrick plays the uilleann pipes with Bento Boxty.
Founded by Alan Lomax in 1983, The Association for Cultural Equity‘s mission—“to facilitate cultural equity, the right of every culture to express and develop its distinctive heritage”—is realized through several projects that use and expand upon Lomax’s research, including the digitization and dissemination of his field collections.
As a part of this service, ACE supports a free online research center that includes an archive of Lomax’s collections; the sound recordings are indexed by place in ACE’s Lomax Geo-Archive, which provides excerpts from the recordings along with the full details of each recording session. Through cooperation with ACE, the American Folklife Center houses Lomax’s physical collection.