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.
On this U.S. Thanksgiving Day, let’s pay our respects to the Wampanoag people, who helped the refugees at Plymouth Colony through their first winter, taught them to fish and grow corn, and attended their celebration of thanksgiving after their first successful harvest.
Wampanoag music is wrapped up in dance. The beat of a hardwood stick, water drum, and corn rattles is the music of their lively social dances, while appreciation and gratitude are expressed in their ceremonial dances.
“It is part of our nature is to be in thanksgiving” said Ramona Peters, a Wampanoag woman. “It’s sort of our philosophy, so it gets threaded through both the social and ceremonial dances.”
This according to Music on Martha’s Vineyard: A history of harmony by Tom Dresser and Jerry Muskin (Charleston: History Press, 2014). Above and below, the 2015 Mashpee Wampanoag Powwow.
A number of people attend U.S. bluegrass festivals not for the stage show, but for the informal jam sessions in the campgrounds or parking lot.
The interactional etiquette that jammers follow is manifested both in the conventions that help strangers to come together and in choices made during group playing of bluegrass standards. Ethics and aesthetics are fused as jammers negotiate interactional guidelines to reach a heightened musical and social communion.
This according to “A special kind of courtesy: Action at a bluegrass festival jam session” by Michelle Kisliuk (TDR: The drama review XXXII/3 [fall 1988] pp. 141–155). Above and below, festival attendees jamming with that special courtesy.
Related articles are here.
Maintained since 1996 by Charley Pennell, a cataloguer at the D.H. Hill Library at North Carolina State University, Bluegrass discography lists bluegrass singles, LPs, tapes, CDs, and videos by label, performer, and album. Resources for obtaining these publications are also listed.
Below, the legendary Foggy Mountain Boys perform Foggy mountain breakdown at the Grand Old Opry in 1965.
Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections is a multiformat ethnographic field collection documenting traditional cultures throughout Florida in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This free online resource is part of the Library of Congress American Memory series.
Undertaken in conjunction with the Florida Federal Writers’ Project, the Florida Music Project, and the Joint Committee on Folk Arts of the Work Projects Administration, the collection features folk songs and folktales in many languages, including blues and work songs from fishing boats, railroad gangs, and turpentine camps; children’s songs, dance music, and religious music of many cultures; and oral histories.
The website provides access to 376 sound recordings and 106 accompanying materials, including recording logs, transcriptions, correspondence between Florida WPA workers and Library of Congress personnel, and an essay on Florida folklife by Zora Neale Hurston (inset). A new essay by Stetson Kennedy reflects on the labor and the legacy of the WPA in Florida, and an extensive bibliography, a list of related Web sites, and a guide to the ethnic and language groups of Florida add further context to the New Deal era and to Florida culture.
Above, construction workers gathered around the stove in the craftsmen’s barracks at Camp Blanding, Florida, in 1940.
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.)
Part of the Library of Congress’s American Memory series, Fiddle tunes of the old frontier: The Henry Reed Collection is a multiformat collection of traditional fiddle tunes played by Henry Reed of Glen Lyn, Virginia, recorded by Alan Jabbour in 1966 and 1967, when Reed was over eighty years old. The tunes represent the music and evoke the history and spirit of Virginia’s Appalachian frontier; many of them passed back into circulation during the fiddling revival of the later twentieth century.
The collection includes 184 sound recordings, 19 pages of field notes, and 69 transcriptions of Reed’s fiddling with notes on tune histories and musical features; an illustrated essay on Reed’s life, art, and influence; a list of related publications; and a glossary of musical terms.
Above, Reed with Bobbie Thompson (guitar) at the Narrows (Virginia) Fiddlers Contest, summer 1967. You can hear Reed playing Alabama girls give the fiddler a dram here.
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.
An installment in the Library of Congress’s American memory series, “Now what a time”: Blues, gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals, 1938–1943 presents approximately 100 sound recordings—primarily African American blues and gospel songs—and related documentation from the folk festival at Fort Valley State College (now Fort Valley State University), Fort Valley, Georgia, in 1941 and 1943.
Song lists made by the collectors, correspondence with the Archive about the trips, and a special issue of the Fort Valley State College student newsletter, The Peachite: Festival number, are also included. Notable in this collection is the topical rewording of several standard gospel songs to address the wartime concerns of the performers.
Also included are recordings made in Tennessee and Alabama (including six Sacred Harp songs) by John Work between September 1938 and 1941. These recording projects were supported by the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture at the American Folklife Center).
War song, performed by Buster Brown in March 1943, can be heard here.
This post is part of our series celebrating Black History Month. Throughout February we will be posting about resources and landmark writings in black studies. Click here or on the Black studies category on the right to see a continuously updated page of links to all of our posts in this category.