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.
Folkstreams is an archive of hard-to-find documentary films about traditional cultures that gives them new life by streaming them on the Internet. Founded in 2002 by the filmmakers Tom and Mimi Davenport, the idea grew out of “our love of filmmaking, a respect for the traditional culture of ordinary Americans, and a desire to get our work to the general public.”
Partnering with Ibiblio, the School of Information and Library Science, and the Southern Folklife Collection, all based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Folkstreams preserves and disseminates priceless historical documents, including many whose subjects are music and dance.
Above, the Landis family of Granville County, North Carolina, sings “Jezebel” in A singing stream: A black family chronicle (Tom Davenport, 1986).
Related post: Pete Seeger, filmmaker
The fall 2010 issue of Goldenseal, a magazine devoted to West Virginia traditions, is a Festschrift for the late senator Robert C. Byrd—as a fiddle player! Festschriften that celebrate politicians are fairly unusual, but it is even rarer for a Festschrift to honor a traditional musician.
Byrd learned traditional fiddling and singing when he was growing up in the mountains of Appalachia. He deployed his talents strategically in his early political campaigns, when he was known as “Fiddlin’ Robert Byrd”. He also performed for the Grand Ole Opry, and recorded an album that has recently been re-released by County Records.
Part of the online American memory series sponsored by the Library of Congress, Omaha Indian music presents traditional Omaha music recorded in Nebraska in the 1890s and 1980s. This multiformat ethnographic field collection comprises 44 wax cylinder recordings collected between 1895 and 1897 by Francis La Flesche and Alice Cunningham Fletcher, 323 songs and speeches from the 1983 Omaha powwow (above), and 25 songs and speeches from a 1985 concert at the Library of Congress; contextual information is provided by photographs, field notes, and interviews with Omaha tribe members.
In 2008 the technology and publishing executive Joel Bresler created the multimedia website Follow the drinking gourd to share his research into the origins and history of the U.S. song, which was popularized by The Weavers and has been recorded some 200 times and reprinted in over 75 songbooks.
While providing ample documentation of the song’s reception history, this unusual resource probes persistent questions regarding the song’s provenance—not least, whether there is any basis for the idea that it was sung by African Americans during the Underground Railroad era. The site presents discussions by authoritative folklorists exploring such questions, and concludes with an invitation to collaborate by supplying further documentation.
Above, the first known publication of the song (Austin: Texas Folklore Society, 1928).
Like souvenir books, program notes may be considered ephemera, but often they are the best sources for information about important productions, festivals, and other events. Some, like Playbill, are issued as numbered periodicals that libraries and individuals subscribe to. Others include original essays by distinguished scholars—for example, the program book for the Smithsonian Institution’s 1997 Festival of American Folklife (above) included articles by the ethnomusicologists Angela Impey, Joyce Marie Jackson, and Jeff Todd Titon.