Tale of the Tape: Saving Historic U.S. Sounds

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 23, 2003
Peggy Bulger is the Director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, an organization dedicated to preserving American music, stories, customs, festivals, unique skills, and much more. The center's recorded archive houses the music and voices of over a century, and provides an intimate glimpse into America's past and a key to our future. Bulger spoke with National Geographic News about the center's tremendous collection, and the critical importance of preserving and promoting our legacy of recorded sound.

Tell us about the American Folklife Center.

Our mission is to preserve and present American folklife, and basically that means world folklife because everyone is here. Cultures from all over the world thrive here—so it's a big job. We inherited an archive that was started in 1928 as the Archive of American Folk Song. It's what we call the mother lode of archives. We have the collections of anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and folklorists. It's the largest and most comprehensive archive of ethnographic field recordings, we think, in the world. We know that it's the largest in the country. For the last 60 years we've been collecting materials—and it's growing daily.

What are some of the amazing things in the collection?

We have the very first recordings that were ever made in the field, Jesse Walter Fewkes made these wax-cylinder recordings of the Passamaquoddy Indians. They are wax cylinders from the Edison machine, and we have over 10,000 other wax-cylinder recordings from a collection that was done by the Bureau of Ethnography, which recorded the very first recordings of Native Americans singing, telling stories, telling their histories. Those recordings are an amazing resource not only for us but also for the tribes of origin because many of those languages are not spoken anymore

We have the only recorded sounds of ex-slaves telling their narratives, done on aluminum discs in the 1930s with elderly people who had lived under slavery. We have the American Dialect Society tapes, which are really interesting. Again back during the 30s and 40s, people were sent all over the country to record people in different areas of the United States, basically to record their accents and their dialects. But at the same time we got all kinds of things like a little old lady from New England telling her "clam chowdah" recipe. It's an amazing bunch of recordings that really tell us a lot about how people lived and survived in the 30s and during the Depression.

We have recordings that were done on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. Alan Lomax was then head of our archive, and he had about a dozen friends who were out all over the country doing "man on the street" interviews for a radio project. After Pearl Harbor, he sent a telegram to all of those people and said, "Stop what you're doing and start asking people how they feel about Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war." Those recordings are very telling seat-of-the-pants first reactions. They're really important for those who want a feel of how the country was feeling immediately after Pearl Harbor.

On the day after September 11 our staff was sitting around trying to figure out what we could do as folklorists—as ethnomusicologists—that would be positive. So we didn't have to send a telegram, we have a list serve of 450 folklorists all over the country. We said, we have no money for this, but could you stop what you're doing and go out with your tape recorder and camera and interview people about how they feel. So, we have about 800 hours of tape from that collection from Alaska, and Florida, and all over the country. The media was mainly concentrating on New York and Washington but some of the most interesting tapes are from places like Nome, Alaska where the Inuit felt like they were next because the Alaska pipeline obviously would be the next target. Everybody felt like they were next, and it was an interesting collection.

That's just to give you an idea, but we also have manuscripts, photographs, videotapes, and more. We are a multiformat collection that preserves our American cultural heritage—everything from documentation of quilt-making to how to make an apple pie.

And of course the mother lode of what we have is just every kind of music, from the sacred music of Moroccan Jews to Russian Believers hymns to a great recording that we've just preserved on SOS which is a wire recording of Pennsylvania Dutch folks singing "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" in Pennsylvania Dutch. There's some-one-of-a-kind, very esoteric stuff as well, as things that have become quite valuable to our understanding of ourselves. We have Woody Guthrie; a lot of Woody Guthrie recordings were made here before he became famous—Jellyroll Morton, Pete Seeger—a lot of folks really recorded for our archive before anywhere else.

The 40s and 50s were the beginning of what we call the folk song revival, and that was basically urban middle-class folks who got really interested in grassroots music and of course the Grateful Dead is one of the beneficiaries of that interest. Here at the library we actually had the roots music that people were searching for. Pete Seeger was our very first intern, back in the 40s, and he found a lot of his music here. Odetta still credits the Archive of American Folksong with being the mother lode of where she got her repertoire to begin with, and Harry Bellefonte got his calypso music from here, he was singing other stuff before that. So there are a lot of folks who have become cultural icons who actually came to the repository where we have the roots music.

How do you share these recordings with the public?

We have a series of 20 CDs that we put out with Rounder Records and another series of CDs that we put out with Rykodisc and (Grateful Dead percussionist) Mickey Hart called the Endangered Music Project. Those are six really amazing collections that include things like South Sea islands music and West African music from the 1930s. Most of this stuff had never been commercially released before the Endangered Music Series.

We do a lot of concerts, conferences, symposiums, and exhibits—and on our Web site we are digitizing and putting things up all the time. We have about 19 collections up online where you can download songs, download pictures, look at manuscripts, and see the transcriptions. One collection, for instance, is the John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Tour, which is incredible music from all over the South. We have another called California Gold that was created by two ethnomusicologists during the Great Depression. They went out and recorded Dust Bowl refugees in California and it's also just incredible stuff—not only photos but recordings, songs, and stories about what the Dust Bowl meant.

We feel it's very important to let everyone know that there is this resource here at the Library of Congress, and of course the best way we know to do that is to try to get as much as we can digitized and up online. In an effort to do that we worked with the Smithsonian Folklife Office. They are kind of a sister office to us, and they also have a huge archive, mainly of commercial recordings and also all the recordings of their festivals over the years. We got a huge grant from Save America's Treasures to do what we're calling "Save Our Sounds" (SOS). It's a digitization project to actually preserve some of our most endangered recordings, and digitize them, and put them up online so that they can be accessed by folks wherever they are.

Why is the preservation of this collection so important?

This is an intangible cultural heritage—it's not bricks and mortar. Most people understand why you have to save a cathedral or why you have to save "The Star-Spangled Bannner," the actual artifact. But people don't realize how fragile recordings are, and if you'd never heard Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, if you only had a transcript and had just read it, it's not the same. Think how wonderful it would have been if we could have heard Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, if we'd heard his voice, if we knew what it sounded like.

So, it's incredibly important to save the sound and it is something that most people don't realize is so endangered. For instance DAT tape, which came out in the 1980s, is probably the most fragile and ephemeral sound recording medium that we have. It has a shelf life of about ten years. The reel-to-reel tape of the 60s and 70s gets what's called "sticky shed syndrome," which means that when you play it you can actually see the tape falling off.

One of the points we've tried to make with SOS is that there is nothing that's going to be "archivally" sound, as far as audio recordings you have to just realize that you're going to have to continually be migrating that sound. People say, "oh, isn't there some way to find something where sound will last for 100 years?" I don't think so.

When you think of it, the sound recordings all over the world are deteriorating as we speak, you know, I can hear them now (laughs) being silenced. What we need is for audio engineers to really put their technical expertise towards making sure that we can migrate this sound and be sure that it will be around 200 years from now.

At the same time, you're always adding to the collection?

We're the only division in the LOC that actually is creating collections rather than just waiting for them to come to us. For instance, when we find a gap in the historic record in folklife documentation we go out and do fieldwork, hire fieldworkers. We do field schools each year and they have been a wonderful way for us to add to our collection. There's so much that could and should be documented that we need to have people in their own communities trained to do the fieldwork.

I would say that since the beginning of time people have said "cultures are dying." Well, cultures are changing. I wouldn't say that they're dying, I would say that they're changing and there's no way to stop their change. In fact, you wouldn't want to. You can't preserve culture like you can preserve a cathedral, but what you can do is document the change. Change is a constant thing in the life of a community or in the life of a culture, so we think it's very important that if you have a documentary record over several generations you can actually, I think, understand that culture in a way that nobody else could.

Related Web sites:

Mickey Hart's Web site
"Save Our Sounds": America's Recorded Sound Heritage Project
The Library of Congress American Folklife Center: The Center and its collections encompass all aspects of folklore and folklife from this country and around the world.
Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage: The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage promotes the understanding and continuity of contemporary grassroots cultures in the United States and abroad.

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