Library Opens Access to Early Folksong Recordings Collection

The University of Virginia Library has opened streaming access to a collection of early folksong recordings created between 1932 and 1938 by the Virginia Folklore Society (VFS). Recorded on aluminum discs, these represent one of the earliest folksong collection projects in North America to use the then-new grooved disc technology.

Digitization of these 173 discs was funded by Recordings at Risk, a national regranting program established in 2017 and administered by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to support preservation of rare and unique audiovisual materials of high scholarly value through digital reformatting. The grant program is made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Ethnographic recordings hold diverse research interest from anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and historians of media, and access to these recordings and improved descriptions of them will provide important context to the early study of folksong by both academics and enthusiasts.

Digitization and documentation make for easy online access

Aluminum direct-cut or instantaneous discs were the earliest available format for making grooved disc recordings in the field, pre-dating lacquer by several years. Grooves were embossed into the soft metal (as opposed to being cut via a subtractive process), and recordings were intended to be played back with specialized needles made of bamboo or cactus fiber.

New, digitized master files of these discs were created and wedded with existing metadata drawn from the research of VFS members. An improved finding aid has been created for the Society’s archival collection which also features sheet music, newsletters, and photographs. Disc-level records with streaming audio, freely accessible to all, are available through the UVA Library’s local instance of Avalon Media System.

History of the collection and research implications

Founded in 1913, the VFS gathered ballads and folklore in tandem with the earliest state societies conducting similar projects. Arthur Kyle Davis, Jr., a professor of English at the University of Virginia, directed the society beginning in 1924. After compiling and publishing the early volume Traditional Ballads from Virginia (1929), he sought out new technology to create phonographic records, and in 1932 began to use emerging technology to record some of the singers, primarily in southwestern Virginia, from whom the VFS had previously collected songs. UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library now holds these unique aluminum instantaneous discs created in the field by Davis and others to document ballads and folksongs previously preserved through oral tradition.

These recordings feature unique variants of popular “Child ballads” and other songs, but also include many tunes which are largely unknown. Apart from information documented in the collector’s notes, little is also known about many of the musicians and singers. However, this collection features the earliest known recordings of folk musicians such as Horton Barker, Abner Keesee, and Texas Gladden. Perhaps the most famous of these is Gladden, from Saltville, Virginia. Gladden was recorded in 1941 by the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who called her “one of the best American ballad singers ever recorded.” The discs in this collection feature what are almost certainly the earliest recordings of her work.

Increased awareness of this collection will have considerable research implications, as knowledge of field recording expeditions in the South are currently dominated by the 1933 work of Alan Lomax and his father John A. Lomax. This newly accessible collection laid the groundwork that helped make possible the more well-known recordings made by the Lomaxes and others.

For more information on the project, contact Steven Villereal, UVA Library Audiovisual Conservator.

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