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In 2019, the Library began providing streaming access to recordings of traditional folk ballads included among the Papers of the Virginia Folklore Society, left to the Library by UVA English Professor and President of the VFS, Arthur Kyle Davis, Jr. The ballads were recorded by Davis and others in the byways of Virginia during the 1930s on state-of-the-art “aluminum instantaneous discs.”
Housed with the Society’s papers in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, the nearly 700 songs on 173 discs represent not only the work of Davis, but the advance work of the teachers, mostly women, recruited by VFS from Virginia’s public schools to find ballad singers, gather information, and transcribe songs.
The recordings have been digitized by Library Audiovisual Conservator Steven Villereal with support from the “Recordings at Risk” program, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by the Council on Library and Information Resources. An improved finding aid has been developed for the archival collection, featuring sheet music, newsletters, and photographs. Access to the streaming media is provided by the Library through an instance of Avalon Media System.
These files include the earliest known recordings of Salem, VA ballad singer Texas Gladden (born Texas Anna Smith in Saltville, VA). Davis first recorded Gladden directly on to aluminum disc in 1932, predating by nine years the performances taped by famed ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax who called Gladden “one of the best American ballad singers ever recorded.” Gladden later achieved a measure of notoriety when her repertoire furnished material for singers such as Joan Baez and other musicians of the 1960s folk revival.
Davis’ field research into Virginia variants of traditional English and Scottish ballads formed the basis of his VFS publication, “Traditional Ballads of Virginia,” but he expanded the society’s mission to include all types of folksong, and he made some of the earliest recordings of Virginia’s African American musicians. His correspondence demonstrates how much the Society relied on women like Alfreda Peel, a teacher educated at Radford State Teachers College and a VFS member, who did much of the actual song collecting. The Davis manuscripts also reveal an early interracial collaboration with African American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner, studying and recording the African American Gullah language of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Turner and Davis shared use of the 200-pound Fairchild aluminum disc recorder that Davis carried strapped to his car on ballad-hunting trips.