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American Folklife Center



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American Folk Song
Ex-Slave Narratives
Folk Music Revival
Duncan Emrich Autograph Album Collection
The Local Legacies Project Collection
Field Documentation Projects
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Women Collectors
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Sidney Robertson copying California Folk Music Project recordings for the Library of Congress in the WPA project office, Berkeley, California, early 1939. Photographer unknown. California Folk Music Project Collection. American Folklife Center. (AFC 1940/001:P001)
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The remarkable folk song collector Sidney Robertson Cowell (1903-1995) described herself as a woman who “travelled 300,000 miles alone with her dog and recording machine, in 15 states; she wore out 3 cars and made several thousand recordings, all of them in the Archive of American Folksong at the Library of Congress in Washington. . . . Fortunately the government kept her travelling for several years in regions whose folklore was unexplored, so she was able to continue with what she still considers the most fascinating pursuit possible in our day.” 1

Women were among the earliest collectors of ethnographic materials in this country and around the world. The most famous is probably the anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978), whose papers, films, recordings, and photographs are in the Library's Manuscript (see the Anthropology section) and Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Divisions (see the Women Behind the Camera section), but Mead's career is by no means unique. Women collectors at the beginning of the twentieth century were pioneers in the field of ethnographic documentation and traveled to places where they encountered situations that were unusual for women at that time. Their field notes and correspondence provide commentaries on their experiences. By conducting research in the field, these women were venturing into scholarly territory previously occupied almost exclusively by men.

For example, Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838-1923), Helen Heffron Roberts (1888-1985), and Frances Densmore and Laura Boulton (see below) made large and significant collections of American Indian song and spoken word that are now part of the Archive of Folk Culture.2 Roberts also made recordings in the Caribbean: “Missy, you shore am God! You am the Lord Himself!” cried one startled old man in Jamaica in 1920, when she played back his recorded voice on the Edison phonograph machine.

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Field-worker Nancy Nusz photographs oysterman Cletus Anderson, Apalachicola, Florida, November 1986. Photograph by David Taylor. Florida Maritime Project. American Folklife Center.(FMP 86-BDT025-6)

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Women whose collections are part of the Archive of Folk Culture include Frances Densmore (1867-1957), one of the most prolific collectors of wax-cylinder recordings documenting American Indian song and spoken word. She gathered more than twenty-five hundred recordings from members of forty tribes between 1907 and the early 1940s. Densmore worked intensively with Library staff members on the production of published recordings drawn from her cylinder material, and abundant correspondence is available from this cooperative effort.

Ethnomusicologist Laura Boulton (1899-1980) participated in more than twenty expeditions in her effort to document the music of various world cultures. Recording on five continents, chiefly from the 1930s through the 1960s, she assembled a collection that is particularly rich in the traditional vocal music of Canada, Africa, Southeast Asia, American Indians, and Eskimos. Many of Boulton's field recordings were presented to the Library of Congress by Columbia University in 1973.

In 1935, folklorist and writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) and New York University professor Mary Elizabeth Barnicle (1891-1978) joined forces with Alan Lomax, a field-worker for the Library's Archive of American Folk-Song, to document African American song traditions in Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas. Their field research explored the relationship between the music they recorded and antecedents from Africa and pre-emancipation America. A finding aid for Zora Neale Hurston is available.

From 1938 to 1940, Sidney Robertson Cowell organized and directed a California Work Projects Administration project designed to survey musical traditions in northern California. The result was the WPA California Folk Music Project, available online as California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties. The collection includes material from many different ethnic groups, with vocal and instrumental performances by women and recordings of folk songs about women. Cowell went on to do ethnographic documentation for many years—on the Pacific Coast, in the Ozarks and in the Appalachians, in the Great Lakes states, and in Pennsylvania, New York, and Maine.

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Henrietta Yurchenco (right) and an unidentified woman, John's Island, South Carolina, ca. 1970. Photograph by David Lewiston. Henrietta Yurchenco Collection. American Folklife Center.

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Henrietta Yurchenco (b. 1916), professor emerita of the City College of New York, began fieldwork in 1942 in Mexico and Guatemala, where she recorded traditional music in Indian communities. In 1953, she began work in the western and central provinces of Spain, in the Balearic Islands, and later in Morocco. She studied women's songs in Galicia, Spain, and conducted fieldwork in Puerto Rico, South Carolina, and Ireland.

An artist and social documentarian, Eleanor Dickinson (b. 1931) was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and raised within the traditions of the Southern Baptist Church. Trained as an artist, she began to draw participants in Baptist revival meetings in 1967. Later she also took photographs and recorded what she saw and heard at meetings in Knoxville and in other parts of Tennessee and Kentucky. Under the sponsorship of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., an exhibit of her work, Revival!, toured the country. One hundred of her drawings are in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division, but until they are cataloged, researchers must apply for access. Most of her recordings (and other material from her documentary excursions) are in the Archive of Folk Culture.

Vida Chenoweth (b. 1928), professor emerita of music at Wheaton College, has done extensive fieldwork in Papua New Guinea among the Usarufa. She is in the process of donating to the Folklife Center a large collection of audio and visual recordings, manuscripts, and photographs representing musical traditions from a variety of cultures around the world.

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