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Laureate at the Library: Sharing the History and Realities of Field Recordings of Native American Songs and Narratives

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The following guest post is by Judith Gray, coordinator of Reference Services in the Library’s American Folklife Center. This is the fifth and final post in a series documenting Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s summertime meetings with librarians and curators across the Library of Congress. The meetings grew out of Harjo’s interest in learning more about the Library’s services and collections, especially Library materials pertaining to Native peoples and cultures. This post highlights Harjo’s visit to the Library’s American Folklife Center. Past posts explored her visits to the Library’s Main Reading Room, Geography and Map DivisionManuscript Division, and Prints and Photographs Division.

Poet Laureate Joy Harjo holds a sample 4” wax cylinder of the type used to record tribal songs and spoken word between 1890 and the early 1930s. A cylinder such as this could hold up to three minutes. Harjo is using the recommended “scissors grip,” with her index and middle finger inside the cylinder, keeping any fingerprints off of the surface where the recording would be. American Folklife Center, July 15, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Joy Harjo visited the Library’s American Folklife Center twice over the summer, and during these visits she talked with staff about the Center’s Muscogee recordings. The Center is an audiovisual archive curating ethnographic recordings from over 150 indigenous communities in North America. The songs in our collections from Joy’s Mvskoke (Muscogee Creek) community were recorded principally by Willard Rhodes, a Columbia University music professor who was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Library of Congress to document Native music. Rhodes spent most of his summers between 1939 and 1952 making such recordings in communities in many areas west of the Mississippi. On three of his trips (1943, 1951, and 1952), he recorded Muscogee singers in Oklahoma as well as at boarding schools out of state. Lasting roughly an hour in all, the recordings include Christian hymns and lullabies, stomp dance songs and children’s counting songs, among other genres.

In 1954, Rhodes made selections from his various field trips and assembled ten sampler albums that the Library then published. The album identified as AFS L37, “Delaware, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek,” contains Muscogee ball game songs, a lullaby, a counting song, Christian hymns, a ribbon dance song, and a stomp dance song. It was the Creek songs on this album that Joy and her husband, Owen, were able to hear on their initial visit. Owen immediately commented on the fact that what Rhodes had labeled as a ribbon dance song was in fact another ball game song. (Enlisting community members to correct labeling and enrich our knowledge of field recordings is a particularly welcome aspect of any outreach the Folklife Center has been able to make, as this example makes clear.)

The only other Muscogee recordings in the Folklife Center’s collections are on several “Indians for Indians” programs originally broadcast in the 1940s and early ‘50s on WNAD, the University of Oklahoma radio station in Norman. The University is currently preparing an exhibition and website to commemorate the program, so those recordings may soon be online.

During our more extended time together, Joy and I talked about the history of audiovisual documentation and archiving, as well as how the major collections of ethnographic tribal recordings got to the Library after a circuitous route through the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology and the National Archives. We also talked about the dissemination of field recordings back to communities, and shared our knowledge and experiences of the political realities of such processes—when, for example, recognized tribal governments are not necessarily the keepers of ritual knowledge to whom ceremonial recordings would most appropriately be given. We also discussed the Folklife Center’s challenges with outreach efforts and permissions processes during turnovers in tribal governments, as well as instances of competing claims to specific song ownership.

Joy expressed interest in early blues, jazz, and field hollers—musical characteristics of which show up in traditional Muscogee singing styles. She’s looking forward to compiling a recording featuring these connections. Those musical genres are strongly represented within Folklife Center collections, so we trust she’ll be able to mine recordings here on subsequent visits. While we talked about music-making, Joy described various experiences as a saxophonist and how and why she had to learn to improvise!

During her second visit, Joy also talked about making documentary recordings of her cousin, who has much ritual knowledge. In fact, she called him while we were together, and over the phone I could hear him begin to explain the significance of the cardinal directions (north, east, south, and west). Given the clear wealth of his traditional knowledge, I mentioned the possibilities of archiving her recordings for the community. Such a process, however, whether inside the community or in an external archive, usually requires some acknowledgement of permissions and any specifications of restrictions, so I made mention of various models that the Folklife Center uses for obtaining permissions, and that seemed to be helpful. I was also able to use some National Archives resources for her cousin’s research into their community history.

After the visit, Joy headed back home to her community’s dance ground to prepare for a ribbon dance. And we sent copies of the relevant Rhodes recordings—including those on the sampler album—for use in the community.