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Folklorist Harry Oster’s collection of 1950s-60s folk music ranges from English folksongs in Iowa to Delta country blues

University of Iowa English professor Harry Oster with folk musicians, 1960s

Folklorist Harry Oster (1923-2001), an English professor at the University of Iowa, with folk musicians, 1960s. Credit: F.W. Kent Collection, Iowa Digital Library/Dept. of Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries.

During a recent trip to the University of Iowa at the invitation of the Digital Studio for Public Arts and Humanities, I took the opportunity to show off some of our recently digitized recordings made by folklorist Harry Oster (1923-2001), who was on the English faculty at Iowa for 30 years.

The American Folklife Center Archive holds about 11 hours of songs and stories recorded by Oster in Iowa, Louisiana, and Mississippi from March 11, 1957 through November 12, 1966. The collection (AFC1967/003) includes spirituals, hymns, and bible tales; blues, boogie woogie, work songs, field hollers, bawdy songs, folk tales, cante fable, rhymes, street cries, ballads, folksongs, parodies, nonsense songs, lullabies, jokes and recitations from African American, Anglo American, German American, and French-speaking Creole performers. In addition to unaccompanied vocals, the collection features guitar, harmonica, piano, accordion, washboard, hammered dulcimer, and glockenspiel. The balance of his collection is held by the Arhoolie Foundation in El Cerrito, California. For a time, Oster ran his own record label, Folk-Lyric, which he sold to Arhoolie Records in the 1960s.

In the late 1950s, while teaching at Louisiana State University, Oster went with jazz historian Richard B. Allen to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola prison, and recorded several blues singers, most notably Robert Pete Williams. Oster’s book Living Country Blues, published in 1969, became a landmark in its field. Also in the 1960s, Oster took a position teaching English at Iowa. His work in Iowa City not only included occasional collecting, but also co-founding the Old Time Fiddlers Picnic with Art Rosenbaum as well as co-authoring the Penguin Dictionary of American Folklore.

Here are just three examples from Oster’s collection to provide a sense of the range:

Herman E. Johnson, “She Had Been Drinkin’ Blues” (recorded April 14, 1960)—Herman E. Johnson, born in 1902, from Scotlandville, Louisiana. This is from one of ten tapes contained blues, Cajun and Creole music, religious songs and stories, spirituals, and work songs recorded in Baton Rouge, Napoleonville, and Scotlandville, Louisiana. Included in this group are recordings made at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. It was there he “discovered” Robert “Pete” Williams, a Country bluesman and musician who went on to some acclaim.

Laura Browne, rhymes and songs (recorded May 28, 1965)—This clip is from Oster’s 1960s collecting effort that includes recording at Amana Oktoberfest, a dulcimer player, Truman Fass, in North English, Iowa, among others. Laura Browne was originally from Van Wert, in south-central Iowa. This is an excerpt from recordings made May 28, 1965. She sang 49 songs, 7 rhymes and recited two stories for Oster that she learned from her mother. Brown was included on the 24-track Folk Voices of Iowa , which featured cuts from Iowans of Czech, Norwegian, German, Amanite, Mennonite, Amish, Dutch, Mesquakie, and Scots-Irish descent.

Son House, classroom interview (recorded April 24, 1965)—This recording is from an interview Oster conducted with the famous Delta blues musician Son House made in a University of Iowa classroom. On the full recording, House tells stories about life as a musician, Bayou folktales, alligators and snakes, selling moss and other stories from his life. Harry knew a lot of famous country bluesman and would line up performing gigs for them in Iowa City. One of House’s stories recorded in Iowa City was included in Oster’s articles about African-American folktales.

One Comment

  1. Mike Ashenfelder
    April 3, 2014 at 9:42 am


    Thank you so much for embedding the recordings into your blog post and for sharing some of Folklife’s musical treasures online.

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