The following is a guest post by Jennifer Cutting. The “Five Questions” interview was performed by Danna Bell, from the Library of Congress’s Educational Outreach office. A shorter version of her answers is available at their blog, Teaching with the Library of Congress.
Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with.
I am a Folklife Specialist in the American Folklife Center (AFC), and I help researchers from all walks of life find their way through the collections of AFC’s Archive. Sometimes I’m helping students with their research papers, theses or dissertations; sometimes I’m helping filmmakers, radio and TV producers with their documentaries; and sometimes I’m helping musicians and novelists with their creative projects. Our collections offer something for everyone! Our archive is different from many at the Library of Congress in that our collections are multi-format, so on any given day I might be helping researchers listen to field recordings, look at photographs and manuscripts, browse through books, or watch films. Our collections are about folklife… which means, in the words of the Folklife Center’s founding legislation, “the traditional expressive culture shared within the various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, regional; expressive culture includes a wide range of creative and symbolic forms such as custom, belief, technical skill, language, literature, art, architecture, music, play, dance, drama, ritual, pageantry, handicraft; these expressions are mainly learned orally, by imitation, or in performance, and are generally maintained without benefit of formal instruction or institutional direction.”
These songs, stories, jokes, crafts, and dances, which have been handed down from generation to generation, are the unwritten history of the American people, and they help us understand what it is like to belong to a group, whether that group is a family, an ethnic group, a regional group, or a group of workers in the same occupation.
AFC also programs an amazing array of lectures, concerts, workshops, and other public events, and part of my job involves reaching out to many different communities to invite and involve them in these events.
My life outside of the American Folklife Center is very much a continuation of what I do at work. As a folk musician and performer, I help to continue musical traditions by keeping songs and tunes alive in my own repertoire, and sharing them with others. Often I will run across a wonderful song or tune during the course of helping researchers that I will later enjoy learning on my own time. The process of arranging and adapting traditional songs and tunes is a subject that I teach at various folk music schools and camps, and this also helps to spread the word about AFC’s amazing collections.
During my days at the American Folklife Center, I help preserve these traditions by archiving them… during my evenings and weekends, I preserve them by “performing the archive” for others, and keeping the songs and tunes alive in my head, my heart, and my hands. In other words, I eat, sleep, and breathe folk music!
Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections?
If I had to choose a favorite item from the Library’s online collections, I would have to select the song “Crab is a Better Man than Man,” performed by Theodore “Tea Roll” Rolle at Key West, Florida, on January 23, 1940. This recording, made by folklorist Stetson Kennedy, is part of the American Folklife Center’s online presentation Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937 to 1942.
Tea Roll was originally from Andros Island in the Bahamas, but was living in Key West at the time of this recording. Although Rolle made his main living as a sponge-fisher, he made extra money playing and singing at weddings, especially for the large community of other Bahamians who were living in Key West. Rolle was a singer who accompanied himself on the piano or the accordion. In this song, he is singing about how superior the crab is to the human being, and accompanying himself on the button accordion, which is the instrument I play. (Learning this song is definitely at the top of my to-do list!)
I love Tea Roll’s improvised lyrics, and Louis-Armstrong-like scat singing, as well as the laughter in his voice. Listen in the player below…I dare you to listen to this song without smiling from ear to ear!
The recordings in this collection were made at 78 rpm on very fragile acetate disks which had to be shipped to the Federal Writers’ Project office in Jacksonville, then transported to recording sites throughout the state to be filled with songs and stories before being shipped to the Library of Congress. It’s a miracle that more of them didn’t break, and that they survived to delight us the way “Crab is a Better Man than Man” does.
The best part of this story is that, not long after I fell in love with this song, I was able to meet Tea Roll’s family when they came up from Florida to visit us in July, 2014 here at the Library of Congress, and to listen to more of Tea Roll’s recordings. (Read more about their visit at our Facebook page!)
Share a time when an item from the collections sparked your curiosity.
The AFC collection with which I have developed the most expertise, and for which I am curator, is the James Madison Carpenter Collection. Carpenter (1888-1984) was a Harvard-trained scholar from Booneville, Mississippi who undertook folksong and folk play collecting in Britain from 1928 to 1935 using a portable Dictaphone cylinder recording machine (cutting-edge technology, at the time!) His collection of over 2,000 songs and ballads and 300 mummers plays is one of the largest and most important collections made in Britain in the 20th century. Carpenter was never able to publish his collection, but all these years later, AFC is working with the English Folk Dance and Song Society in London to place the collection online for the whole world to use and enjoy.
It was in the course of my work with this collection that I saw an old photograph of Gloucestershire fiddler Sam Bennett dressed in white, with bells on his ankles, and it took my breath away. For years, I’d been celebrating May 1st, or “May Day,” by getting up before sunrise to do Morris dancing, an English custom brought to America by folk dance teachers in the years before World War I. So, when I came to work one May Day dressed in in my white Morris dancing attire with bells on my ankles, and looked at this photograph of another musician celebrating May Day in England some seventy years ago, and he was dressed very much as I was dressed in that moment, it was an amazing feeling. It made me see myself as a link in a chain that stretches a long way back into the past, and that will continue a long way into the future.
It was this old photograph that led me to do a further investigation of May traditions in both the Carpenter collection and the Anthony Grant Barrand Collection of Morris, Sword, and Clog Dancing, two AFC collections that document the beauty and the spirit of British and American May celebrations: one collection historical and the other contemporary. That research led to my making a webcast for the Library of Congress called “Bringing in the May,” which presents photographs and recordings from both collections.
In 2009, I used traditional Mummers Play texts from manuscripts in the Carpenter Collection to start a new tradition at AFC… that of performing a Christmas Mummers Play with staff members as the actors. Though we have now moved toward more topical adaptations of the plays, this way of “performing the archive” by dressing in costume and presenting a comical hero-combat play is now a much-anticipated part of the holiday season at the Library of Congress, with performances in the Great Hall, and in various offices by invitation. You can read more about the American Folklife Center Mummers, and see the texts of some our plays here.
Tell us about a memorable interaction with a K-12 teacher or student.
In August of 2014, my colleague Stephen Winick and I were teaching folksong courses at Augusta Heritage Center, the renowned folk school located at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia. There we met 11-year-old Nora Rodes, who was starting 7th grade, and who was the youngest student by far, as all the other students were adults. Nora showed such an amazing aptitude for learning and singing traditional songs from British, American, and French source singers that we were very impressed, and invited her to come to our Folklife Reading Room whenever she could manage to visit Washington, D.C.
Nora has since visited the Folklife Reading Room twice to listen to our field recordings of folksongs in English and French, and of banjo players, too. She enthused in a thank-you email: “I could have stayed in the Folklife Center forever (or at least until I starved) listening to all the great recordings, and reading the many books… I hope I can come back more often!”
Here’s a video of Nora singing the traditional ballad “Barbara Allen,” recorded only a few days after Nora visited our Folklife Reading Room for the first time. 
Nora enjoyed her visit so much that she decided to write about the American Folklife Center for her class, “The Art of the Essay,” where her assignment was to write an essay on a meaningful place she had experienced, which would include an evocative description and an interpretation of the meaning. Nora began her essay with a lovely description of the Thomas Jefferson building’s marble, stained glass, mosaics, and murals, and continued:
But tucked in the basement beneath this overwhelmingly beautiful display of treasured national artifacts, is the American Folklife Center. Easily and often overlooked, its unassuming shelves are crammed with their own treasure – including one of the world’s largest collections of books, manuscripts, photographs, films and field recordings of every kind of folk music and folklore. So in the foundation of this monument to America’s place in the classical traditions of art, philosophy, science and government lies the equally important, but much less known, preservation of the American oral folk tradition which holds the personal stories and hearts of the people of our country.
The American Folklife Center is just as important to American history and identity as the rest of the Jefferson Building… Unlike the purposefully extravagant Great Hall, the Folklife Center is unassuming and often overlooked – just like the people whose voices it holds. These people are not the famous artists, scientists, philosophers, or writers, nor are they the wealthy. They are mostly uneducated, poor, and often rural. So the stories of where they came from and the lives they were living were preserved through their oral traditions. But these voices housed in the basement of the Jefferson Building are just as foundational to our history as the other narratives preserved above them. These songs and stories represent a majority of the people who were creating America; and the recordings and books protecting them contain our American identity.
What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with or the collections in general?
Just as young Nora Rodes pointed out in her essay, the collections in the American Folklife Center’s archive tell the unwritten history of America (and many other countries, too) through the voices of everyday people. In our collections are Bre’r Rabbit stories, photos of beautiful quilts made with scraps, centuries-old ballads, the voices of free people who were born into slavery, and the traditions of all kinds of workers from lumberjacks to bakers and beauticians. And all of these contributions are accorded the same dignity; every person’s voice is a part of history. That’s what is so special about the American Folklife Center’s collections… and what I hope teachers and students will use and cherish.
- For more information about this classic ballad, here are the 1966 liner notes from the American Folklife Center’s historic LP Versions and Variants of Barbara Allen (AFS L54), compiled and edited by Charles Seeger.
FASCINATING STUFF. YOU HAVE MY IDEA OF A DREAM JOB, THOUGH I’M NOT SURE I COULD DO IT ANYWHERE NEAR AS WELL,ESPECIALLY AS I ACTUALLY KNOW YOU AND HAVE SEEN SOME OF YOUR WORK FIRST HAND. THANK YOU FOR NOT ONLY KEEPING THE PAST ALIVE, BUT FINDING WAYS TO KEEP IT ALIVE AND GROWING IN THE PRESENT AND FUTURE AS WELL.
It’s great to hear the stories of AFC staff. Their personal interests and activities as scholars and performers, as well as their expertise with the AFC collections, are what make the AFC the amazing institution that it is. I hope this will be a regular feature of the blog.
Beautiful, Jennifer. Beautiful!
I called this a goldmine, earlier. Re-reading — I repeated myself — I need a better word — any suggestion? – John McLaughlin