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Finding aid to Vida Chenoweth’s fieldwork now online

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This is a guest post by Maya Lerman, processing archivist at the American Folklife Center.

Vida Chenoweth recording songs of Baka Pygmies, Cameroon, Africa. 1983. Vida Chenoweth collection (AFC 1994/003).
Vida Chenoweth recording songs of Baka Pygmies, Cameroon, Africa. 1983. Vida Chenoweth collection (AFC 1994/003).

We’re pleased to announce the launch of the finding aid for the Vida Chenoweth collection, circa 1940-2000.

(Find it at the link above.  The permanent handle for this resource is [])

During my first year as an archivist at the American Folklife Center, I had the privilege of working on the collection of this renowned musician, ethnomusicologist, and linguist. Chenoweth and her ethnomusicology students documented the music and practices of cultures across Papua New Guinea, Africa, South and Central America, and the Southwest United States, from the 1960s through the early 2000s. Chenoweth had already established a career as an influential concert marimbist and had performed around the world before becoming an ethnomusicologist.

Certificate for completing Usarufa Literacy Program at Kaagú, Eastern Highlands District, Territory of New Guinea. Circa 1968. Vida Chenoweth collection (AFC 1994/003).

In the early 1960s, Chenoweth and her colleague Darlene Bee served as linguists and bible translators in the Territory of New Guinea, translating the New Testament into the Usarufa language. After Darlene Bee’s sudden death, Chenoweth’s diligent work studying the music of the Usarufa people led her to devise a new method of music analysis based on their oral musical traditions. In her career she published numerous books and articles on the analysis of oral music traditions, developed the ethnomusicology program at Wheaton College’s Conservatory, and served as professor there from 1979-1993, continuing to conduct fieldwork every year. Chenoweth was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1985, along with Oklahomans such as Will Rogers, Woody Guthrie, and Mickey Mantle. She was also inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 1994. Wheaton College holds a collection of early recordings documenting her career as a concert marimbist, manuscripts, and published materials of her work as an ethnomusicologist. See more information in the Wheaton finding aid.

two women sitting and eating together
Vida Chenoweth (left) and colleague Darlene Bee (right) sitting with bowl of local Papua New Guinea foods – cabbage, passion fruit, and sweet potato. Circa 1968. Vida Chenoweth collection (AFC 1994/003).

The multiformat collection includes recording logs, analysis, song transcriptions, song texts, theses, correspondence, Chenoweth’s diaries (1980s), and field notes. Sound recordings include music and spoken word from various provinces in Papua New Guinea, such as Eastern and Western Highlands, Madang, Morobe, East New Britain, New Ireland, and Irian Jaya provinces. Moving images include Chenoweth family films, as well as documentation about music and practices from throughout Papua New Guinea, the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, and other regions. They also include content from the South Pacific Festival of the Arts in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

Beyond Usarufa and numerous other people in Papua New Guinea, the collection also includes documentation of culture groups from other places: Vanuatu, Indonesia, Solomon Islands, Cook Islands (New Zealand), Kenya, Zaire [now Democratic Republic of the Congo], Ethiopia, Madagascar, Ivory Coast, Ghana, South Africa, Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Mali, Cameroon, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, and the United States.

While incredibly rich in content, the Chenoweth collection presented an array of archival challenges. AFC acquired the bulk of the collection in 1994, and received additions annually through 2005. As a result, previous AFC staff had partially processed various parts of the collection and they were housed in two places — manuscript and still image materials in AFC storage decks in the Jefferson building and audiovisual materials in the Library of Congress’s National Audiovisual Conservation Center (NAVCC) in Culpeper, VA. Determining original order so that I could create the guide required examining the collection materials and documentation from previous processors.

woman (standing) helping a man (sitting) write on paper
Vida Chenoweth and Nogó examine Usarufa literacy materials. Circa 1968. Vida Chenoweth collection (AFC 1994/003).

Soon I discovered that there was yet another layer of imposed order. In preparation her collection, Chenoweth devised her own numbering system (“LOC numbers,” which you can see throughout the finding aid) and noted geography (continent, country, and province) and culture group. In the collection documentation there are various concordances broken down by continent, country, province, and culture group that will be of use to researchers. In addition, Chenoweth devised another scheme to number her audiovisual materials by format, year, and order within the collection. Learning about these systems helped me to continue this arrangement when organizing the unprocessed collection materials and compiling the finding aid. With the help and guidance of processing archivist, Marcia Segal, I identified, inventoried, and housed graphic image, sound recording, and moving image formats. Through the collection I learned details about slide and negative still image formats, as well as how to best describe these materials in the context of a finding aid, including physical descriptions as well as level of description.

Vida Chenoweth’s collection taught me a great deal about the work of this dedicated and prolific linguist and ethnomusicologist. It also inspired me to explore ways to provide access to the rich and complex collection. While already widely known in ethnomusicology circles, Chenoweth’s collection will be of interest to anyone curious about oral traditions, music, and dance in Papua New Guinea and other southwestern Pacific islands, as well as the other areas of the world that she and her students documented. We hope that the finding aid will serve as a jumping off point for further research and interest.


  1. Thank you, Maya, for you excellent survey of Vida’s collections. I was pleased to have a role in arranging her annual visits to prepare yet another part of her vast collections for donation to the Folk Archive. But I was not aware of her role as a pioneer of classical marimba performance until I had two interns who were percussion majors in college and virtually fell at her feet when I introduced Vida to them!

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