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AFC’s James Madison Carpenter Collection Is Online

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James Madison Carpenter traveled 40,000 miles to make his collection, many of them in this little car!

On behalf of the American Folklife Center, I am pleased to announce that our James Madison Carpenter collection is now online. The collection, which consists of manuscripts, audio, photographs, and drawings documenting British folk music, song, and drama in the first half of the 20th century, is available worldwide through the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’s digital archive, managed by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) in the UK. The collection was digitized by AFC and placed online through a partnership of the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen and EFDSS, with a grant provided by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Bell Duncan of Lambhill, Aberdeenshire, sang 300 songs and ballads for Carpenter.

The collection itself was the work of James Madison Carpenter, a Harvard-trained scholar who gathered more than 3,000 traditional songs and 300 folk plays, as well as fiddle tunes, folk customs, children’s games, and traditional tales. He collected most of them in Britain between 1928 and 1935, with a smaller number coming from the USA, between 1927 and 1943. Carpenter traveled over forty thousand miles to make his collection, including to Cornwall, Wales, the Cotswolds, Lincolnshire, the Northeast of England, and the Northeast of Scotland. He spent time in local communities recording traditional ballads, ‘bothy songs,’ seasonal carols, sea shanties, and more. Unlike earlier collectors, he made sound recordings of some of his contributors on wax cylinders, including some performers whose songs and tunes had previously been notated only by hand. This makes his collection an important early source of field recordings from British tradition.

Carpenter took his British materials back home to America, where they remained in his home for over 30 years. In 1972, Alan Jabbour, then head of the Archive of Folk Song in the Library of Congress’s Music Division, arranged for the Library to purchase the collection and move it from Mississippi to Washington, D.C. When the American Folklife Center was founded in 1976, Jabbour was named its founding director. Soon after that, the Carpenter collection, along with the rest of the Folk Archive, became part of AFC. Since then, AFC’s dedicated staff has stabilized, processed, preserved, and digitized this landmark collection.

At AFC, we have always made efforts to repatriate copies of collections important to the cultural heritage of their communities of origin. We have shared collections with organizations in U.S. states such as Louisiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Kentucky; with indigenous and native groups such as the Omaha and the Passamaquoddy; and with archives in other nations such as Haiti. Returning copies of a largely British collection to a group of organizations in Britain fulfills this imperative to make collections available to their communities, satisfying an important goal of the AFC.

This photo of a person playing the fool is part of Carpenter’s documentation of folk drama and mumming.


AFC’s director, Betsy Peterson, noted:

This has been a long transatlantic journey that required the passion, expertise and stubborn commitment of partners from England, Scotland and the United States. Now, as the Carpenter collection finds its way back home and comes full circle, it will also reach new audiences and new generations here and throughout the world. They will pick up the songs and tunes and breathe their own lives and truths into them. The best preservation of tradition always happens through continued performing and sharing.

A team of scholars based at the Elphinstone Institute has been working for years on a critical edition of the collection, and the first few volumes are nearing completion. As part of that effort, they cataloged the collection, a step that was also funded by the AHRC. (They even visited AFC to talk about their work in 2008; see the video here.) The Carpenter research team’s catalog data were converted and enhanced in partnership with the staff from EFDSS’s Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. As a result of these collaborations, the Library of Congress’s digitized images and audio files are now available online at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, with robust catalog data enabling fast and easy searches of the collection.

These four unidentified performers were among Carpenter’s informants in Oxfordshire.

Laura Smyth, Director of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, explained the institution’s enthusiasm for the collection:

We’re incredibly excited to have this collection join our online digital archive. Carpenter was collecting in the early 1930s – a time when very few collectors were out in the field – and so it bridges the gaps in folk research showing how the songs have developed, changed, and been passed on through the decades. This addition to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’s digital archive also significantly develops its geographical scope, reminding us that folk songs have always freely crossed between nations.

Julia Bishop, a research fellow at the Elphinstone Institute and head of the Carpenter collection research team, spoke on behalf of the team:

We are delighted that the Carpenter collection is now freely accessible online. This means that the riches it contains can be discovered again by new audiences, such as performers, researchers and the families and communities and places where so much of it originated. In particular, the distant voices that we can hear on Carpenter’s 179 cylinder recordings testify to their artistry and skill as performers.

The collection also includes 40 ink and pencil drawings by George Baker, a British dry mason whose father was a mummer. Drawings depict characters and scenes from mummer and Christmas plays.

Tom McKean, director of the Elphinstone Institute, graciously acknowledged the Institute’s colleagues in this important joint effort:

It is thanks to the preservation and digitization of the materials by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, funding from the AHRC, and the work of the EFDSS in establishing their digital archive – that we have been able to make the Carpenter Collection freely accessible to all.

The Elphinstone Institute and EFDSS are creating resources for schools using materials from the collection. A series of events and activities is also planned to bring the Carpenter Collection to new audiences across the UK.  In fact, the first events have already occurred, and one of them involved me and AFC’s Jennifer Cutting. We’ll discuss that in future blog posts.

In the meantime, you can read more about the Carpenter Collection, and listen to a two-hour interview with Carpenter, at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’s Carpenter Folk Online site.

You can also browse the complete Carpenter Collection online for free.

You can explore all 222,457 Carpenter Collection results in the VWML digital archives at this advanced search link.

Or you can search the collection here: go to “Advanced Search,” open the “Archive Catalogues” hierarchy with the carat (<) to the right of “Archive Catalogues,” uncheck all the catalogues and re-check only “James Madison Carpenter Collection.” Then perform your search!

The James Madison Carpenter Collection has long been one of our most important collections of traditional British folk culture, and all of us at AFC are excited to have it online and available for use.  Please enjoy it!


Comments (3)

  1. What a terrific achievement! Congratulations!

    Because this is an AFC/Library of Congress collection, it seems only right that there be a link to it from the Library’s online collections gateway, However, there seems to be nothing like that now. Can that be changed, please?

    Also don’t overlook Jennifer Cutting’s wonderful webcast about May Day traditions, which draws heavily on the Carpenter Collection: , with the webcast itself at It’s the perfect thing to watch on May 1!

    Thanks again for making these great materials available online.

    • Thanks, Jurretta!

      Jennifer will be blogging more about the Carpenter Collection soon. Watch this space!

  2. Thank you for this great information.

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