Peter Winne is an independent radio producer based in Connecticut. Earlier this year he released an audio documentary on PRX that explores the fascinating history of a well-known American gospel song called, “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” Peter’s research for the program drew him into the orbit of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where he found archival resources that he used in his production. The interview below took place over email. Listen to his audio documentary here.
John Fenn: How did you happen upon the story behind the song? What pulled you in?
Peter Winne: I knew early on in my graduate research that I wanted to do a song study. I had encountered a lot of genre-wide studies of American vernacular music but not many that focused on specific songs, accounting for how they may or may not conform to genre distinctions. A notable exception–and a big influence on my research–is Stephen Wade’s The Beautiful Music All Around Us, which chronicles the stories of thirteen songs archived in the Library of Congress. (Watch a video of Stephen Wade giving a lecture related to his book at the end of this post)
I began my study by doing preliminary research on a dozen or so traditional songs. With a history that touches on African-American spirituals, British folk music, and Yiddish Passover songs, “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” quickly emerged as the front runner. The American Folklife Center keeps a subject folder on “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” and its contents–a few journal articles and carbon copies of old letters–formed the basic road map from which I would conduct my in-depth research.
JF: What was your experience using the collections at the American Folklife Center? Did you find anything surprising?
PW: As a newcomer I found the vastness of the American Folklife Center collections intimidating–and I was thankful for the great assistance I received from the staff, especially Todd Harvey. He went above and beyond to help me find recordings and suggest resources I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
Almost everything I found surprised me! If I had to pick , I think the most exciting moment was when I found the AFC’s copy of Percy Grainger’s 1908 wax cylinder recording of Archer Lane singing a close relative of “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” titled “The Lily-White Boys.” Grainger’s field recordings were some of the earliest folkloric recordings ever made, so I was thrilled to find a performance of the song I was studying among them. I ended up including a clip of it in the audio documentary (comes in at around 12:45).
JF: The type of research you articulate in the audio documentary—exploring the origins of a song—can often lead down unintended paths or even dead-ends. Given all the threads you follow in the piece, did you ever end up somewhere you didn’t expect in the course of your research?
PW: I ended up on a lot of dead ends, at least in the sense that they didn’t end up informing my audio documentary research. Many of these tangents, however, exposed me to beautiful music I wouldn’t have heard otherwise. For example, I sifted through several hours of recordings of church services on a hunch that I might find some interesting performances of “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” While very little of what I heard in these recordings contributed to my findings, but at least I got to hear some incredible congregational singing in the process.
JF: What’s next? Are you planning similar research-driven pieces? Did you encounter any collection items during your work that weren’t immediately relevant, but that might have inspired another project?
PW: I would love to produce a multi-episode series in which each episode, like this piece, traces the history of one song. The challenge of course is finding the time and funding to implement such an undertaking.
The recordings of the American School of the Air CBS radio program 1939-1941 blew my mind. I used a couple clips in my radio documentary (around 25:00 and 26:45), but there is so much more in there I would like to revisit. Both the fidelity of the recordings and the performances they document–by legends such as Leadbelly, The Golden Gate Quartet, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie to name a few–are exemplary. I hope someday soon the AFC can make them all available online for the public to hear.
I spent a lot of time and effort developing the LC/FOLK “Subject File,” and its spinoff, “Corporate Subject File.” I am gratified that it is still being put to good use. Thanks to Peter Winne and especially to Todd Harvey!