Many listeners who downloaded the NPR podcast Hidden Brain, or who heard it when it aired on their local affiliates this past weekend, got a glimpse of what it’s like to research folklife collections here at the Library of Congress. In the show, host Shankar Vedantam describes a trip to the stacks to retrieve the collection numbered AFC 1979/008, whose title is Encyclopedia: Traditional Music and Folk Songs of the United States 1979, Compiled by Richard Riley Shepard. The collection consists of three bound manuscripts: a sampling of individual song entries and two volumes of the encyclopedia itself (both from the 10-volume index) plus some loose sheets of correspondence. The full encyclopedia, which was never published, ran to 50 additional volumes, if our correspondence with Shepard is to be believed.
The amazing thing about the encyclopedia is that it’s an attempt at serious folksong scholarship by a person who was, as far as anyone can tell, untrained as a scholar. As far as his family knows, Riley Shepard had a fifth-grade education, although he sometimes successfully passed himself off as a PhD. Yet he spent over twenty years collecting books, extracting folksong texts and tunes, retyping them, categorizing them, writing headnotes for them, and cross-referencing all the places they had been published. His ultimate hope was to have the encyclopedia published, and when he applied for copyright in 1976 he asked the copyright office if anyone at the Library of Congress might help. Copyright referred him to Joe Hickerson, head of the Archive of Folk Culture, then still in the Music Division, now part of the American Folklife Center.
In 1976, when Shepard’s correspondence with the Library began, he said that the encyclopedia included 4,000 headings for song types, and within those headings 43,000 references to individual song texts. Looking at the sample he supplied to Hickerson, we see that each entry includes a detailed headnote about the song, a representative text and tune, a list of all the books where published texts and tunes could be found, and cross-references to related songs. The entries that I’ve looked at seem legitimate and quite complete. I’m sure serious scrutiny would reveal omissions from the work…but frankly, that’s inevitable in a work of this kind, and it’s true of published books as well.
Whether the encyclopedia was rigorous enough to be published is hard to know without having the whole thing to look at. From a scholarly perspective, one problem is that it isn’t clear where the representative text and tune come from: are they composites put together by Shepard or individual texts from tradition, each with a traditional source? This lack of clarity could also be a legal impediment to publishing it, since without knowing their sources we also don’t know whether the texts and tunes would violate the copyrights of previous publishers.
None of that mattered, because there simply was never a market to support a 50-volume book of folksong texts, tunes, and references. The costs of paper and printing, and of shipping and storing such a massive book, make its publication more or less unthinkable. As the correspondence reveals, Shepard discovered this himself, when the publishers recommended by Joe Hickerson here at the Library of Congress turned him down.
The full encyclopedia’s true size is hard to be sure of. His daughter Stacya Shepard Silverman has a copy of it from ten years earlier which was only 11 volumes plus the index; on the other hand, the full encyclopedia Riley left behind when he died was stored in 40 boxes, which may or may not have included reference materials other than the encyclopedia itself. That copy was since dispersed, so we don’t know how many volumes it was. All we have is Riley Shepard’s word, and while he didn’t always tell the truth, it would make no sense to exaggerate the size of a book that was probably too big to publish.
Stacya was able to fill me in on another important detail: Riley did not read music. The tunes in the book were transcribed by a friend, Joe Tanzman, who doesn’t seem to be credited anywhere in the volumes we have.
As I say in the podcast, I think Riley Shepard’s work was at the time the most ambitious project ever undertaken of indexing published American folksongs. The fact of his attempt is significant in American folksong scholarship, and as far as I can tell, it’s unknown to historians of the field. He did contact a few scholars, including D. K. Wilgus, but it was after Wilgus wrote his history of folksong scholarship since 1898. Even Joe Hickerson, when I contacted him, didn’t recall Shepard or the collection!
That said, Shepard’s encyclopedia is the kind of project much more suited to a database than a printed book, which is something he himself was beginning to understand at the time of his last letter in 1979. As I observe in the podcast itself:
I think he was an early casualty, you might say, of the switch from published books – that is, paper books – to computer documentation, and he’s aware of this, I mean, because he talks about how it would be great if he could put this into a computer.
In fact, Shepard’s indexing work has certainly now been superseded, not by a book, but by a computer database: the Roud Folksong Index, which does Shepard one better by indexing both British and American songs. The challenges of creating this massive index were described by Steve Roud in this 2011 lecture here at the Library of Congress, which you can watch at this link. The index itself is available online; use the search box at this link, from the Ralph Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in London.
One effect of the Hidden Brain podcast was to alert Shepard’s family that there really was a collection at the Library of Congress, something they believed but did not know for sure. Stacya Silverman recalls a visit to Washington when she passed up an opportunity to see for herself:
Around 4 years ago, I came with my husband, David, to our niece Rachel’s wedding in D.C. and decided to make it to the Library of Congress to see my father’s work there. But when we walked up to the doors, and David strode ahead of me, I was gripped with anxiety. I had a fear I’d walk in and ask about it, and the good people of the LOC would begin a futile search, they’d look at me apologetically, a little bit sorry for me perhaps, and I’d leave feeling humiliated, sad, deceived and foolish, once again annoyed with my father who’d since passed away.
Of course, I wish I’d gone in now. I have mild anxiety but that time it got the best of me. I have friends who, just this morning, have let me know they are in for this trip. So I’ll do it this time.
So how typical was the Hidden Brain team’s visit to AFC, and what can Stacya expect when she visits? Some adaptations of the usual routine were necessary to allow the Hidden Brain team to share our meeting with listeners: most visitors don’t venture into the stacks with us, and we don’t read the collections aloud in typical reference interviews! But the meeting between me and Shankar Vedantam, in which we look at the collection and evaluate its contents together, could have happened between any of our curators and any of our researchers.
In the podcast, Vedantam’s description of me is fanciful but accurate:
My guide is a tall, shaggy man named Steve Winick. He looks a lot like Hagrid from “Harry Potter,” which seems about right for somebody with the title of folklorist.
Some of my folklorist friends felt some chagrin at this moment, fearing the description reinforces stereotypes of folklore as quaint and fantastical. I have no complaints, however; the Hidden Brain team are not the first people to observe that I look like Hagrid. I am, on the other hand, grateful that they identified me as a folklorist, and represented some of the real things I do in that capacity: handle archival collections, evaluate their contents, help researchers understand them, and think and speak about traditional songs and music.
The Hidden Brain episode is not primarily about me, about folklorists, about music, or even about this AFC collection. It’s about Riley Shepard, the compiler of the work. In addition to creating the encyclopedia, Riley Shepard was, among other things, a singer-songwriter, a lecturer, a recording artist, a prolific writer of pornography, and, as it turns out, a con man. Through interviews with his daughter Stacya and others who knew him, the producers of Hidden Brain paint a fascinating picture of an exasperating but lovable rogue who lied, cheated, and maybe even stole a little, but who did it all in the hopes of publishing his magnum opus…a 50 volume encyclopedia of folksongs. Though we might disapprove of his methods, all folksong scholars and archivists can sympathize with his urgent need to collect and categorize traditional songs. We certainly feel empathy for him, despite some of the things he did.
As I observe in the podcast itself:
I think that all scholars, and particularly folksong scholars, have something of the Riley Shepard in them.