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Inspiration for an Archivist: John Cohen, Tommy Jarrell, and the Blue Ridge.

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Half length portrait of John Cohen playing mandolin
John Cohen plays traditional American music learned directly from the collections at the American Folklife Center during the “Treasures from the Archives Roadshow,” which he played with the Down Hill Strugglers,  as part of the Homegrown Concert Series, September 25, 2015. Photo by Shawn Miller.

This guest post by AFC archivist Maya Lerman is part of a series of posts called Staff Finds During Difficult Times, in which staff members discuss collections and items that have been inspiring them while they are working at home during the covid-19 pandemic or in other difficult circumstances. Find the whole series here!

As an archivist at the American Folklife Center, my job is to create access points for researchers to discover our collections. This typically involves arranging and describing collections to create finding aids and enrich catalog records. Working from home has shifted that work due to the limitations on collection materials I can currently access, but I’m still doing the work of improving access for researchers, and I’d like to share about two ways in which I’m doing so. One is through working on a deeper understanding of a collection I’m processing, and therefore enriching the finding aid and other writings for researchers. A second way is delving deeper into individual recordings from an online collection to allow researchers greater access to subjects, keywords, and names.

Prior to the pandemic, I had nearly completed processing of the John Cohen collection, and was preparing the finding aid to go online. John Cohen was a folk musician, artist, folklorist, and writer, and his collection is rich with his manuscripts, art and design work, photographs, recordings, and film. Over the last few weeks I’ve been able to research and write more about different facets of his life and career, which will enhance the finding aid and catalog record, and which I’m also compiling into a more thorough blog post, which will coincide with the finding aid’s online publication. I have been taking advantage of online resources, including obituaries from Cohen’s September 2019 passing, as well as other essays and articles, when I need background on certain aspects of his life and niche passions, such as the Q’ero people of the Peruvian Andes, and the abstract expressionist movement in New York in the late 1950s. Cohen recorded many albums with the New Lost City Ramblers on Folkways Records (now Smithsonian Folkways), and also produced and compiled albums on the label, including albums of the banjoist Roscoe Holcomb, of North Carolina ballad singers, and of Peruvian Huayno music. His recordings and vivid liner notes have given me incredible insights into these topics and his connections with them, which I’m attempting to imbue into my writing about the collection and to provide a broader understanding of his life.

John Cohen’s collection itself isn’t online, but we do have a concert he gave with the Down Hill Strugglers and an oral history interview with him and the band conducted by Todd Harvey, both of which are at this link. We also have online some of his most valuable insights about documenting folk culture, in a talk he gave about his life as a documentarian.  You can find a video of that lecture in the player below.

Another way I’m working on improving access to AFC collections is through writing summaries of recordings from the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project, which was a survey conducted by the American Folklife Center in collaboration with the National Park Service. The 1978 field survey project documented many aspects of folklife, including old-time music, religious music, farming, tales, foodways, and dance. The entire collection went online in September 2019 at this link, and the photographs, manuscripts, field notes, and recordings are accessible from anywhere with an Internet connection. Working from home has afforded me the chance to delve into this collection and learn more about it. By creating summaries of the recordings, I will be enhancing metadata and deepening access to the materials so that people will know more information about what is on each recording. Since I play old time and bluegrass music and am familiar with the repertoire, I will also contribute tune and song titles to the descriptions when possible.  This will enable researchers and the interested public to find recordings by searching on tune titles, which I hope will make the collections more useful to researchers and more fun for the interested public.

half-length portrait of Tommy Jarrell
Tommy Jarrell at home, Toast, North Carolina, 1978. Photo by Margaret Counts Owen. Find the archival scan here.

A couple of examples from the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project stood out to me as particularly interesting. In the recording below by the Whit Sizemore band, recorded at the Fairview dance by Margaret Owen Counts in Galax, Virginia on August 19, 1978, there’s a great rendition of the driving fiddle tune “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss.” I especially like it because, if you listen closely, you can hear the square dance calls in the background. It’s at 08:03 of the recording in the player below:

I’m also inspired by the collection’s recordings of Tommy Jarrell.  Tommy Jarrell is revered by the old time community for his fiddling, banjo playing, singing, and generosity in teaching and sharing his style and tune repertoire. In 1982 he received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and you can read a lot more about him at this link on the NEA site.

Two men play fiddle and banjo surrounded by onlookers.
Blanton Owen (banjo) and Tommy Jarrell (fiddle) play at a dance at Dix Freeman’s house, Oak Grove, Surry County, North Carolina, 1978. Photo by Lyntha Scott Eiler. Find the archival scan here.

I’m not sure how widely known it is that we have Tommy Jarrell material in the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife collection, so it’s inspiring to be able to share his knowledge and his insights more widely with old time music researchers and fans. At about two minutes into the interview in the player below, Jarrell describes the old time music and dances he grew up with. He notes the origins of old time music as fiddle and banjo music for dances, as well as the cotillion dance, a French social dance which was one of the forerunners of the square dance.

I look forward to continuing my work with both these collections. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be writing another blog post once the John Cohen Collection finding aid is published. Also, you’ll be able to hear me in the next episode of the Folklife Today Podcast, which will also be announced here on the blog…so stay tuned!

Comments (3)

  1. Lovely article, Maya. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to seeing the finding aid for John Cohen’s collection.

  2. Thank you for posting this on FB. I can never get enough NLCR, John Cohen and Tommy Jarrell !!

  3. nice article

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