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Spending a Lot of Time at Home? Take the Archive Challenge!

Take the Archive Challenge–From Home!

Billy Bragg took the Archive Challenge in 2017!

The following post was co-authored with Jennifer Cutting

At the American Folklife Center, we know it’s been hard for those of you who are cooped up at home in order to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Most of the staff live in areas under stay-at-home orders, and have been working from home for weeks. And although some cities and states are starting to open up a little, we have a feeling it will be a while before we’re going out to concerts, theaters, jams, or open mics to perform or enjoy live music and performing arts.

But guess what? At the Library of Congress, we have an amazing online archive of folk music and folklife which you can explore right from home, and we’d like to offer a suggestion: why not learn a song, tune, poem, or story from the archive, make a recording or video of yourself performing it, and post it online? Or make a work of art based on one of our photos, or write a story or poem based on our materials. We’d love to see what you come up with! Folks from all genres and creators of all art forms are invited to interpret a field recording, video, photo, or manuscript from the AFC Archive. You don’t need to be a professional in order to participate!

Our idea is pretty simple: browse or search online materials in our archive—we’ll provide some links below. Find a piece you’d like to learn, adapt, or be inspired by, and work out your own version or your own artwork. Shoot a homemade video, take a picture of your artwork, or write down your words, and post it all online.

We’d also love for you to share it with us and with your networks. Any way you want to do this is fine, but it would be easier for us to help if your video has a persistent URL address we can link to—YouTube would work, but so would a page of your band’s website or a personal blog post. (Those are better than simply placing the video directly to Facebook or Twitter, where content tends to have a shorter lifetime.) Once you’ve placed your challenge online, please do share it out to your social media with the tag

#FolklifeArchiveChallenge

Also, send an email to Steve Winick on our social media team at [email protected] letting us know where your video, image, or audio can be found.

Here at AFC, we plan to share out some of your creations on our own social media. However, since we will not have control over how and where you choose to post, we might not be able to share them all. The Library of Congress has policies about respecting copyright, not endorsing products, and avoiding overly promotional shares or shares with advertisements that are too numerous or too prominent. We’ll have to consider these policies when deciding whether to share. Also, if this goes really viral we may simply not have the bandwidth to share all of your creations. But that doesn’t mean we’re not eager to see what you come up with—so do keep in touch!

How to Find Material in the American Folklife Center’s Online Archive

Searching through a digital archive to find great material can be like panning for gold… but with some patient sifting, you’ll be rewarded with a gold nugget!

Mélisande & Alexandre took the Archive Challenge in 2015! Photo courtesy of Mélisande & Alexandre

The AFC Archive has an unparalleled collection of sound recordings, manuscripts, and photographs of traditional culture from all over the world. Music in the AFC Archive includes everything from the first wax cylinder recordings of Native American song from the 1890s, to John and Alan Lomax’s pioneering disc recordings of the 1930s and 1940s, to recent born-digital documentation of folk concerts of all kinds. Best known musical performers in the Archive include Muddy Waters, Pete Seeger, Honeyboy Edwards, Woody Guthrie, Aunt Molly Jackson, Lead Belly, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, and Jean Ritchie…but there are millions of great songs, tunes, and stories from thousands of performers you’ve never even heard of! From songs of Dust-Bowl-era migrant workers to Ohio canal songs, African-American gospel, Spanish-language hymns from New Mexico, work songs from the railroad gangs and turpentine camps of late 1930s Florida, and Virginia fiddle tunes… there’s sure to be something in our collections of sound recordings that floats your boat.

If you’re a storyteller or spoken-word artist, you can find stories in our collections too. If you’re a visual artist, there are photos going back to the 1920s associated with our collections, and a very large number of photos from the period 1976-2000, stemming from our field projects, showing ethnic and regional folkways, including food traditions, crafts, dress, and celebrations of all kinds. And if the written word interests you, many of our collections include manuscripts containing fascinating notes, rich descriptions, personal letters, and other documents that reveal more about the writers, the cultures being documented, and the ethnographic process.

Explore Folklife Collections at the Library of Congress Website

Find AFC Collections at Other Websites

Ideas to Jump-Start Your Creativity

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason took the Archive Challenge in 2020!

You’re welcome to learn your piece word-for-word and note-for-note, or do a photorealistic painting of a photograph. But you can also add a bit of your own inspiration to the mix. The sky’s the limit! Here are some ideas:

  • Find a song you like in a sound recording or manuscript, and write an additional verse or two for it
  • Find a tune performed on one instrument, and learn it on a different instrument
  • Find a photograph, and create a drawing or painting inspired by it
  • Find a recipe, and make a video of yourself preparing it
  • Find an instrumental tune you love, and write your own words for it to make it into a song
  • Find a song you love, and adapt it as an instrumental tune
  • Learn a poem or story, and record yourself performing it with your own dramatic flair

Has Anyone Done This Before?

Although people have been mining the Archive since it was established in 1928, Grammy-winner Dom Flemons was the first to officially take the Archive Challenge, at the Folk Alliance International conference in 2015. Photo by Stephen Winick.

We’re glad you asked! AFC has been running a music-centered “archive challenge” for years, and we have years of videos highlighting items from the archive chosen by performers like Dom Flemons, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, and Billy Bragg.

Follow this link to the full set of Archive Challenge videos.

Subscribe to our blog at this link and our Facebook page at this link, and we’ll share news of the project and other people’s challenge materials as we get them.

If you have specific interests and you can’t find what you need in our online collections, you can contact us for help finding materials at [email protected], or through Ask A Librarian; make sure you mention the Archive Challenge and those questions will make it straight to our team.

Happy exploring, and we hope you’ll take up the challenge!

One Comment

  1. John McLaughlin
    May 11, 2020 at 7:23 pm

    Thank you very much indeed – this is a gold-mine – John

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