Take the Archive Challenge–From Home!
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
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!
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
- For a linked list of all of AFC’s online collections and presentations, visit this link.
- Find the bulk of VHP’s online oral histories with American veterans at this link
- Find a curated list of “Experiencing War” features from VHP at this link.
- Watch webcasts of AFC’s concerts and lectures, available at this link.
- Read our blog “Folklife Today,” which tells stories about our collections, at this link.
- Listen to our podcast “Folklife Today,” with more compelling stories, at this link.
- Find our Story Maps and explore collections geographically, at this link.
- Find our collection guides on interesting topics at this link.
- Find our finding aids to individual collections at this link.
- For all AFC collection items online at the Library’s website, visit this link.
Find AFC Collections at Other Websites
- The Association for Cultural Equity: Alan Lomax’s fieldwork from 1943 until his retirement.
- John and Alan Lomax’s Louisiana recordings from 1934.
- John and Alan Lomax’s Kentucky recordings of the 1930s and 1940s. (These recordings have been added to the Association for Cultural Equity, above.)
- Alan Lomax and Fisk University’s 1941-1942 recordings at Delta State University. (These recordings have been added to the Association for Cultural Equity, above.)
- Wisconsin Folksong Collection (Recordings made in the 1930s and 1940s by Sidney Robertson Cowell, Helene Stratman Thomas, and others).
- Minnesota Folksong Collection (Recordings made in the 1920s by Robert Winslow Gordon).
- The James Madison Carpenter Collection (Manuscripts, photos, and cylinder recordings made in the 1920s and 1930s by James Madison Carpenter in both the U.S. and the U.K.) online at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.
- The Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection (Recordings made in the 1930s and 1940s by Flanders and Marguerite Olney in New England, especially Vermont). Note: this collection contains notebooks, cylinder recordings, and printed materials not shared with AFC, but AFC has copies of most of the disc sound recordings listed as “Archival Cassette Dubs” at this link.
- MacEdward Leach and the Songs of Atlantic Canada (Recordings made in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia by Leach from 1949 to 1951).
- The Ruth Rubin Legacy: Archive of Yiddish Folksongs online at YIVO.
Ideas to Jump-Start Your Creativity
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?
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!
Thank you very much indeed – this is a gold-mine – John
I am excited to begin a journey of discovery. Thank you for access to this treasure. The Library of Congress is a wonderful place to visit, and I am so grateful to have internet access as well. Now on to my folklife research and journey.