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Archive Fans Take the Challenge!

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A man plays the guitar.
A screen shot from Marquis W. Howell II’s recording of Ace Johnson’s “Influenza.” Find his video here!

About a month ago we introduced the idea of taking the archive challenge from home. The idea is pretty simple: browse or search online materials in our archive. 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. Post it all online and share it to your networks. If possible, share it on social media with the hashtag #FolklifeArchiveChallenge. And, of course, let us know about it.

There are full instructions on how to participate, including links to all our online collections, here in this previous blog post.  For now I thought I’d update you with some examples of our fans who have taken the challenge, with an eye toward inspiring you to take the challenge yourself.

We’ll start with the first response we got, which was from Marquis W. Howell II in far-off Los Angeles. Marquis writes to his own followers:

John & Ruby Lomax recorded inmate Ace Johnson singing this song, about the 1929 flu outbreak in Memphis, at Clemens State Farm, Brazoria, Texas, on April 15, 1939 for the Library Of Congress. One of the greatest resources available to us is the @librarycongress and I’m doing this song as part of their #FolklifeArchiveChallenge that asks us to dig into their archive and get inspired. When I was about 18 or so one of the first things I did on the Internet was look up the Library of Congress. It blew my mind then and still does to this day. Nowhere is there a more telling collection of cultural ephemera & human experience. For students of life, there is wealth in the record of lives lived.

We couldn’t agree more, Marquis!

When we let Marquis know we’d be including his link in our blog, he wrote us a little more:

The LOC has been so important to me since I first had my own internet connection. So much amazing music from the Lomaxes and others along with the digital archives of art & ephemera. That tickles me pink that you dig my take on that Ace Johnson recording. I did some research on the tune & it goes back at least to the WWI era outbreak, topical indeed. I’m not a religious man but the notion of our actions affecting our outcome is as fresh as the morning’s dew.

Marquis posted his version of “Influenza” to Instagram…find it at this link!

And just so you can hear Marquis’s inspiration for his version, here’s Ace Johnson’s rendition, in the player below:

A young woman wearing an embroidered cloak stands in front of a bookcase.
Nora Rodes proudly wears the richly embroidered wool cloak that once belonged to Vermont folksong collector Helen Hartness Flanders. AFC staff member Jenifer Cutting received this beautiful cloak from Flanders’s granddaughter, Nancy Jean Seigel. She gave it to Nora in 2018, and took this picture in the Folklife Reading Room in the Library of Congress. Find her video here!

We’ll go from blues to ballads , and feature the entry of Nora Rodes. Nora is a ballad singer and banjo player from Pittsburgh who has been doing research in the AFC archive for several years. She has presented her folksong research at national and international conferences in North America and Britain, which is doubly impressive given that she’s just 17!  Nora has been interested for years in several of the women who collected and sang traditional songs in New England in the 20th century, including Vermont collector Helen Hartness Flanders and Flanders’s protegée, collector and performer Margaret MacArthur.  For that reason, she selected a ballad with a double provenance in the archive, “Robin Hood Rescuing the Three Squires.”   Find Nora’s version of “Robin Hood Rescuing the Three Squires” on YouTube at this link!

Nora’s inspiration for her version included recordings associated with both Flanders and MacArthur. Helen Hartness Flanders was the daughter of Vermont governor James Hartness and the wife of Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders, and thus part of Washington society as well as Vermont royalty. She made sure the bulk of her collection of New England folksongs had homes in both places, so her collection of papers, ephemera, and cylinders resides at Middlebury College in Vermont, with the bulk of the disc recordings here at the Library of Congress–with copies at Middlebury as well. In addition, in 1948, Flanders organized a tour in which she gave a lecture about New England ballads, with examples sung by traditional singers who traveled with her. They gave their performance in the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium on February 27, 1948, and a recording of the entire lecture-concert is in the archive, although it’s not currently online–see it in the Library’s catalog at this link. During that concert, Charles Finnemore sang “Robin Hood Rescuing the Three Squires.”

Three men sit on chairs. Behind them stand two men and a woman.
On the stage of the Coolidge Auditorium, Harold Spivacke, Chief of the Library of Congress Music Division, Helen Hartness Flanders, folklore scholar and wife of U.S. Senator Ralph Flanders, and Duncan Emrich, head of the Music Division’s Folklore Section, stand behind ballad singers James Finnemore of Maine, Elmer George of Vermont, and Asa Davis of Vermont. The occasion was a lecture and concert by Flanders and the three singers, held on February 27, 1948. Charles Finnemore’s version of ”Robin Hood Rescuing the Three Squires,” which he sang at this concert, was the source for both Margaret MacArthur’s 2005 version and Nora Rodes’s 2020 rendition.

Fast forward to 2005. The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert series featured Margaret MacArthur, a folksong collector, singer, and musician who lived and worked in Vermont from 1947 until she passed away in 2006. She met and was mentored by Helen Hartness Flanders, and saw herself as continuing Flanders’s work as a collector–but unlike Flanders, who was a pianist but not a singer, MacArthur performed the ballads herself. She opened the concert with a reference to Flanders’s 1948 lecture and with Finnemore’s version of “Robin Hood Rescuing the Three Squires.”

As an added treat, MacArthur’s appearance was one of the first of the American Folklife Center concerts recorded for the web. You can see the entire concert in the player below; “Robin Hood Rescuing the Three Squires” occurs about 8 minutes into the video.

There are more great responses to our call for home recordings of archival treasures, but we’ll save those to share later. Keep watching the blog for more links in days to come!  We hope these two examples inspire your own creativity. And, of course, remember that you can find full instructions on how to participate, including links to all our online collections, at this link.


  1. As a folksong collector, researcher and writer in England I am deeply impressed by Nora’s work. Her presentation on Flanders at a recent TSF meeting was excellent in all aspects. I look forward to seeing and listening to more of her work.

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