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“Doing Something Useful:” A Tribute to AFC’s longtime volunteer, Howard Kramer

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This is a guest post by processing coordinator Ann Hoog, who among many other things, coordinates interns and volunteers at the American Folklife Center.

Full-face portrait, head and shoulders, Howard Kramer and Ann Hoog side by side.
StoryCorps interview photo of Howard Kramer and Ann Hoog, April 20, 2016.

One of the American Folklife Center’s long-time volunteers, Marshall Howard Kramer, passed away April 30, 2020, of COVID-19. Howard was a beloved member of AFC’s family for nearly 20 years. He was not only a master at creating audio logs for field recordings, but he was also the kindest soul to everyone he met, showing exceptional interest in others’ lives. Every time there was a new face that showed up at AFC’s doors, whether a new staff member or one of our multitudes of interns, he immediately introduced himself and got to know their interests and goals on both a personal and professional level. Every office should be so lucky to have someone like that in its midst.

On April 20, 2016, I interviewed Howard for StoryCorps in one of their Airstream trailers parked in the back lot of the Jefferson building. Much of this tribute is from that interview. Howard is the narrator.

I was born in The Bronx in New York City. My parents moved to Queens when I was an infant. I went to grade school and high school in Queens, and off to Troy, New York, for college, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. That was my first experience outside of the environment of the city and I saw for the first time there was a world beyond the five boroughs and a culture way beyond what I grew up with.

After graduation from RPI, I went to graduate school at NYU for a year, while my wife was graduating from college. Her name is Lois and she went to Russell Sage College in Troy … many, many Rensselaer/Russell Sage relationships [laughs]. In fact, this whole story starts in Troy. If my memory is right, the fall of 1958, our first date after a football game, we went to see Josh White Sr. at the Troy Music Hall. 1958 was when the folk music revival was just starting to explode, and for the two of us that was a life changing experience. That was the start of what has become a 60-year passion for the two of us. … I don’t have any memory of listening to folk music before then.

Josh White, three-quarter length portrait, in performance with guitar before microphone
Josh White Sr. in 1953. A few years after this photo was taken, Howard and Lois saw him in concert. It began their decades-long love of folk music. LC Prints and Photographs Division. See the archival scan here.

Professionally, I came [to DC] with the Army, and had a very good assignment. The Army used my engineering background and I benefited a lot from that. I went to work for IBM, still lived in Arlington, and decided to stay here. I retired from Lockheed Martin. [I worked] 30 years with IBM and 7 years with Lockheed Martin as an engineer.

Very soon after coming to DC, we joined FSGW [Folklore Society of Greater Washington], which was in its infancy, and attended all kinds of events and concerts. [Joe] Hickerson [former head of the Archive of Folk Culture] was an officer and a director [of FSGW] and he was around all the time. Probably just in conversation with him … I found out that they [AFC] did have a volunteer program.  Just talking to Joe and people at the Folklife Center, and the IMT [Institute of Musical Traditions] concerts, that when I decided to retire, I wanted to do four things to keep myself out of the house and mentally active so I didn’t become a recluse — and stay out of my wife’s hair. One of them was to come down here and work at the Folklife Center, so I sent that email off … we had a conversation and it felt like a match to me.

The text of the email Howard sent to the American Folklife Center on July 22, 1999, reads as follows:

Dear Sir or Madam, in about a year I expect to retire from my professional career. As my wife and I have had a long deep interest in American folklife, particularly folk music and folk arts, we are interested in exploring volunteer opportunities with the American Folklife Center. We would appreciate any information you can send us or point us to on the internet. . . . Thank you. Howard Kramer.

On November 1, 2000, Howard began what became nearly 20 years of volunteering at AFC.

Walking up to the Jefferson Building is very important. I come from Arlington, get off at Capitol South, walk up First St., and there on my left is the U.S. Capitol, and there on my right is the Jefferson Building. Amazing place to be, amazing! And then you walk in the carriage entrance of Jefferson. Sometime in the past — the restoration painters who did all the hallways in this building had a seminar. Lois and I attended, and they said that the Jefferson Building, in their opinion, was the most beautiful public building in Washington, and I have to agree with that. It’s thrilling to walk into the hall and in front of you is the grand hall and walk down the hallway to the Folklife Center. It’s just wonderful.

Great Hall. View of first and second floors, with Minerva mosaic in background. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.]
The Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress was a highlight for Howard, as it is for most of us who work here. Photo by Carol Highsmith, 2007. LC Prints and Photographs Division. See the archival scan here.

[From my first day], what I do clearly remember is you giving me a bunch of paperwork, one of which was the Library of Congress cataloging criteria, which is not the Dewey Decimal System, which was just amazing, still amazes me that it works. The other one was, as we toured the [Folklife] Reading Room, you were telling me about the sundry bookshelves; there’s a small library in the reading room, and there were the ephemera collections. … So you were teaching me how to file. So you gave me some stuff to file. I dutifully went to the cabinet, pulled the file, put the stuff in the right folder and put it back. And you said, “No, that’s not enough. I want you to read the contents of all those folders as you put stuff away, so you get an idea of what this collection, this paperwork, is all about.” I don’t know if I said this out loud or not, but what was in my head was, my goodness Br’er Fox, you’ve got this Br’er Rabbit in the right tar pit. It’s been like that ever since. That one thing gave me permission for 15 years to read stuff. To go off with, like Todd Harvey, and chase some rabbit down a hole, looking up some obscure stuff that may or may not have been important. … It’s all part of the job. My education is all part of the job. Great stuff.

So I’ve done oodles and oodles and lots of stuff. In no particular order, I really like transcribing songs – that’s a real challenge. Often the songs have been collected in the field, with field recording, not studio recording, deep dialects, funny pronunciations, and it often takes a half a dozen listenings to get most of the song. And then if it’s something that I know I can get a lot more context, but then I turn it over to you or Todd or Judith [Gray] and you can often add more. So that’s fun.

Twice I’ve had to organize the poster collection. That was really fun. … It was like gold mining and there was no such thing as fool’s gold. Every poster was worthwhile. And there were posters going back into the ’50s and ’60s of these marvelous concerts and folk festivals, and quilt shows and pottery shows, and basketry shows. Just marvelous stuff. And my assignment was to make order out of it and create a finding aid, which I did … There was one time when Odetta came to get a Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award. … I remembered there was an Odetta poster that in some way was connected to us. I told Peggy Bulger [former director of AFC] about it. Because she was going to have a one-on-one with Odetta. She said, “Get me the poster.” Good thing there was an index … I gave it to Peggy, and Odetta remembered the event and that was a way to break into that conversation. I don’t know if that’s been used otherwise, but I was happy about that.

Odetta and Peggy Bulger, side by side in chairs on a set for a video interview.
Odetta and AFC’s director at the time, Peggy Bulger, in 2002. Bulger interviewed Odetta and asked her about a poster that Howard found in the collections. See the video of that interview at this link. Photo by Jim Hardin.

As you know, my very favorite all time job was dealing with the John Dildine collection. John and Ginny Dildine were local puppeteers, folk music aficionados, they had a family band, FSGW membership – I saw them in performance many times. John was also a disc jockey. He had a radio program from, if my memory is right ’58 to ’70-something … on various small FM Radio stations around town. John transcribed [recorded] all of the radio broadcasts that had live performances, as well as house concerts, interviews, and commercial concerts downtown. And in 1972[5] gave that collection to the Library. … I was asked to log that collection. … The highlight came when I found a diamond, an absolute diamond. It was the 28th of December 2012 and I was listening to recording number 13. It was made on the 25th of May 1958. It was the [recording] of a live broadcast. Dildine introduced the broadcast by saying that tonight he’s invited three musician friends in to play live, and to meet each other. They had never before played together. And these musicians were Tom Paley, John Cohen, and Mike Seeger. And I said, “Holy mackerel, I know who they are! These are the New Lost City Ramblers before they became the New Lost City Ramblers!” I listened to and logged the recording. And then I went to see Todd Harvey, who tends to be the folk music revival specialist in the Archive. Todd and I dug out a book by Ray Allen, called the New Lost City Ramblers and the Folk Music Revival. Allen has about three pages devoted to that broadcast, and we have the recording.

John Cohen in the Folklife Reading Room, June 2017.

About a year ago, John Cohen came in to meet with Todd about the donation of his materials to the Folklife Center, and Todd asked me to get a copy of that first recording to the meeting, which I did. At a break, we played that for John Cohen who remembered it — remembered rehearsing in the men’s room. While one person was performing, the two others would rehearse and that was a real empowering thing for me to hear how excited Cohen was to hear that broadcast. I just wish Mike Seeger was alive to have heard it.

I could not do [logging of audio recordings] for more than a couple hours without taking a break. … [For most of the collections], the content is so interesting that it’s not boring, it’s not hard. It just takes a lot of energy, a lot of focus.

When asked about personal relationships he’s developed over the years, Howard responded by saying:

Maybe five, six, seven years ago Lois and I invited three single staff people, Jim Hardin, Maggie Kruesi, and Judith Gray, to our house for Thanksgiving dinner. And that has turned into every year. […] You and I talk about kids and baseball and basketball all the time. And I love Todd Harvey, Todd is just a great guy to work with and talk to. Jennifer Cutting is a hoot, I like to talk to Jennifer. And those are the reference staff. There’s nobody in the whole Folklife Center that I have ever had a conflict with or trouble with.

On a personal note, I will never forgive him for being a Duke fan, but we did often share our love for baseball. He grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan in the era of Jackie Robinson, and once brought in a handful of original program books to show my young baseball-obsessed son. Since 2005, the Washington Nationals is a team that we shared our joys and frustrations about every season. The last season we got to talk about the Nationals, also happened to be about a World Series victory. Those were some great conversations!

Reflecting on his many years of volunteering, Howard summed up his interview with the following:

It’s fun. Sometimes it’s a pain in the neck, sometimes it’s boring, but most of the time it’s fun. And it’s really nice getting out of the house, getting on the Metro, going downtown, doing something useful … [Lois] has been on this ride with me and one of the things that has endured — 55 years in June — in our marriage has been this joint love of folk music.

We at the American Folklife Center are so grateful for his invaluable contributions to the work of the Center, his passion for folk music, and his genuine good nature that brought joy to our office every week. We will miss you, Howard. You will forever hold a special place in all our hearts.

Added on 6/19/2020: The finding aid for the John & Ginny Dildine Collection (AFC 975/001) featuring Howard’s fine logging work is now available at this link.

Comments (6)

  1. For a certain period–far less than Howard’s 20 years–I have also been an elderly volunteer at the American Folklife Center, sitting at the cubicle next to the one where Howard worked. I second Ann’s description of Howard’s warmth and interest in his fellow humans. The interview quotes well represent Howard’s way of remembering and speaking, a melancholy echo on this unhappy occasion. But a reminder of America’s “better side” at a time when such reminders are needed and welcome. Carl

  2. First thing in the morning, Howard Kramer always had a kind word for me, he was genuinely interested in my work at AFC. On the days he volunteered, Howard usually sat directly across from me, listening to hundreds and hundreds of hours of reel-to-reel tape recordings, capturing their contents in long, accurate, detailed recording logs. I was a bit jealous. I am an audiophile, but early on, I had sadly realized in my job as AFC cataloger that there was no way I would have time to LISTEN to the recordings I was cataloging – I had to rely on existing descriptions in the Center’s files. This was fine for the early disc recordings, with song titles and performers’ names on catalog cards. But the recordings Howard was listening to had not been described before. His pleasurable, sometimes tedious work made my job of cataloging possible for many of AFC’s collections of folk music recordings from the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and more.
    With Judith Gray and Jim Hardin, I was fortunate to be invited for Thanksgiving at Howard and Lois’s home for several years where listening to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” and sharing poetry were part of the festive meal. And one summer in Maine, Howard and Lois invited me to spend a few days in their beautiful home there. They showed me all of the things to do in their town, we walked along the rocky beach, and spent the evening at a local concert of live folk music – the music that Howard and Lois loved and that he shared with all of us at the American Folklife Center. A year and a half ago I retired as Senior Cataloging Specialist from the American Folklife Center. Thanks Ann, for a wonderful blog and for your interview with Howard. I miss you all, and especially, I miss Howard.

  3. Thanks for the wonderful post Ann. It really captures Howard’s kindness, interest and curiosity. Soon after I became Director at AFC in 2012, Howard came into my office to introduce himself, much like Ann described. When he would return from Maine and start his annual volunteer rotation in the fall, he would always stop by to talk about his time in Maine and all the wonderful folk music concerts he and Lois attended. We will miss having him with us!

  4. Howard loved books and music; he loved talking about books and performers and concerts; he delighted in sharing information about them with us as he learned our individual interests. No visit to the Kramers in Maine was complete without stops at bookstores, Howard usually having in hand a list of specific titles he was seeking.
    He was always eager to learn more, and even wrote to authors to track down additional information. (I remember when he wrote to Louise Penny, author of a wonderful series of Quebecoise mystery novels, asking about a traditional song that was implicated in one plot; she responded.) That curiosity added to the “belt and suspenders” approach from his engineering background made him a wonderful volunteer, researching and creating order from sometimes convoluted file contents while always checking to be sure he hadn’t made inaccurate presumptions. Ann’s blog captures his enthusiasm so beautifully.
    Howard made connections–between people, interests, and places. When I had a chance to visit his principal volunteering site in Maine (the Boothbay Region Land Trust), I saw that he had added a Folklife Center Homegrown Concert Series poster to their office decor, even as I was learning from him about the Land Trust’s work.
    I will always delight in memories of shared ethnic meals (or fish & chips at a favorite place that promised “free beer tomorrow”), of joking references to Maine Whoopie pies, of samurai sudoku sessions, of walks and concerts and libraries. Howard, you are missed.

  5. nice article

  6. Lois recently sent me the link to this blog and I have so enjoyed hearing Howard’s voice again, and learning more about him. I got to see him and Lois during their summers here in Maine. He is already greatly missed.

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