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Vast folk music festival collection now described online

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crowd gathered at music festival
50th National Folk Festival, Lowell, Massachusetts,1988. Photo courtesy National Council for the Traditional Arts.

This is a guest post by archivist Maya Lerman.

We’re pleased to announce that the finding aid for the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA) collection is now online. The collection includes broad documentation from the National Folk Festival, the Lowell Folk Festival, and other major cultural events. Its acquisition marks a significant expansion in the Library of Congress’ folk festival recordings, and spans one of the widest ranges of musical genres represented by any collection. The American Folklife Center (AFC) archive holds a variety of festival recordings, including those from the Newport Folk Festival, Bean Blossom Festival, and Sky River Rock Festival, to name a few. The NCTA collection fits within the context of these collections, but the scale, cultural diversity represented in the collection, as well as the depth of documentation, make it the largest and most extensive single collection of festival and concert recordings present at the American Folklife Center. The recordings document an extraordinary array of musical genres and cultural traditions which comprise American folklife and which go well beyond what is available in other collections. We are celebrating this collection of well-documented recordings which are now accessible for listening and research in the American Folklife Center Reading Room.

The collection is the product of a major effort by the National Council for the Traditional Arts over the course of decades. The NCTA is “a non-profit organization dedicated to the presentation and documentation of folk and traditional arts in the United States.” Since 1933 the organization has produced and presented public folklore in the forms of festivals, concerts, workshops, tours, and other programs showcasing the nation’s foremost tradition bearers. Now at the American Folklife Center, the NCTA collection encompasses a wealth of recordings from these events from over the course of nearly 40 years, from the early 1970s into the 2000s. At a time when our ability to gather together in public spaces for concerts and cultural events has been threatened due to COVID-19, this collection feels particularly meaningful. Not only does it represent America’s cultural richness and diversity, but it also reminds us of the importance of cross-cultural interaction in understanding and appreciating one another. Through live performances, workshops, and programs, NCTA has encouraged audiences to participate in a range of expressive traditions, expanding people’s worldview and appreciation for the diversity of American culture.

Poster, National Folk Festival, Vienna, Virginia, 1976. Photo courtesy National Council for the Traditional Arts.

The sheer number and types of events NCTA has produced and the range of traditions represented through these events is staggering. In addition to festivals, NCTA has been organizing concert series, programs, and national tours for many years. The collection holds nearly 6,000 recordings from these events. To give a sense of the scale and vastness of the recordings, there are several artists who appear on over 500 tracks throughout the collection, including DC area blues musicians Cephas and Wiggins, Los Angeles mariachi band Mariachi los Camperos de Nati Cano, Cape Breton Violinist Joe Cormier, and Georgia Sea Island Singers Frankie and Doug Quimby. Researchers can explore this wealth of content to examine musicians through different phases of their career, in diverse contexts playing with various musicians or solo, and in a variety of performance settings.

The range of musical genres and other traditions builds on the strengths of the American Folklife Center archive by adding to its variety of traditions and artists. The collection includes recordings of over 800 genres, ranging in diversity from Basque American to calypso music, from boogie-woogie to cowboy songs, and from Lakota songs to Tibetan sacred music. The genres and styles are listed in the Genre list in the finding aid. The thousands of artists who performed at NCTA’s events cover these diverse genres. Researchers can find significant numbers of recordings of folk artists who are masters of their crafts. Many are NEA National Heritage Fellows, including bluegrass musician Del McCoury, guitarist Etta Baker, Irish fiddler Liz Carroll, Polish-American musician Eddie Blazonczyk, and Hawaiian cowboy musician Clyde “Kindy” Sproat. Genres and artists with the most substantial numbers of recordings are indexed in the finding aid by Library of Congress Subject Headings and by LC Name Authorities in the Index Terms section.

poster with block lettering
Cover of the program for the 1974 National.

Another remarkable strength of the NCTA collection is the descriptive information captured about the recordings. From my limited experience attending and volunteering at major folk festivals, I’m aware of the high level of complexity in planning required to execute these events successfully. As part of their mission, NCTA not only comprehensively recorded their festivals, tours, and concerts, but also thoroughly documented the details of these events. This is an impressive feat. As part of the acquisition, NCTA donated a database that includes information about all aspects of the recordings: events, dates, stages, geographic locations, and identifiers; performer, supporting artist, and presenter names; specific “music categories,” or, genres; track titles; and technical specifications, including recording format, speed, and recording engineer names. It is rare that collectors supply this high level of detail about their materials. The details allow for complex searches and analyses of performances down to the track level.

The NCTA collection is a tremendous resource for anyone interested in American folk music and folk music from around the world. We hope we have whetted your appetite to dig into this rich trove of archival recordings. The finding aid is an entry point to explore the events, artists, and genres that are represented in the collection, and to develop potential research questions. How do Detroit Blues and Texas Blues styles differ? What are the range of David Bromberg’s guitar styles? What influence does Acadian French music have on contemporary Cajun music from Louisiana? How do Central Asian Throat Singing and Inuit Throat Singing compare with one another? What are some examples of the Highwoods Stringband performing in the 1970s? There are numerous questions to explore and artists to listen to and discover, and we’re excited for the possibilities.



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