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At Home Archive Challenge: Active Duty and Veterans Edition

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A column of uniformed serviced members walks past the Library of Congress Jefferson Building
U.S. Soldiers with the 206th Military Police Battalion, New York National Guard, begin to move out, near the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Jan 16, 2021. National Guard Soldiers and Airmen from several states have traveled to Washington to provide support to federal and district authorities leading up to the 59th Presidential Inauguration. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Pietrantoni. Shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.)

Back near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jennifer Cutting and I suggested a new challenge to keep folks busy while waiting out the worst at home. The idea was a variation on our popular “Archive Challenge,” in which you base a work of art on an item in our archive. As we explained it back in this blog post:

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


Since then, of course, a lot has happened. The events of January 6, 2021 led to a need for more security throughout the Capitol complex, including here at the Library. Our friends in uniform were deployed to help. Since the Library was very sparsely populated for safety reasons, National Guard members were asked to rest and congregate in areas that normally serve other purposes. One of these areas, the atrium on the first floor of the Madison Building, has great acoustics.

Four uniformed soldiers, two playing guitars and one playing banjo, with a pullman porter.
Transporting US Army troops in Pullman cars, circa 1942. Photoprint by Pullman Co. Find the archival scan here.

As you might imagine, this got some of our friends in uniform to sing! And some of them had videos made and shared online. One in particular caught our attention: a video of a soldier singing the hymn “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” in the atrium was uploaded to YouTube on January 29, 2021.  You can view the video at this link on YouTube.

Many viewers connected this soldier’s moving performance to the film 1917, in which the song is sung by actor and singer Jos Slovick. But of course, the song has a longer history, which leads us right back to the American Folklife Center at Library of Congress.

According to the book The Makers of the Sacred Harp, by David Warren Steel and Richard H. Hulan, the lyrics of “Wayfaring Stranger” were published in 1858, so it’s much older than our archive. But research in the Roud Index indicates that the earliest sound recording of it may be in AFC collections: specifically, a recording of Ben Carr made by Margaret Valiant in Florida in 1936. That particular version isn’t online, but it was closely followed in 1937 by several versions recorded in Kentucky by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax, which you can hear at this link. Alan Lomax recorded even more great versions of the song which are now in the AFC archive, including a rendition by Jean Ritchie at this link, one by Almeda Riddle at this link, and one by Estil C. Ball at this link. The song has even been featured in the Archive Challenge before, when Canadian Singer-Songwriter AHI performed it in our showcases at Folk Alliance International. View that memorable performance below!

Needless to say, while our singing soldier might not have been taking the archive challenge on purpose, we sure appreciated his connection to our history. And that got us thinking some more: the AFC archive is home to the Veterans History Project collections as well, so why not design a version of the At Home Archive Challenge especially for active-duty service members, vets, and their families and friends? After all, there’s nothing my military and veteran friends like quite so much a challenge!

A man in Omaha regalia tells a story into a microphone. Two more men in regalia sit on a bench. The US Capitol dome is visible in the background.
Hollis Stabler tells a story about the formation of the Hethu’shka Society, an Omaha Indian veterans organization, during a Library of Congress Neptune Plaza concert, August 22, 1985. Photo by Reid Baker. AFC has recordings of Hethu’shka Society songs in the presentation Omaha Indian Music. Find the archival photo scan here.

The first step is to explain the idea and the collections folks have access to.  Much of that is in this previous blog post, so we won’t repeat ourselves–visit the post to get started!

The next step is to define some of the collections and items that might be of particular interest to military communities. Of course, a lot of subjects are interesting to everyone, but say you’re interested in songs about battles or songs tagged as being by or for soldiers?  A search on audio recordings with the words “battle” and “folklife” yields some interesting results, which you can find here.  So does an audio recording search on “soldier” and “folklife,” which you can see here. Although a search engine is an imperfect tool, we definitely recommend you play around with some terms that might interest you in the main search box on the Library of Congress homepage–just add “folklife” to your search to bring in mostly items from the AFC archive.

Pete Seeger in a US Army uniform playing a banjo and singing to an audience of uniformed men and women. Eleanor Roosevelt is visible in the audience.
A uniformed Pete Seeger entertaining at the opening of the Washington labor canteen in January 1944. The Canteen was sponsored by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). His audience included both white and black service members, as well as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Although Seeger was willing to go overseas and fight, he was put to work entertaining the troops instead. The photo is by Joseph A. Horne. Find the archival scan here!

Among our more specific recommendations from AFC’s recordings relating to veterans are:

A man sings and plays the guitar
Wilson “Stavin’ Chain” Jones, playing the guitar. Jones was a World War I veteran and sang a self-composed song about his experiences. Photo by Alan Lomax. Find the archival scan here.

Of course, one of the main points of this blog is to direct you to collections of the Veterans History Project, which collects oral history interviews with veterans. These collections can inspire all kinds of creativity, from poems to songs and on to visual and multimedia arts. The sky is truly the limit!  You can find the bulk of VHP’s online collections at this link, and a curated list of “Experiencing War” features at this link. But to really help you navigate the vast landscape of collections from over 100,000 veterans, we’re going to call in the pros. Our next blog post at Folklife Today will be a guided tour of some of VHP’s collections for folks considering taking a military Archive Challenge.  It will be conducted by one of Folklife Today’s VHP bloggers, Megan Harris.

We can’t wait to see the great materials Megan has uncovered for you…so stay tuned!



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