This post was written with AFC folklife specialist Jennifer Cutting. It was Jennifer who worked closely with Mike Rivers on the fellowship. Throughout this post, the first person plural means both of us, while the first person singular means Jennifer.
The American Folklife Center is happy to invite applications for our brand new Artists in Resonance Fellowships at the American Folklife Center. The new fellowships are intended to support artists in creating new musical works inspired by and sourced from collection materials in the Center’s Archives. This year, one Fellowship of $10,000 will be awarded. The application deadline is April 5, 2024.
During the fellowship, American Folklife Center reference librarians, archivists, folklorists, and ethnomusicologists will work closely with the awardee to support their project. We’ll help them as they conduct research to discover collection items; obtain rights and permissions; request copies of relevant recordings, manuscripts, and photographs; determine whether a given song or tune is traditional or under copyright; and use our analog and digital systems to hear the recordings.
Over at our guide to Research Awards, Fellowships and Funded Internships, you can find out more about the goals of the fellowship, the expectations for the fellows, and the requirements for applying. In the rest of this blog post, we’ll fill you in on some of the background to the fellowship.
Artists in Resonance Background: The American Folklife Center, the Archive Challenge, and Mike Rivers
The Artists in Resonance fellowships were created with the generous assistance of the late Mike Rivers (1943-2021). Mike was an internationally known folk musician and a talented electronics, recording, and broadcast engineer. Among other things, Mike was a member of Pete Seeger’s very first Clearwater Sloop crew, bringing together folk music and environmental activism, and was a member of the resident American folk band at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan. For many years he was a big part of the folk music community in Washington, D.C, as both a banjo and guitar player and a live sound engineer for concerts and festivals. He was also a stalwart friend of the American Folklife Center and a subscriber to Folklife Today.
As Mike knew, the AFC Archive has an unparalleled collection of sound recordings, manuscripts, and photographs of traditional culture from throughout 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–some of them engineered and recorded by Mike. The best known American 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 — many of whom Mike knew — not to mention major international collections featuring performances by thousands of outstanding artists from Haiti to Morocco and around the world.
Mike also knew that for many years creative artists have used field recordings currently held by the Center to inspire new creative works. Composer Aaron Copland created the “Hoe-Down” section of the ballet Rodeo in 1942, using Kentucky fiddler Bill Stepp’s version of “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” which Alan and Elizabeth Lomax collected for the Library in 1937. Jazz musicians Miles Davis and Gil Evans used Alan Lomax’s 1952 field recording of Galician farm worker José Maria Rodriguez playing his dawn song as the theme for “The Pan Piper” on Davis’s classic album Sketches of Spain. The opener on Johnny Cash’s first LP, “Rock Island Line,” is from our archives, sung originally by Arkansas prisoner Kelly Pace, and popularized by Lead Belly and Lonnie Donegan. The Carolina Chocolate Drops were frequent researchers in the years leading up to their Grammy Award. From the grandest world stages to the smallest clubs, music inspired by AFC collections has captivated listeners in an endless variety of genres.
In 2015, staff worked to make this process of creative use more intentional. The AFC was celebrating the centennial of folklorist Alan Lomax (who headed our Archive from 1937 to 1942), and staff wanted to develop a way to carry that theme to the annual Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City, Missouri. We came up with the idea of running a showcase stage. We invited performers to do research in our online collections to pick out songs and tunes that really spoke to them, to put their own creative spin on them, and then perform them on this showcase stage. We had a videographer shoot the performances on video and placed the performances on the Library of Congress website.
That first Archive Challenge was very successful, and Folk Alliance invited us to do an Archive Challenge every year there. In the years since then, we branched out to having Archive Challenges in our own Homegrown concert series in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library. During the pandemic, we ran an At-Home Archive Challenge in which you could record a video of yourself doing a song or tune from our collections, and post it on social media with a special hashtag.
Mike Rivers kept up with the news about the Archive Challenge in all its forms. When he contacted me in 2021 to inquire about leaving funds to the Library of Congress, I told him about my dream of growing our Archive Challenge work by creating an Artist Residency that would allow artists to do an even deeper dig into our collections. They would then use this research to create a new album, concert tour, or other project. When I finished telling Mike about this idea, he said, “I like it…let’s make it happen.”
Mike was excited about the idea of facilitating, with his bequest, this process of artists “falling in love” with music from our collections, then recording it, and performing it, and, in the process, bringing so many of these old songs and tunes back into the living tradition. That’s where the word “Resonance” came in. Mike felt strongly that this process was all about artists choosing field recordings with which they resonate, so we incorporated Mike’s word into the name of the award.
Hammering out the particulars of the Artists in Resonance Fellowships in coordination with the AFC Director and the Library’s Development Office gave Mike a feeling of purpose and direction in his life during a year that was otherwise full of scary medical appointments and procedures. On a personal note, meeting about the Fellowships over weekly lunches allowed us to reflect on our long friendship, from Mike’s inviting my first band into his mobile studio to make our very first recordings, to doing sound for all my groups at our annual Washington Folk Festival performances. The foundation and through-line to almost forty years of our friendship, and both our lives, was music. Once these fellowships are awarded, Mike’s life will be memorialized every time an Artist in Resonance performs a song that they found in our Archive. I can’t possibly think of a better legacy for our friend Mike.
So please, apply for these fellowships and/or spread the word to your musician friends. From songs of Dust-Bowl-era migrant workers to Ohio canal songs, African American gospel to Spanish-language hymns from New Mexico, dance tunes from Haiti, work songs from 1930s Florida turpentine camps, Chinese opera and Virginia fiddle tunes, there’s sure to be something in AFC’s renowned collections of sound recordings, manuscripts, photographs, and moving images that will inspire you to the next level of creative growth.