The following guest post by Jennifer Cutting is part of a series of blog posts about the 40th Anniversary Year of the American Folklife Center. Visit this link to see them all!
The American Folklife Center (AFC) is pleased to announce the availability online of four titles from our historic series of record albums, Folk Music of the United States, released to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the American Folklife Center. The albums are being made available as streaming files and downloadable mp3s on the Library’s website, and also as downloads on the Library’s iTunes U channel.
The series began in 1941, and for the first few years the Library’s Recording Laboratory produced and released literal albums of 78 rpm records from the archive, providing the public for the first time with authentic examples of folk music recorded in the field throughout America. In the 1950s the series was converted to the new format of long-playing records (LPs), and new releases continued to appear. The albums were edited by Alan Lomax, Benjamin A. Botkin, Duncan Emrich, Frances Densmore, Willard Rhodes, Archie Green, Charles Seeger, and other folklorists, anthropologists, and ethnomusicologists. They tried to present representative samples of American folk traditions with authoritative scholarly notes.
Over the years, the albums became the Center’s best known publications. During their heyday, thousands of copies of the maroon-and-gray Library LP jackets, many containing distinctive red vinyl discs, found their way into libraries and private collections throughout the United States. They played a vitally important part in shaping the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. They are still fondly remembered today by thousands of musicians and music-lovers—Odetta mentioned them in her interview with Peggy Bulger in 2003, and Dom Flemons has also told AFC staff privately about hearing some of them in Arizona libraries when he was growing up.  Twenty titles were released in CD format by Rounder Records between 1997 and 2004, which helped them influence a new generation of music lovers. That licensing deal has expired, however, so the CDs have gone out of print.
The music on these 67 long-playing records comprises a recorded history of America, and many of her diverse ethnic groups. In fact, the series was initially conceived not only as a way to present the country with its own folk music, but also as a way for the United States to represent itself to the world. The initial releases were funded by the U.S. State Department’s division on cultural relations, with a special eye toward distribution in Latin America as part of an ongoing inter-American cultural exchange program.
AFC’s ongoing reissue program will eventually make available online and free of charge as many as possible of the 67 titles in this historically important series.  For a list of the complete series visit this link.
Looking back on the series in a Spring 2010 interview with the magazine Penguin Eggs, Alan Lomax, who oversaw its initial releases for the Library, said: “It was the first time that a nation had ever published its own folk music.” In their book Our Singing Country, Alan and his father John Lomax wrote about their field recordings in terms that also apply to these LPs:
Singing in their homes, in their churches, at their dances, [singers] leave on these records imperishable spirals of their personalities, their singing styles, and their cultural heritage.
The four titles with which AFC is launching our digitization and online reissue program represent African American, Anglo-American, and Native American traditions. They are presented complete with their liner notes, which can be downloaded as pdf documents or as page images. (Here’s a tip: in some cases the liner notes are referred to as a “transcript.” Just download the “transcript” for the notes.) Here’s a little more about the first 4 reissues, and most important, links to their online homes.
American Fiddle Tunes was first issued as AFS L62, and reissued as Rounder CD 1518. Compiled and edited by AFC’s founding director Alan Jabbour, this album was originally released in 1971, and since that time has attained near-cult status with musicians and scholars interested in the Anglo-American fiddle tradition. The 28 fiddle performances are drawn from the vast array of instantaneous disc recordings made in the field by archive staff in the 1930s and 1940s. From New England to Wisconsin, from Kentucky and Mississippi to California, they convey the range, energy, and creativity of one of America’s most vigorous and enduring folk traditions. The album’s copious notes have become important to scholars and historians interested in this vital American folk music tradition.
Negro Blues and Hollers was first issued as AFS L59 in 1962, and reissued as Rounder CD 1501. Originally edited by Marshall W. Stearns, this album features African American musical traditions from the Mississippi Delta country, recorded during the landmark Library of Congress-Fisk University field expedition in 1941-42 by Alan Lomax, John W. Work III, and Lewis Jones. It contains early field recordings of Son House and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. Stearns was interested in presenting the roots of what was just then coming to be called “country blues,” so in addition to blues songs he included field hollers, which he considered to be the most important source of blues melody, and gospel singing, which he considered the major source of blues harmony. As he observed:
Each selection is a superb example of its genre and can stand on its own feet as illustrations of the authentic, archaic style and idiom. Here are the bedrock, tap-root complements of country blues, the hard core of things to come.
Cowboy Songs, Ballads, and Cattle Calls from Texas was first issued as AFS L28 in 1952, and reissued as Rounder CD 1512. It was edited by Duncan Emrich. All but two of the selections on this CD were recorded on portable equipment by John A. Lomax, the most important collector of cowboy songs in the West. It features “The Night-Herding Song” as sung by its author, working cowboy Harry Stephens. This song has been recorded by Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Don Edwards, and other popular cowboy singers, most of whom learned it from a transcription of an earlier performance by Stephens which Lomax published in his 1910 book of cowboy songs. It also includes iconic field recordings of “Good-bye, Old Paint,” “The Texas Rangers,” and “The Streets of Laredo.”
Indian Songs of Today was first issued as AFS L36 in 1954, and reissued on LP with expanded liner notes in 1987. It was recorded and edited by Willard Rhodes, who was one of the earliest collectors to pay attention to what young Native Americans were learning and singing. He was also one of the first collectors to document contemporary and social genres of Native music, rather than focusing exclusively on the oldest layers of ceremonial repertory as was the typical case for such song collectors as Frances Densmore, Alice Cunningham Fletcher, and George Herzog. The singers in these recordings are mostly youth and children. Many of them were recorded at boarding schools, and in many cases their names were not recorded. The liner notes are slightly paternalistic, and should therefore be understood as products of their time.
1. Dom Flemons is a American folk musician who has won a Grammy award for his work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. He has performed with them on the stage of the Coolidge Auditorium here at the Library of Congress, and done research at AFC. He has also written a guest post for this blog, and recorded a video for our Lomax Challenge.
2. The series includes a subset of twenty titles called the Music of the American Indian series, which includes Indian Songs of Today. Some of those may not be available to reissue because of culturally sensitive materials that the tribes would prefer to keep offline. Also not included in this digitization and reissue project are the 15 titles in Richard K. Spottswood’s Folk Music in America bicentennial series, which contained commercial recordings for which it may not be possible to secure permissions.