The following is a guest post by Christopher M. Reali, Graduate Musicology Student, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
This past summer I, along with two fellow colleagues from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was awarded the James W. Pruett Summer Research Fellowships in Music at the Library of Congress. During the months of June and July the three of us worked twenty hours a week in the Acquisitions and Processing section of Music Division. Together we completed the finding aid, biographical data and container list for the Morton Gould Collection and processed music from the collection of composer Roy Harris. We spent the remaining hours in the week conducting our own research.
While processing the Gould collection, we discovered material related to a never produced musical called Desire. Other materials found in the collection include a tremendous amount of sketch material along with compositions in varying stages of completion. What’s exciting about the collection becoming available for research is that Gould was a big part of the pre and post-WW II American music scene, but has been since relegated to the sidelines, eclipsed by Leonard Bernstein – and Roy Harris for that matter. The availability of this collection for research will greatly enhance the understanding of mid-century music making in America.
The focus of my research was the Robert Sonkin Alabama and New Jersey Collection. In the summer of 1941 Sonkin, on his way to meet Charles Todd in California to complete research they had begun the previous summer, made over 50 recordings in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Gee’s Bend was an isolated tenant farm community of nearly 800 people located along the banks of the Alabama River, 45 miles southwest of Selma. The Farm Security Administration (FSA) had been involved with assisting the farmers in Gee’s Bend since the later-1930s. The Sonkin collection contains several reports and a 1937 newspaper article from the New York Times made about the community. Photographs of Gee’s Bend can be seen here.
The recordings made by Sonkin at Gee’s Bend, all a cappella spirituals, present a unique glimpse into a 20th-century American community that the modern world had not completely infiltrated. In an undated letter to John Lomax (written between July 15th and 22nd, 1941), Sonkin comments, “The folks are all deeply religious …, and the life centers entirely around the church. Utnil [sic] very recently there was no music that wasn’t religious, but now the younger people are beginning to circulate a little more, some of them get down to Mobile, the radio is beginning to get in, and you’ll here somebody trying to pick a guitar, or sing a blues,” (AFC1941/18 Box 1 of 1, Correspondence , folder 2 of 8).
Ultimately, the modern researcher uncovers more questions than answers when examining the Sonkin collection. Sonkin provided important pieces to a sonic quilt, which captured a remote Alabama community just months before the coming of World War II. To make better sense of what Sonkin did and did not record, I also examined WPA folklore manuals at the American Folklife Center and researched materials collected during the John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. It is my intention to present and publish my findings based on my research into the Sonkin collection within the next year.