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Junior Fellows Enhance Discoverability of Music Resources Related to Blind Musicians – Part 1

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This is a guest blog post by Junior Fellow Margot Cuddihy. Ms. Cuddihy, who is a graduate student in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, contributed to NLS Music Section’s projects during the 10-week-long program.

Hello, Notes readers! My name is Margot Cuddihy, and I am one of the two Junior Fellows working in the Music Section this summer. The Junior Fellows Program is an annual internship that allows undergraduate and graduate students to work on projects to increase access to various materials throughout the Library, with a focus on materials that reflect underrepresented perspectives and experiences. I have the opportunity to learn about and contribute to the Library’s extensive resources, as well as gain career experience through a variety of professional development seminars!

The projects that my Junior Fellow colleague Analisa Caso and I are working on this summer aim to increase the discoverability of materials in the Music Section’s collection. Specifically, our focus is to highlight materials that are by and about blind and visually impaired musicians. While we have the same goal and are collaborating along the way, we are delivering entirely different products. Playing to our strengths, Analisa is working on updating these materials’ metadata (which you can read all about in her upcoming blog post) and I am creating a reference guide to assist NLS patrons in locating these materials.

The reference guide will be divided into three major parts: Biographies, Musical Works, and Lectures & Conversations. From there, the materials are sorted by musician/composer, and under each, patrons can find a list of braille, audio, large-print, and online materials. Upon completion, this guide will be made available on the NLS Music Section’s website. It aims to exist as a substantial living document, guiding those who want to learn more about the lives and creative outputs of blind and visually impaired musicians, as well as those looking to perform their compositions, to relevant resources.

I am looking forward to publishing a guide for those who, like me, want to bridge the gaps in the very insular musical tradition that many of us were taught. I studied music in undergrad and my music history coursework focused almost entirely on the Western classical music tradition, with a brief stint in vernacular American music. In my experience, courses covering these areas of music history tend to be biased in favor of music made by men who are white, cisgender, non-disabled, and of European descent. Diverse voices that don’t fit that mold are commonly disregarded, which leads many of us to a very limited understanding of the musical traditions that continue to influence our lives today.

There is good reason to study the works of our beloved canonical composers (Brahms and Tchaikovsky are personal favorites of mine!), but it’s also important to remind ourselves that music history includes more than just a select few composers. People belonging to historically marginalized communities, including individuals who are blind and visually impaired, continue to make valuable contributions to musical traditions around the world, and that deserves celebrating!

For example, it’s no secret that blind musicians were at the forefront of the innovation in genres that are quintessentially American, including country, jazz, and blues. Country bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929), referred to by many as the “Father of Texas Blues,” was one of the first successful country blues recording artists! Some interesting materials that I came across while creating this guide included a series of broadcasts by Stefan Grossman which provides historical details and instruction on the styles and techniques of country blues guitarists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, Rev. Gary Davis, and others.

Check them out:

Country Blues Guitar. Radio broadcast by Stefan Grossman. This series of 17 broadcasts will present to the student the legendary names of Country Blues Guitar and give a clear picture of how blues styles and techniques developed. (DBM01495)

Country Blues Guitar Styles and Techniques. Radio broadcast by Stefan Grossman. This series of radio shows focuses on styles and techniques of country blues guitarists and he uses old recordings combined with his own playing to describe the techniques used. (DBM01478)

Fingerpicking Guitar Workshop. Radio broadcast by Stefan Grossman. In this series of radio broadcasts, Grossman adds his guitar playing with talk and records to illustrate some of the ideas, approaches and concepts in fingerpicking guitar. (DBM01475)

You can also learn more about Jefferson’s influence on the blues and hear a sample of his music on Part 4 of  From Jumpstreet: a Story of Black Music. A production of National Public Radio, originally broadcast in January 1982. Reading time 4 hours, 33 minutes. (DBM00715)

And of course, the impact of blind musicians is not limited to genres found in the American vernacular. You may be familiar with organist Helmut Walcha (1907-1991), for example, from his notable recordings of the complete organ works by J.S. Bach. What you many may not know is that, when he wasn’t busy acting as a leading Bach interpreter, he was also a composer! Among his compositions are preludes based on known tunes, and some of my favorites include the following; from 25 Choral Preludes, for organ, bar by bar format. (BRM02485):

Fröhlich soll mein Herze springen, Nr. 7;

Weicht ihr Berge, fallt ihr, Nr. 9;

Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, Nr. 14.

I intend for this guide to serve as a reminder of the valuable contributions that individuals who are blind and visually impaired have made to music throughout history, as well as a resource that empowers those belonging to historically marginalized communities to continue to create beautiful art. Walcha and Jefferson are only two of over 35 musicians featured in this reference guide, so if you are looking to expand your music history knowledge and/or diversify your repertoire, I hope that this guide will help you on your journey. Be sure to check the NLS Music Website for updates; it should be available by the end of July 2022. In the meantime, let us know in the comments below if there is a blind composer or musician that has impacted your life!

Please note that all materials listed above are available to borrow by mail, and those with links are available through BARD. To borrow talking books on digital cartridge or to borrow hard copies of braille music by mail, please contact the Music Section. You can call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].

If you are new to BARD, you may find the following links helpful: Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access.

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