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Holding the Music: Lessons from the Library

This guest post is by Brianna Gist, 2019 Jr. Fellow in the Recorded Sound Section.

Brianna Gist, 2019 Jr. Fellow.

Music has been a foundational pillar of my life since childhood, and two months ago I knew that this summer would be one of musical discovery when I swore an oath of office to become a new member of the 2019 Junior Fellows Program.

As a violinist and gospel singer, I was intrigued by the Native American Audio Project proposal offered by the Recorded Sound Section because it was rooted in music and exploration of the recorded sound industry. My passion for music began at a young age when I listened to a rich array of salsa, Motown, rock, R&B, classical, jazz, and hip-hop music with my parents. I still listen to the greats like The Temptations, Ella Fitzgerald, and Celia Cruz. However, I was fascinated by the prospect of researching the Native American music industry as I saw it as an opportunity to merge my passions for languages and music to learn about the ways in which Native artists have shaped the recorded music industry.

With Sally Smith, my co-Junior Fellow on this project, we began the summer by acquainting ourselves with the Native American music industry. We researched the Library’s holdings of commercially-released music by Native American artists and record labels, starting with the work of Tony Isaacs, founder of Indian House Records. From there, we gathered background information about traditional genres of Native music such as peyote songs, powwow drum music, and chicken scratch.

[Portrait of Mildred Bailey, Carnegie Hall (?), New York, N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947] William P. Gottlieb Collection, Music Division.

The project came to life when we followed the trails of our research into the contemporary sphere of commercially released music by Native musicians. We kept detailed records as we searched through discographies and sifted through the Library’s online catalog, and were very surprised when our queries led us to tens of record labels, dozens of artists, and hundreds of albums. American Indian Soundchiefs, Indian House, and Canyon Records were among the first labels to produce music by Native artists and musicians such as Mildred Bailey, R. Carlos Nakai, and Natay. They are among many artists who laid the foundations of the Native American recorded music industry.

From there, we compiled a database of over 400 albums recorded by Native musicians and wrote a subject guide. This became the core of our project, and we highlighted the Library’s extensive collection of commercially-released music to make this information readily available to the public in the future. In addition to our research on musicians and record labels, we gathered information about tribes, traditional music practices, and contemporary artists from eight geographic regions of the United States and Canada.

Hold the Rain, Pura Fe. Dixie Frog Records. Recorded Sound Section.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the project has been learning about the musicians and their backgrounds. I’ve become a huge fan of Pura Fé a singer-songwriter, musician, teacher, and activist from North Carolina who sings about her experiences and heritage as a Tuscarora and Tano woman. Inspired by artists like Charlie Patton and Buffy Sainte-Marie, she sings a unique style of music that combines elements of blues, folk, and soul, evident in her studio album Hold The Rain (DixieFrog Records, 2007). Fé is also one of the founding members of the indigenous female acapella group Ulali, which delivers powerfully soulful vocals in their collaborations and performances.

In addition to our research for the Native American Audio Project, we have been fortunate to attend a host of events sponsored by the Library’s Office of Internships and Fellowships. We took tours of the Library, attended talks hosted by Library staff, and participated in clinics to work on our resumes and LinkedIn profiles. These events encouraged me to think about next steps after the Junior Fellows Program and helped me to prepare for what lies ahead.  I also visited the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia, which gave us the opportunity to meet the audio engineers, catalogers, technicians and other staff who work there to preserve and provide access to the Library’s audio-visual holdings.

As I reflect on the past ten weeks, I recognize that this summer has enriched me with a number of opportunities. I have sharpened my writing skills and strengthened my ability to conduct comprehensive research on a given topic. Throughout our work, I’ve collaborated with an interdisciplinary team across divisions, networked with fellow staff, and worked on a project highlighting the Library’s collection of Native artists and their talent. I am incredibly thankful for these experiences and for the the Junior Fellows Program and the Recorded Sound Section staff, who have supported and encouraged me throughout the summer.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to reference librarians in the Recorded Sound Research Center or Ask-A-Librarian if you have questions or are looking for a particular Native American audio recording. Recordings are available for listening at the Recorded Sound Research Center, Room LM-113, in the Madison Building.



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