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Five Questions with Cathy Kerst, Folklorist in the American Folklife Center

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Cathy Kerst
Cathy Kerst

The following is a guest post from Cathy Kerst of the Library of Congress.

Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with.

I am a folklorist in the American Folklife Center and I catalog and describe unpublished ethnographic collections from our Archive, so they can be found and explored by users. Our collection materials include nearly every possible recording format, every kind of photographic and moving image, and a wide variety of manuscripts–from maps, handwritten diaries and autograph books to tiny scraps of paper with valuable contextual information. They represent the work of cultural researchers interested in documenting the expressive traditions of people everywhere–through music, oral history, the spoken word, and more.

Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections?

I’m fond of this amusing 1939 recording of John Stone singing an ad for baby food, “Dr. Ridge’s Food,” that he had performed earlier in his life on the medicine show circuit. It was recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell for a New Deal project, the “WPA California Folk Music Project,” which she directed and organized to document English- and foreign-language traditional music that was being performed in California in the late 1930s.

Her  field reports recount how difficult it was to locate the elusive country fiddler, Johnny Stone: ” . . I walked a mile down the mountain, poled down the river three miles on a raft to his mine after dark, and actually met Johnny Stone, whose existence I was about to doubt. . . . This is the first time I ever pursued a folk singer on a raft.” Luckily, she was able to record him a few days later at Cliff House, where he performed a variety of fiddle and harmonica tunes, in addition to “Dr. Ridge’s Food.”

In this recording, Cowell and Stone speak briefly at the beginning–to introduce the song and say a bit about it. There is an immediacy in hearing a field recording like this, where the audio quality has not been enhanced and where the experience of listening to it provides a sense of reality.

Share a time when an item from the collections sparked your curiosity.

Suburban Resettlement Administration poster, 1936.
Suburban Resettlement Administration poster, 1936.

I have always been fascinated by the vast collections of New Deal materials that the Library of Congress holds. In addition to the remarkable FSA photographs in the Prints and Photographs Division and the incredible life history materials that were generated by the Federal Writers’ Project and are housed in the Manuscript Division, the American Folklife Center holds many additional compelling manuscript items and photographs, correspondence, and field recordings from the 1930s, collected from numerous cultural groups and geographic areas of the US.

One set of items that I found in the American Folklife Center’s Resettlement Administration collection are songs sheets that were created in 1936 and ’37 to distribute at locations where displaced Americans were resettled following the depression. These songs sheets, with traditional melodies and lyrics, plus artful New Deal images on their covers, were intended to facilitate communal singing in the newly-created communities–to encourage a sense of solidarity among the settlers. My curiosity was sparked by the unstated (and somewhat naïve) notions that people in the settlements didn’t already know songs they could sing with each other–and that they would actually be able to read musical notation.

There are other more complicated tales to tell of the song sheets in our Archive, especially concerning one song, “The Dodger.” The lyrics for “The Dodger” contain, in the first stanza: “The candidate’s a dodger, yes, a well-known dodger . . . He’ll meet you and treat you and ask you for your vote, But look out boys, he’s a-dodging for a note!” Some elected officials felt that the Resettlement Administration should not be allowed to publish such lyrics, funded as their projects were by Congress.  In exploring the song sheets, I have found many fascinating layers of meaning and understanding to discover–musical, political, historical, and artistic.

Tell us about a memorable interaction with a K-12 teacher or student.

I have been impressed by the teachers who have visited the American Folklife Center, and have learned much in interactions with them about what they are looking for when searching for materials. For instance, in a conversation about oral history collections that we have online, they were especially interested in knowing how old the narrators were in the selections. As catalogers, we often focus solely on topic and approach in describing these recordings, but these teachers were looking for oral histories of youth to share with their high school students. For me, this brought up the broader issue of describing not just the cultural, occupational, or geographic background of a narrator, but also her age–an important aspect of the recordings to include.

What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with or the collections in general?

Although teachers cannot always come visit our Archive, they can call and speak with AFC staff about what they are interested in researching–we are eager to be of assistance in suggesting how to proceed. The archival materials in the American Folklife Center are vast, though many are not yet digitized. I would like to remind teachers that, in addition to the items that we have online, there is so much that we have in our collections beyond the ones that are digitized.

With our ethnographic interests, we are fascinated by absolutely everything having to do with such things as shared culture, living traditions, everyday and celebratory expressions of life, the culture of food and occupations. We don’t believe that folklore is a thing of the past, though it may often link to it or follow from it–it is rather based in the on-going communicative interactions that create vital patterns and meaning in our lives as humans.


Comments (2)

  1. I really liked “Dr. Ridge’s Food,” which reminded me of “The Darling Baby,” another sung-spoken comic song about minding a baby. It was recorded by the Irish group Boys of the Lough in the 1960s or early ’70s. Now I’m curious where the singer, Robin Morton, learned it. I will check! Thanks for a great blog.

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