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Five Questions with Nicole Saylor, Head, American Folklife Center Archives

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This post is by Nicole Saylor of the Library of Congress.

Nicole Saylor. Image by Stephen Winnick
Nicole Saylor. Image by Stephen Winick

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

As the Head of the American Folklife Center Archive, I lead a team of archivists and folklorists who acquire, preserve, and prepare archival collections for public access at the American Folklife Center. Archival collections are unpublished, one-of-a-kind materials. For us, that means mostly recordings of ethnographic and historical documentation recorded from the nineteenth century to the present. These collections, which include extensive audiovisual documentation of traditional arts, cultural expressions, and oral histories, offer researchers access to the songs, stories, and other creative expressions of people from diverse communities.

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

It is hard to choose. Since this is going out to teachers and students, I would have to say that my favorite is the Katherine and Christine Shipp’s 1939 disc recording of the game songs “Old Uncle Rabbit” and “Sea Lion Woman”.

The recording was made on May 13, 1939, in Byhalia, Mississippi by folklorist Herbert Halpert and his locally appointed colleague and guide Abbott Ferriss, a member of the Mississippi unit of the Federal Writers Project.

The latter song is more famous. Since that first recording of the song, artists ranging from jazz vocalist Nina Simone (Broadway-Blues-Ballads, 1964) to the indie pop singer Feist (The Reminder, 2007) have recorded this song. A lot of artists sing it—I’ve heard Sweet Honey in the Rock perform it live, which was fantastic.

The song has a wonderful rhythm to it. The song is spelled a lot of different ways (See Line, Cee Line, etc.) and all kinds of lyric variants are out there. It’s hard to say for sure what the song is about. Is it a nonsense playground song, a coded song sung during slavery, or a song about women lining the shore waiting for sailors? That’s what is fun about folk songs, and folk traditions of all kinds. They are always changing and open to interpretation.

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

This is more of a story about how my curiosity sparked a discovery in the collections, I guess. I’m from a part of the country that isn’t necessarily known for its folk and traditional music. (To paraphrase folklorist James Leary, the Midwest lacks the antiquity of the East, the tragedy of the South, or the destiny of the West.)

As a music lover, I was eager to learn something about my home state’s musical heritage. It turns out to be richer than I realized (see our Iowa collection guide). Anyway, my curiosity led me to the work of a folklorist named Harry Oster, who was best known for his early work in Louisiana and Mississippi. It turns out, he lived in Iowa and recorded several musicians there, and our archives holds several hours of songs and stories he recorded there in the 1960s. He compiled the Iowa recordings into an album.

You can also find examples of some of his recordings on our blog, including one from Laura Browne, whose family comes from my father’s hometown.

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

This past Thanksgiving, we had a super-memorable interaction with K-12 teachers and students. The American Folklife Center archives the StoryCorps collection, one of the largest oral history projects in existence (the interviews are regularly featured on NPR’s Morning Edition). StoryCorps launched “The Great Thanksgiving Listen,” a national education project that empowered high school students to create oral narratives by recording an interview with an elder over Thanksgiving weekend using the StoryCorps app. Thousands of high schools from all 50 states took part, and created more than 50,500 recordings that are now in our archives.

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

If you are a teacher who wants to engage young people through examining local culture or the folklore of families, regions, and the larger world, our collections have a lot to offer. We would love to see more teachers using our materials, especially as we are hard at work adding more and more collections online. The Chicago Ethnic Arts Project collection is documentation from the 1970s. We have all kinds of Alan Lomax materials online, including his field notebooks from collecting trips he made throughout the world. The Lomax organization, the Association for Cultural Equity, is one of our partners and has extensive curricular resources for teachers related to Lomax. Lomax has even been featured on PBS Kids.

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