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Five Questions with Jennifer Cutting, Folklife Specialist, American Folklife Center

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This post is by Jennifer Cutting of the Library of Congress.

Jennifer Cutting. Photograph by Irene Young
Jennifer Cutting. Photograph by Irene Young

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

I am a Folklife Specialist in the American Folklife Center (AFC), and I help researchers from all walks of life find their way through the collections of AFC’s Archive. Sometimes I’m helping students with their research papers, theses or dissertations; sometimes I’m helping filmmakers, radio and TV producers with their documentaries; and sometimes I’m helping musicians and novelists with their creative projects. Our collections offer something for everyone! Our collections are multi-format, so on any given day I might be helping researchers listen to field recordings, look at photographs and manuscripts, browse through books, or watch films.

Folklife – songs, stories, jokes, crafts, and dances which have been handed down from generation to generation – are the unwritten history of the American people, and they help us understand what it is like to belong to a group, whether that group is a family, an ethnic group, a regional group, or a group of workers in the same occupation.

My life outside of the American Folklife Center is very much a continuation of what I do at work. As a folk musician and performer, I help to continue musical traditions by keeping songs and tunes alive in my own repertoire, and sharing them with others. Often I will run across a wonderful song or tune during the course of helping researchers that I will later enjoy learning on my own time. The process of arranging and adapting traditional songs and tunes is a subject that I teach at various folk music schools and camps, and this also helps to spread the word about AFC’s amazing collections.

During my days at the American Folklife Center, I help preserve these traditions by archiving them… during my evenings and weekends, I preserve them by “performing the archive” for others, and keeping the songs and tunes alive in my head, my heart, and my hands. In other words, I eat, sleep, and breathe folk music!

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

I would have to select the song “Crab is a Better Man than Man,” performed by Theodore “Tea Roll” Rolle at Key West, Florida, on January 23, 1940. This recording, made by folklorist Stetson Kennedy, is part of the American Folklife Center’s online presentation “Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937 to 1942.”

Rolle sings about how superior the crab is to the human being, and accompanies himself on the button accordion, which is the instrument I play. (Learning this song is definitely at the top of my to-do list!)

I love Tea Roll’s improvised lyrics, and Louis-Armstrong-like scat singing, as well as the laughter in his voice… I dare you to listen to this song without smiling from ear to ear!

The best part of this story is that, not long after I fell in love with this song, I was able to meet Tea Roll’s family when they came up from Florida to visit us in July of 2014 here at the Library of Congress, and to listen to more of Tea Roll’s recordings.

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

Cutting_MorrisDancersAn old photograph of Gloucestershire fiddler Sam Bennett dressed in white, with bells on his ankles, took my breath away. For years, I’d been celebrating May 1st, or “May Day,” by getting up before sunrise to do Morris dancing, an English custom brought to America by folk dance teachers in the years before World War I.

So when I came to work one May Day dressed in in my white Morris dancing attire with bells on my ankles, and looked at this photograph of another musician celebrating May Day in England some seventy years ago, and he was dressed very much as I was dressed in that moment, it made me see myself as a link in a chain that stretches a long way back into the past, and that will continue a long way into the future.

This old photograph led me to do a further investigation of May traditions and that research led to my making a webcast for the Library of Congress called “Bringing in the May,” which presents photographs and recordings from two different AFC collections featuring British and American springtime traditions.

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

In August of 2014, my colleague Stephen Winick and I were teaching folksong courses at Augusta Heritage Center, in Elkins, West Virginia. There we met 11-year-old Nora R., who was starting 7th grade, and who was the youngest student by far, as all the other students were adults. Nora showed such an amazing aptitude for learning and singing traditional songs from British, American, and French source singers, such as the traditional ballad “Barbara Allen,” that we were very impressed, and invited her to come to our Folklife Reading Room whenever she could manage to visit Washington, D.C.

Nora has since visited the Folklife Reading Room twice to listen to our field recordings of folksongs in English and French, and of banjo players, too.

She enthused in a thank-you email: “… I could have stayed in the Folk Life Center forever (or at least until I starved) listening to all the great recordings, and reading the many books… I hope I can come back more often!”

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

The collections in the American Folklife Center’s archive tell the unwritten history of America (and many other countries, too) through the voices of everyday people. Our collections include Bre’r Rabbit stories, photos of beautiful quilts made with scraps, centuries-old ballads, the voices of free people who were born into slavery, and the traditions of all kinds of workers from lumberjacks to bakers and beauticians. And all of these contributions are accorded the same dignity; every person’s voice is a part of history. That’s what is so special about the American Folklife Center’s collections… and what I hope teachers and students will use and cherish.

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