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About the Project

These are documentary sound recordings of rural Kentucky music and lore collected under the auspices of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress between 1933 and 1942. Performed by farmers, laborers, coal miners, preachers, housewives, public officials, soldiers, grandparents, adolescents, and itinerant musicians, they present a full spectrum of traditional expressive culture from twelve of Eastern Kentucky’s mountain counties: ballads and lyric songs, play-party ditties and comic pieces, topical and protest material, fiddle and banjo tunes, hymns and sacred songs, children's games and lullabies, and a variety of spoken lore—religious testimonies, occupational reminiscences, tall tales, jokes, and family and personal narratives.

The earliest recordings were made in Harlan County by John A. Lomax and his son Alan in 1933; John returned alone, in 1937, to make recordings of American Folk Song Festival performers at the Boyd County home of Festival organizer Jean Thomas. The largest collection was the result of a two-and-a-half-month trip through ten counties made in the autumn of 1937 by Alan and his wife Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold. Several months later, in early 1938, the couple made recordings of enlisted men in the Tenth Infantry Division at Fort Thomas in Northern Kentucky, and of Whitley County native Pete Steele and his family, who were living and working in Hamilton, Ohio. Columbia University professor Mary Elizabeth Barnicle—with whom Alan Lomax had collaborated on field-trips in Florida, Georgia, and the Bahamas in 1935—made an extensive canvas of Bell County in 1938. Also included here are recordings made in New York City (by Alan Lomax and Mary Barnicle) and Connecticut (by John A. Lomax) of Bell and Harlan County union activists Jim Garland, Sarah Ogan Gunning, and Aunt Molly Jackson, who had recently relocated north.

Alan Lomax felt that a chief result of his and his father's efforts for the Library of Congress was that "for the first time America could hear itself." Thus their intentions were not merely archival. Alan in fact cautioned against the strictly preservational impulse, remarking that "folksongs should not be buried in libraries as they are in Washington and in universities over the country." The present effort, launched on the centennial of Lomax’s birth, seeks to realize his vision by providing free and complete access to these historic collections. It is the result of a unique four-part collaboration between Berea College Special Collections & Archives, University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center, the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, and the Association for Cultural Equity.

 

Credits:

Audio digitization: Recording Laboratory of the Library of Congress

Audio preparation; speed- and pitch-correction: Nathan Salsburg (Association for Cultural Equity), with support from the National Endowment for the Arts

Site programming and management: Daniel Weddington (Berea College Special Collections & Archives), with Eric Weig (University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center)

Cataloging: Nathan Salsburg, with support from University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center (Deirdre Scaggs, Associate Dean) and a Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship (Rachel Vagts, Head of Special Collections & Archives)

Editorial committee: Todd Harvey (American Folklife Center); Harry Rice (Berea College Special Collections & Archives); Nathan Salsburg

 

We would value users’ input on any element of this project, particularly corrections to or elaborations on performer names, recording sites, song titles, genres, and significance, and contributions of any biographical information on performers and photographs or other ephemera relating to them. Please contact Harry Rice or Nathan Salsburg.