Nouvelles Pod #7 - James Revell Carr - Folklore Music

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Nouvelles Nouvelles Podcast #7 - James Revell Carr on Folklore Music

Interviewer: Rachel Hopkin (RH); Interviewee: James Revell Carr (RC)

Time: March 11, 2022; Location: Digital Media Studio (142 Hagerty Hall)


Interview Transcript

RH: Hello, this is Rachel Hopkin from the Center for Folklore Studies at The Ohio State University. Together with the Center for Medieval and Renaissance studies, the Center for Folklore Studies is sponsoring the 13th annual Francis Lee Utley lecture this year. And this year's guest speaker is Dr. James Revell Carr. Dr. Carr is an associate professor of musicology and ethnomusicology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. He's the director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American music there. He has a wide range of musical interests including sea shanties, Anglo American Badri, Hawaiian music, folk music, revivals, and improvisational rock. The topic of Dr. Carr's Utley lecture is musical archives. And he's participated in a range of musical archive-related initiatives, including the English broadside ballad archive at UC Santa Barbara, and sounding spirit, which is aiming to digitize 1000s of American sacred song books and hymnals. Dr. Carr, thanks very much for joining us.

RC: Thank you for having me.

RH: So I'm going to start by asking you how your interest in musical archives generally came about? And what was the first musical archives that you worked with?

RC: Well, that's a good question. I guess I've grown up around a lot of museums and archives, my father was a historian. And so I always, I remember, as a kid, always being fascinated by the sort of behind the scenes of the museum, you know, anytime some guests would come to town, my dad would always give us all a tour of all the things that were behind the scenes, the things that weren't on display. And so I always had an interest in you know, the, the museum or the or the, the place you visit just being like the tip of the iceberg. And so I've always appreciated the aspect of these archives that are these vast spaces that are kind of hidden from the public. And, and, so I've like, as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by collections and those kinds of things. My first real archival experience was at University of Oregon when I was working as a master student there. And my GA position. My graduate assistantship was in the Randall V. Mills archive of Northwest folklore, which was very similar to what I saw today at the OSU folklore archive: a lot of student-generated field where a lot of material from the lumber in you know, loggers and fishermen and people like that from the Oregon coast. And I just fell in love with folklore archives. And I've, I've, you know, I've had I've had a lot of different work experiences, both public sector work working in museums, and in academic contexts, but archives and those kinds of collections have always been sort of a thread and music archives more specifically. 

I found when I was working at University of Oregon on my master's degree, that of all the ways that one can study folklore from architecture and material culture and superstitions, and folktales. What I tended to gravitate towards was all a relating to music. And not just to the musical sound, but to all the accoutrements of music and the things that come along with music, fan culture, musical instruments and organ ology that that kind of stuff. And I've so, so yes, I've found that. Musical archives, both sound archives and archives relating to musical cultures are what are most fascinating to me.

RH: So tell me about the English broadside ballad archive, actually, even before you tell me about the archive? Can you tell me about what an English broadside ballad is?

RC: Sure, sure. So, from around the late 16th century, through the early 19th century, there was a tradition of printing ballads on something called a broad sheet. So just one side of a piece of paper. And then these ballads would be printed and then sold on the street, usually for a penny or a half penny, all over England, but primarily in London, and in larger cities like Edinburgh. And so, they were ballads, that told stories, typically topical stories about what was going on, in politics or in the social life of the city at the time. So there were ballads about the Great Fire of London, ballads about the plague bounced about and just strange things, you know, ballads about a monstrous pig that was born on a farm you know, or and, of course, lots of ballads about murders and, you know, intrigue and, you know, politics and things like that. So they were really like the news of the day, written in verse and then sung and if you liked a ballad, you would purchase it from the ballad hawker on the street corner. And then you might post it on your wall, in your house or on the wall of a pub or something like that. So, I like to tell my students that posting memes that you like, on walls is actually a pretty old tradition in, in the English speaking world.

RH: It's really interesting relating the kind of these old forms of sharing media to the current forms. I mean, obviously, the technology is very different. But at the same time, they don't seem that far away. What you're describing sounds a bit like the YouTube channel of the day.

RC:  Absolutely. It was and it was, you know, these broadside ballads, had illustrations, so there was like a visual part of it as well. Yeah, and they were shared, and they were typically sung to tunes that were very well known. So it was like this recycling of musical motifs. Similar to what we do today with sampling and you know, ticktok, where people are doing the same, you know, different dances to the same song or whatever. So it was a, I think, a precursor to modern social media, for sure. And all centered around this new technology of the printing press.

RH: Right, right. So what is the English broadside ballad archive above and beyond what its name already?

RC: Well, it is an archive of ringless broadside ballads. And it started off just to try to digitize one small collection. And by small, I mean, about 1800 ballads. And my job was to find the tunes that went with those ballads and then make recordings of the ballads as they would have been sung. You know, back iin the 1600s. Today, they have grown the project, it's been going on for almost 15 years now. And they are now on the verge of digitizing every known broadside ballad in collections and archives from around the world. So, these are, you know, every printed ballad that is still known to exist, is being digitized.

RH: It’s extraordinary. And you're saying it started off with a single collection?

RC: Right, the collection of Samuel Pepys, who was a diarist, a very famous diarist in the middle of the 17th century, in London, he was a sort of a political figure at the time, but he loved these ballads. And he collected a great number of them. And so that was the sort of the cornerstone of this archive.

RH: So I was looking at up a little bit about the archive before we met here this afternoon, and I saw that it had the Samuel Pepys collection, which comes from, I guess, Magdalene College, Cambridge. So am I right. And understanding that the English broadside ballad archive is not a depository of the original ballad materials. It's digitizing these materials and other institutions.

RC: Exactly. Yes. So and that is sort of one of the interesting digital aspects of what it is that, right, it's like a, to me that what the Digital Archives do best is they can bring together these disparate collections from all over the world, and bring all this material together into one place. And so yeah, they forgot. They've got ballads or broadsides now from, from Cambridge, from the University of Glasgow from Edinburgh, and then there's collections here in the United States, like at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles. And so they've just, they've tracked down all these repositories of broadside ballads. And yeah, and digitize them, right, not having any of them physically, they are at UC Santa Barbara. It's just the Early Modern center saw a kind of a need to create a space online for all this, this wonderful history.

RH: That sounds like a really amazing initiative and it's obviously kind of like mushroomed over the years. Oh, yeah. That's so inspiring. But a little bit about your role. You said you will find in the tunes that these things were some two, how do you go? How do you do that?

RC: So yeah, that was my thing. I had been a folklore student and a folk music person, but this project was largely run by the English department and they sort of they kind of brought me in early on and said, Well, what would music people want out of this project and I said, “Well, it'd be really cool if you could actually hear the ballads being sung. Not only that, would it be cool, but it would make them more accessible to people with visual impairments and other things as well.” So they said, great, you're on, go ahead, go get started. And they bought me a microphone and a little recording unit. And I started singing. And, and I started roping my friends in and fortunately there's a wonderful book called oh, now I'm blanking on the name of the book. But it's British broadside ballads. And it's music, I believe, by Claude Simpson, who was a folklorist who collected the tunes. And you know, for because again, most of the study of these ballads had been more in the literary vein as poetry. But Simpson recognized that they all had tunes that went with them and the tunes were never printed on the broadsheet. It would just give you a tune indication, it would say, “Wallen’s Lament to the tune of Lady's Fall.” And so then my job would be to look up. All right, well, what is this tune of the Lady’s Fall? A lot of times, those tunes would end up taking on new names. So for example, the Lady’s Fall, became so associated with the ballad and Wallen’s Lament that on later broadsheets, it would say to the tune of Wallen, right, so you'd have to kind of know the path that these tunes had taken, being recycled and reused and the most popular ones showing up dozens of times. So yeah, it was just kind of using the resources that were available. There are some other great tune books like “Pills to Purge Melancholy and Wit and Mirth.” So they're tune books from the time period of the ballads that were are also now digitized. So you can look up these tune names in these old books and find the notation

RH: I'm liking the sound of what is it? Pills to purge melancholy? Sounds like something we all need in these late pandemic days?

RC: Well, that's what a good tune will do. It is a pill to purge melancholy.

RH: Yeah. Do you remember any pills to purge melancholy that you feel like,

RC: Oh, well, let me see, I think the one that I, and I don't have the lyrics in front of me. But uh, a typical tune, like the one I was talking about a lady's fall is something like, la La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la la. Right.

So that, and then that would be repeated for a dozen or two dozen verse is great. Yeah, well, it's a bit of a melancholy tune. You know, like the blues, it's not meant to make you feel sad. It's meant to kind of lift your lid, take your sadness from you. Right. You know, it can be sad whilst you get happy. Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And of course, some of the tunes were actually ended up being written by some of the great composers of the day, like Henry Pursell, who wrote for the theater at Covent Garden and things like that. And so his tunes would be so popular that it would then the broadsheet would say, you know, to popular new tunes sung at the Playhouse, and you'd have to figure out well, okay, well, which new tune was that? And more often than not, it was something by Henry Pursell.

RH: Oh, my goodness, that sounds like such a fun project. It was great fun.

RC: It was, it was great fun.

RH: I love that. So tell us a little bit about this other archives that you're connected with, oh, one of the other archives to connect with, but one of the ones I'm naming which is sounding spirit.

RC: Well, this is a brand new project that I was contacted about. I guess now two years ago or so. It's being spearheaded by Emory University's Center for Digital Scholarship. And, again, like, like the Broadside ballad archive, it's an attempt to bring together materials from a number of different places, and then create a digital space where they can all be brought together. So Emory, the theological school at Emory, of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Middle Tennessee State University, and then the collection of the John Jacob Niles Center at UVA, are all being used to create a digital archive of hymnals and sacred song books from around 1850 to 1925. So you know, Not exactly the most early examples of American songbooks, but a kind of key period in the history of the growth of religion, and especially Protestantism and in the United States. Our collection at UK is really strong in the area of sacred harp and shape note type hymnals. So we have a lot of those, that type of fairly unusual hymnal that was part of our collection called the Wilcox collection. And so, you know, we, it's actually been a great opportunity for at least one of our graduate students, who has been working on hymnals already, for her dissertation, and she, you know, they when I was approached by Emory, they said, Do you have anyone there? Who, who knows the hymnals? Really well? And I said, Oh, yes, Aaron, knows those hymnals really well. And so she got hired as part of this grant, as a bibliography specialist. And so it's provided her with some employment while she's been working on her dissertation. And she has gone all over to all these different archives and figured out which of these hymnals are not already digitized somewhere else, which of these are our most valuable, most useful, and she's identified, you know, I think it's in the neighborhood of 2000, that are kind of the starting point for this. But I'm guessing like many of these archival Digital Archives, it will probably grow. And we'll bring in more institutions into this into the project over as it as it goes on.

RH: So where are these organizations? These come from Emory and the one we were talking about previously, but the broad sides, that started and is at UC Santa Barbara, yeah, do you know where these organizations are getting their money to start these initiatives from?

RC:  Well, in both of these cases, in both of those cases, the money has come from the National Endowment for the Humanities. And, you know, I know there are people who have been chomping at the bit to cut the budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts. But to my mind this, you get the most bang for your buck from organizations like this, with money that's, you know, a, a small, just a tiny little fraction of our national budget, but support, scholarship and research and, and make that research and scholarship public. For everyone, you know, with no subscription, no fees, to use these materials. It's a really, really valuable thing that our federal government does. And I think it's something that everyone should support because it's our history, it's our culture, our cultures. And it’s invaluable what the National Endowment for the Humanities has supported.

RH: I'm into that. Just coming back to what you were talking about this, this collection of sacred song books and hymnals, the sound spirit project. So when you were talking about the broadsides, you were talking about how they were reflecting on things going on at the moment, political stuff, murders, other stuff is like a form of news. So you learn a lot about what's going on at the time from those. What kind of things can you learn from sacred song books and hymnals? Beyond just their content? Do they in some way, give us insight into a greater kind of religious culture?

RC: Oh, absolutely. Yes, of course they do. And one of the great things about this project too, is there's been a real emphasis on collecting and digitizing American hymnals and sacred song books that are not necessarily in the English language, right. So there are some books in German, there are some books in Spanish, there are some books in Native American languages, there are African American song books. And so we see the great diversity of religion in America and the great variety of religious expression in American history, and I think the sort of multiple ways of looking at God and that religion is something that's really, really valuable for us today. We tend to think of religion as something, something fairly monolithic in our modern culture, and it's, it's always been so you know, diverse, it's always been so you know, multicultural, that, that I think a project like this shows us that our roots as a country are in cosmopolitan and that really comes out in this collection.

RH: That's wonderful. So this morning you came and graced us with your presence at the Center for Folklore studies, which is currently in the Ohio Stadium. So just next to where all the football games take place. We don't work there on game days, but if we could, I thought we could hear them. And we showed you around our collections, which includes the student ethnographic project collection, which has over 10,000 projects that have been written by students since the late 1960s, covering pretty much every aspect of folklore you could want to learn about. And we also saw the Utley record collection, which was started by the person in whose honor the lecture series that you're here to present in is named Frances Lee Utley, he started a collection in the middle years of the 20th century, which was looking at various forms of music that could be kind of loosely defined as folk or loosely understood as folk music from all around the world. And his collection didn't just come from the middle years of the 20th century that we've got records that date from, I think, the 1910s. But as you also saw, we're not in the best archival circumstances, the stadium has no climate control, the records are stacked in shelving, which is not ideal. Cats come out of the ceiling, quite literally. My own cat is from the ceiling of folklore studies born and exceeding, so won't be in a sub key recommendations or line of hope for us as we think about our future.

RC: Oh, wow. Well, yeah, get out from under the stadium for one thing. Because, you know, there's stadiums attract all kinds of critters that are eating the leftover French fries and stuff. Gosh, you know, I do think it's just a matter of institutional priorities. You know, and I don't really know much about Ohio State, but they've got plenty of money. I know, they do. This is a huge university, with, I'm sure wonderful endowments. And, you know, like I was saying, with the National Endowment for the Humanities, a little bit of money invested in projects like this can make a huge, massive difference and preserve our cultural heritage for generations to come. And I think it's just important for institutions like the Ohio State University, or the University of Kentucky to put the resources where they, you know, where they are needed. And, you know, for a fraction of what the football coach is paid, for example, you know, you could, you could build a whole new climate-controlled archive for your collections. So yeah, it's, it's all about priorities.

RH: So this afternoon, I don't want to keep you too much longer, because you've only got one voice, and you're going to be needing to use it. Right? Oh, lecture and a little bit, but can you give us a nutshell taken on what your lecture this afternoon is about?

RC: Well, I think we've already kind of gotten into it quite a bit, I think, you know, one of the things that I have a sort of an ambivalent relationship with digital archives and digital humanities, in general. On one hand, I think it is really incredibly important to make these materials accessible. And by making them digital, we're making them accessible not just to the general public, but you know, making them more accessible to people with disabilities in various ways. Although there's always more that can be done in that respect, but, you know, preserving and making archives available to the general public is a hugely important mission. On the other hand, though, I have myself really been inspired by actually going to the archives, and touching these documents or feeling, you know, holding. I, when I did work on my book on Hawaiian music, I got to hold in my hand a diary, written by the Queen of Hawaii, you know, and to be able to feel that tangible connection to history is something that a digital archive can never supplant. Right. So that's sort of what I'm gonna get at it a little bit in my talk is like, we have these these wonderful archives that we should make them we should digitize and make everything accessible and available to people. But at the same time, we also need to focus on preserving and protecting the archives, the physical archives that we have and putting money and resources into those places because the aura of those documents, the actual contact with those things, and of course also the contact with archivists and experts who you actually meet when you go to these archives, that's invaluable for researchers. And it can't, those things are kind of lost in the digital shuffle. So I love seeing a lot of money going into digital humanities and digital archives. But I also think we should be supporting the physical spaces as well.

RH: Are you preaching to the converted here? Yeah. So I know that the lecture this afternoon is being recorded. We're recording this on March the 11th, of 2020. So I'm hoping not going to make that available afterwards for people who aren't coming to the lecture themselves, but who are listening to this podcast and thinking, Oh, my goodness, I wish I could hear that guy's lecture. He sounds so interesting.

RC: So I have no control over that myself. So I hope that it is made public.

RH: Yeah, I don't know that. So. But if you check on our website, any listeners can check on the Center for Folklore studies at The Ohio State University's website, which you can just Google, and I'm sure we'll have posted a link to it if it does, in fact, exist at the end of today. Well, listen, thanks ever so much for taking part and for visiting us here all the way from Lexington, which admittedly isn't that far.

RC: It's really not that far. But it feels it feels really a great to be talking to people in person again, I was telling some of the students here, it's been probably four years since I've gone and done lectures at another campus. So yeah, it's quite a great experience to be here.

RH: And he joined us on this historic day where six o'clock this evening, we're going to be liberated from our masks, right.

RC: After my talk, where we’ll be able to take off our masks. It's wonderful. All right. Well, thank you so much, Rachel, for having me.

RH: Again, Dr. James Revell Carr from the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Thank you so much. Thank you.