Analog Music >> Digital History: Sights & Sounds From the Digital Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project

slides & notes from “behind the scenes” talk @ center for teaching, learning, & research, middlebury college, 20 February 2018.
As you arrived, we were listening to Jesse Fuller, the great one-man band performer, play his hit “San Francisco Bay Blues” as broadcast on the 1968 KPFA broadcast culled from that year’s Berkeley Folk Music Festival.

Today I’m going to talk about how these types of sounds and sights figure into a multimodal project that includes research, teaching, and digital public history/humanities project. I’m moving quickly through this material so we have lots of time to return to items and query them further or go in other directions.

I call this talk Analog Music >> Digital History, but really the arrows could point the other direction too, for one of the most intriguing and rewarding aspects of this digital research is that the analog context of the folk revival has something to teach us about our digital scholarship as much as we can apply digital approaches to this (or any) topic. In fact, something more like a duet, in complexly intertwined harmony, might be sung here between analog music and digital history.Vexing questions of fair use and open source ideals (and outright appropriation and stealing), remix culture (something at the heart of the “folk process,” as Pete Seeger called it), what it means to work in both collective and individualistic modes of inquiry—these are but a few of the historical antecedents in the folk revival that can inform and help us do better digital work even as we also employ new digital tactics of analysis to study the past.

The Berkeley Folk Music Festival was held annually on the Cal campus from 1958 to 1970. I discovered it one day in 2010 when I went into the Special Collections Library at Northwestern University to conduct research in the excellent 1960s underground newspaper collection at Northwestern for my book, The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture. One of the wonderful archivists there, Sigrid P. Perry, reached down below the ornate oak desk in between us and pulled out a mimeographed finding aid. “You might be interested in this,” she said, “We have the collection of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival.” This was the only copy at the time of the finding aid, which catalogued the contents of the Berkeley Collection at the box and folder level. It was a gold mine.

The Berkeley Collection’s 36,000 multimedia artifacts went to Northwestern University’s Special Collections in 1974, where they basically sat on the shelf, except for a bit of use by folk historian Ron Cohen. Because I was growing more curious about digital technology at the time (this was the era when “digital humanities” was just emerging as a term), I began to wonder how digital approaches might activate this archive. Collaborating with archivists and technologists at Northwestern Library, in consultation with the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Resources Center and Archive and the Library of Congress American Folklife Center, I became a principal investigator of the Digital Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project. Thus far we have piloted the digitization of sections of the collection and last year we successfully applied for an NEH grant to digitize the entire collection.

To explore how to activate an archive digitally, we have adopted a multimodal approach to this rich set of materials. It includes developing (1) a robustly searchable database; (2) a curated digital historical narrative of the festival that will include tools for exploring the archive’s holdings, lesson plans for educators, and other digital resources; (3) an audio podcast series driven by artifacts, stories, and ideas found in the archive; (4) a traveling gallery exhibition; (5) and a catalogue that will feature the over 10,000 photographs of the Berkeley event, many never before published.

I might add that the project has fed back into my own more traditional research in a book project that offers a different pre-history of the contemporary digital era than is typically told. This Machine Kills Fascists: Technology and Tradition in the US Folk Music Revival explores various participants in the supposedly Luddite folk revival who in fact embraced technology. They did so not as a means for supplanting a sense of roots and connection to the past so much as part of an attempt to rethink how roots might matter more critically in an increasingly technologically dominated society: how to combine the best aspects of tradition with the liberating potential of modernity? How to understand folk music in order to deepen its power in everyday lives and larger infrastructures of power? How to better ground selves and communities in an emerging wireless world? Beyond Dylan controversially going electric at the Newport Folk Festival lies a far richer engagement with technology in the American folk revival over the course of the twentieth century.

So why does the Berkeley Festival matter, you might ask. Three reasons.

First, the untold story of the West Coast revival. Most of the history of the folk revival focuses on the East Coast: Greenwich Village, Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Out West, a different folk revival developed, more fluid between politics and bohemian traditions, less driven by sectarian left politics, in spaces rapidly moving from agricultural economics of orchards and farms to postwar suburban tract housing and white-collar jobs in the military industrial complex. Indeed fittingly for a digital project, Berkeley took place just up the road from the emerging world of Silicon Valley down on the Peninsula, and many performers and audience members came from the very same towns in which the earliest computer companies were coming into their own during the 1960s.

Second, reimagining the American South out West. In highly symbolic spaces of American democracy such as the Greek Theater—modeled after the Classical era Greek amphitheater at Epidaurus, with its construction funded by the newspaper magnate of Rosebud fame, William Randolph Hearst, in a city that fancied itself the “Athens of the west,” on a campus of what was the crown jewel of perhaps the preeminent system of public higher education in the world—new figures moved from the margins to center stage. People such as Jesse Fuller, born in Alabama, or John Hurt, the great songster from the Mississippi Delta, became star performers.

This was not without its problems, to be sure: audiences romanticized them and expected them to “perform” certain roles of authenticity that could be limiting to their artistry. At the same time, the celebration of these figures by audiences that were generally younger, more white and middle-class was sincere. And these negotiations of authenticity, race, age, class, gender were happening in the cultural domain of a music festival in moments such as the summer of 1964, as the civil rights struggle’s Freedom Summer and voter registration drives unfolded in the South, indeed in the very part of the South from which Mississippi Hurt hailed. At Berkeley, this son of emancipated African-American slaves performed to 8.000-plus fans.

The South—and American democratic culture as a whole—were being reimagined, reconfigured not only in the South itself, but also in California, a reminder that regions are shaped not only within their boundaries, but also beyond them.

Third, and finally, the Berkeley Festival matters in terms of digital research. Can the digitization of artifacts, and the activation of them using digital tactics of analysis, offer ways of more dynamically accessing intangible cultural heritage and the ephemeral past? Can the very pixels of photographs such as this one of Mississippi John Hurt tell us something more about the significance of this cultural event of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival? Can the digital help us think better, more rigorously, about the types of transactions and transformations occurring through it: in terms of culture, race, region, gender, age, class, and countless other historical factors?

To make a bad digital joke, what would it mean to more boldly tag the folk in our folksonomies, those tagging systems that now appear so often in our digital projects?

To dive into the Berkeley project, I have taught a digital research methods seminar titled Digitizing Folk Music History. In the seminar, we use WordPress as a platform to explore specific digital tactics to see what they can do with the Berkeley material—and we also, crucially, pay attention to what the folk revival as a topic can tell us about digital history as an approach. I like WordPress because it has a quick learning curve but it can also do a fairly wide range of things as an interface with plug-in tools and embedding capabilities. Plus something like 25% or more of all websites now run on WordPress so there is a robust user community when one needs technical help. And students come out of the class with a valuable skill to add to their resumes in addition to developing their historical knowledge and interpretive acumen.

So, we use simple online “wireframing” tools to try out how to mount digital arguments, how to design them, how to knit together in more compelling ways primary sources and historiographic debates in multimedia forms.

We explore how to annotate documents directly, to write on history, as it were, as a way of noticing details and describing them and their significance to a historical argument more dynamically. Here there is something of a paradox: by creating digital surrogates of valuable artifacts, we can actually explore them with more immediacy. If I or my students went into Special Collections and starting writing on this Time magazine cover from 1962 featuring a painting of Joan Baez by Russell Hoban (for a feature story written without a byline by a young John McPhee!), we would be in a lot of trouble. However, we can do this to a digital version of the artifact. Its dematerialization, as it were (more accurately its re-mediation), makes us able to “touch” it. One more step away from the artifact itself, we can get closer to it.

We explore the database, that crucial mode of digital research and publishing by using it to break down the steps of argumentation, to link specific details to a larger argument.

We play with timelines to explore the fraught constructions of “master narratives” and how the digital might create multiple overlapping chronologies or allow for comparative timeline work.

Using Berkeley Festival director Barry Olivier’s rolodex cards of performer addresses, we geocode data to examine evidence and arguments from spatial perspectives, looking for new patterns. Here the maps, like the timelines, can actually be failures of a sort, but in ways that generate new insights into the Festival and the folk revival. For instance, my students noticed that the addresses were not where performers were from, but rather in many cases they were the addresses of the managers of the musicians. The distortion, if one can call it that, of data made students more aware of the commercial side of a supposedly non-commercial folk music movement. The map’s “incorrectness” rather than its accuracy led to more precise analysis of the content within this dataset.

With the Berkeley project, I have also come back to audio as a key mode of digital inquiry. After all, this was a sonically driven event in a musically driven movement. My students in Digitizing Folk Music History develop audio podcasts based on original research. The shift in form, I have found, not only asks them to create better evidence-based arguments and narratives, but it links them back to the folk revival’s own long history of audio work: the legacy of field recording, radio broadcasting, and recordings by figures such as Alan Lomax (who also went on to use computers to study global song style, something I am now researching for my new book).

As an example, we can turn our ears to the start of student Camille Michellotti’s podcast exploration of the visual iconography found on Harry Smith’s influential 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music (you can listen to the entire podcast, or just the beginning here). What was fascinating about Camille’s work was that she was concerned at first that it made no sense to do visual analysis in sonic form. What emerged, however, was that the shift in medium, format, and sense perception actually forced her to crystallize her visual analysis more effectively in language. Putting visual analysis into language and using sound to intensify aspects of her interpretation strengthened the project. Constraint enabled rather than limited more compelling historical inquiry.

Things also get a bit weirder in my course, in the spirit of Harry Smith and his bohemian approach on the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music that Camille investigated. Students and I explore glitching and deformance tactics borrowed from the art world. If you click on the forward arrow of the Google slide above, you will see that these may, at first, seem like historical distortions, and they are, but by harnessing the ductility of digitized data and the generative adventurousness of speculative computing, they can also spark new insights and discoveries, allowing us new ways of seeing into our sources.

For instance, one of my students, Nathan Anderson performed a computational “chance operation” to produce a glitched image.

Nathan’s “deformance” moved Mississippi John Hurt from the side to the center of this photograph. Nathan then wrote a powerful reflection that questioned who occupies the protagonist’s role in the story of the American folk revival. Which led me to think about how often the white, middle-class audience occupies center stage in histories of the folk revival. What if we put someone such as Hurt at the center? Nathan’s glitch inspired my own elaborations on this image, to be published in the inaugural issue of Current Research in Digital History.

This teaching has fed back into my research in other ways as well. Working with student researchers, I am developing an interactive version of a funny, comical map from the revival: Humbead’s Revised Map of the World, which in of itself is already a kind of visualization, and a “deformance,” from the psychedelic edge of the folk revival in 1968.

Humbead’s Revised Map of the World, created by Earl Crabb and Rick Shubb, two Berkeley folkies in 1968, reimagines the world as seen from the folk scene of the Bay Area. The map’s population of over 800 names is written on the map itself, and includes everyone from Pete Seeger and Joan Baez to Charlie Chaplin and Bugs Bunny.

Here, then, is a data-rich image poised for digital development. Student researchers such as Sarah Bruyere have worked with me to begin assembling a database of biographies, song clips, and video for each of the names listed in the population.

Here’s a glimpse of our database in development.

We are also imagining ways to move spatially and sonically around the map, so that its jokes, drawn from musical experience, return to the aural as well as the visual domain. This project is in part a mapping project, the construction of a database, and an effort to share in the interactive exploration of an artifact and all the historical meanings it contains in its form and content. It also poses intriguing design challenges: how to design an effective interface for navigating around this densely packed image?

How to bring in archival materials such as Crabb and Shubb’s first sketches and drawings of the map, Shubb’s memoir, and other “data,” as it were, that contextualizes the map more robustly?

And how do we generate active, enriching, satisfying secondary scholarship and interpretation about the map? I think one way is to locate the digital, interactive version of this strange geographic representation at the center of a roundtable of investigation by inviting scholars, aficionados, musicians, educators, and students to use the digital version to create. As digital scholars we need to expand access not only to primary sources, but also to the historiographic debates about them. My hunch is that public audiences hunger for both: getting to encounter and engage with primary materials and learning more about what specialized scholars are arguing about in terms of their historical significance.

We also might offer lesson plans for educators, and the capability for users to add information about particular names and impressions of particular aspects of the map. We might even create a digital tool for visitors to revise Humbead’s Revised Map of the World itself in new permutations that are fun, strange, and provocative of fresh, original perspectives, interpretations, and analyses of this image and all that it contains (or is missing, or problematically represents).

So here is a sampling of sights and sounds emanating from the Digital Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project. If we have time I can talk about some other aspects of it, too, such as my developing work on image signification for historical interpretation. For now, I hope we have plenty to sing about, and I’m also ready for your criticisms, queries, thoughts, ideas.

Leave a Reply