Digitizing Folk Music History: Reflections 1

Part 1 – I went down to the crossroads (of the digital and the analog).

Digitizing Folk Music History was an upper-level undergraduate history research seminar for fifteen students. It sought to combine archival research and digital history in the study of the American folk music revival. We focused on the fabulously-rich collection of the Berkeley Folk Festival, which is housed at Northwestern’s Deering Library.

The goals of the course were to introduce students to the folk revival in its broadest and most significant historical dimensions while also creating a context for students to consider the emerging field of digital history as a practice: what would it mean to conduct archival research on the American folk music revival using the digital for analysis, interpretation, and presentation?

There were challenges both large and small, conceptual and practical, to this course.

The central logistical challenge to the course was to devise a workflow that would allow students to explore materials in the archive itself, request that certain items be digitized, have access to the digital files in a useful format, and then create successful interpretive digital history projects. Much cooperative work was required among the special collections librarians, digital collections librarians, the Academic and Research Technology office, students, and me as the instructor. To facilitate multiple aspects of the course, I hired a technology consultant and teaching assistant, Josh Honn, who was the perfect person for the job. With a Masters Degree in American Studies, an interest in music, and at the tail end of completing a Library Sciences degree with a focus on the role of the digital in the library world, Josh was able to move between library logistics and student needs with dexterity, thoughtfulness, and great skill. The future world of digital humanities and digital history teaching and research will need many more Joshes.

While I am issuing shout-outs: Scott Krafft in Special Collections made the important and rare materials in this archive accessible to students in key ways and his able staff assisted students numerous times; Claire Stewart, Dan Zellner, Sarah Ellis, Stefan Elnabli, and other staff members in Northwestern Univeristy’s Digital Collections division helped conceptualize and execute the digitization aspects of the course; and Harlan Wallach and Dave Look (with important help from Brian Nielsen) in Academic Research and Technology set up a very useful password-protected WordPress blog for the class to use (more of this blog later). One more shout-out-in-progress: librarians Benn Joseph and Stefan Elnabli are currently studying how to archive the course and make it part of the Berkeley Folk Festival collection itself, especially as we begin, slowly, to digitize the collection in its entirety. It makes sense, I think, to make the student projects objects in the collection, which is a way to continue the spirit of participation in the folk process by making the archive a living one. Enormous thanks go to Barry Olivier, founder and organizer of the Berkeley Folk Festival and compiler of the archive in its original inception. Barry embraced the idea of taking the archive digital in just this spirit of making it a living archive—a kind of ongoing digital folk festival.

As you can see from my long thank-you list, there was an enormous amount of administrative coordination to make this digital history course possible, much more than your typical history course. I think this was in part because we are teaching on the cusp between the digital and the analog. Planning and implementing the course required that we figure out how, at the quick pace of Nortwestern’s quarter system, to move crisply between actual student work in the dust of the archives to online explorations to seminar discussions of the folk revival and related topics to final digital projects. Coordinating all this meant a lot more work for me as the instructor, but it also allowed students to glimpse what knowledge investigation and exploration can be about: collective endeavors driven by distinctive individual efforts.

Working at the boundary of the digital and the analog had other unexpected benefits. Despite the fact that it created more work, made for bumps in the road, and generated a certain anxiety on the part of the students as to what was expected of them, the borderline between informational epochs was also an incredible place to study. The digital enlivened our understanding of age-old historical questions, while analog environments such as the special collections archive, our seminar meetings, and visits from special guest experts brought forward even more vividly the strange new possibilities of the digital.

If I were to teach this course twenty years from now, most probably the archive would already live in a digital repository (at least ideally!). But now, all of us—the students, the librarians, and I—had the opportunity to move between the actual archive and the earliest, experimental stages of its digital incarnations. The power of this moment between technologies came home to me when Barry Olivier visited our class. Bringing along older modes of technological representation—large blow-up photographs, a portable cassette recorder, an old letterpress poster—Barry demonstrated that in going digital we are not reinventing the wheel (reinventing the dulcimer?); rather we are joining a long river of technological change midstream.

Sitting in the classroom with our LCD projector beaming up contemporary folk music websites, its blue light leaking over blown-up photographs of Bob Dylan at his 1965 San Francisco press conference (where Barry took marvelous photos), we cued up online audio recordings while Barry pressed the play button on a portable cassette recorder that played a radio interview he had conducted with Pete Seeger in the mid-1950s. The technologies of recording and representation multiplied: folios and song collections, gigantic old tape recorders in the trunks of cars, pen sketches, photographs, cassette tapes, MP3 files, html pages, and more. And as we discussed the controversies over going electric in the mid-1960s folk revival—such a dispute at the time, but one that my students couldn’t quite make sense of—we shifted to thinking about contemporary concerns about going digital. In the end we kept returning to trying to understand the people wielding or being affected by the technology. It was the people, in the end, who were the story here.

The folk revival at its best put people front and center, using music as a means to consider and enrich our sense of individual understanding and collective social being. And there we were in the classroom with Barry, spanning the generations, using all sorts of mediation and technologies of representation and communication, to think about people: ourselves, young participants in the folk revival of the 50s and 60s, the musicians and figures from before World War II who baby boomers in turn had rediscovered and embraced, the people before them. It was a bit dizzying, but as the cassette machine and LCD lens whirred in ghostly harmony, it all made sense to me: why not use everything we’ve got to make sense of this history and its continued relevance to our lives?

Indeed, the criss-crossing between technologies kept connecting my students and me back to the folk revival itself in surprising ways. For the revival itself was taken up with music, memory, culture, and power at the cusp of different epochs: the prewar years and earlier in the United States and the transformed, technological intensity of Cold War America. Here we were in a sense reviving the revival, which itself had revived still earlier revivals. And we were doing so just as they had, through the emerging lens of a new technological prism, in the spectral codes of Flash media, hyperlinking meaning into the database publishing system of WordPress, SQLs of sequels, turning paper documents and old photographs into new archives of meaning.

We were Harry Smiths of a new era, compiling meaning out of reorganizing the past to make sense of how it related to the present—and maybe, just maybe, how it might lead us to new perceptions of the digital future.

So the small challenges of administration and coordination led, at least for me, to a rather quasi-mystical place: the alchemical processes of anthologization and musical transmogrification that made someone like Harry Smith such a crucial figure in certain quarters of the folk revival. But administrative coordination was only the start of the challenges that emerged in the course.

Next: Part 2 – Less is more: the digital history component breakdown.

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