Digitizing Folk Music History: Reflections 2

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

BFMF Poster 1968

This is the second post in a series on Digitizing Folk Music History, an upper-level undergraduate history research seminar for fifteen students. The course 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?

In the first post, I explored the challenges and benefits of working at the boundary of the digital and the analog. This turned out to be an administrative challenge that, solved by coordination and cooperation, led to all sorts of revelations about the connections between the analog era of the folk revival and the new epoch of the digital.

Another challenge turned out to be pedagogical. I originally pictured the student research projects as digital drafting boards, experimental laboratories, sketch pads, online canvases (you get the drift) for bringing digital tools to bear on archival sources. I would provide a list of digital resources and hire a technology consultant and let the students go wild.

To this end, I built into the assessment of the final projects a greater emphasis on imagination rather than implementation. After all, this was a history course, not a digital media class. I wanted my students to spend more time thinking about history, delving into sources, and dreaming about the role of the digital than tinkering with code and trying to get their plugins to work. Historical interpretation had to be present in the final projects, and some kind of engagement with the digital, but bold conceptualization of the relationship between the digital and history would be given far more weight than the successful display and execution of those ideas.

The students really did great, by and large, but I saw that there is much more I can do in the future to help them. In particular, two problems emerged from my vision for the course. First, even the students with the most advanced digital media skills had little experience connecting the digital to historical research. It did not work to simply create links to resources—I would have to structure the exploration of the digital more carefully. Limiting choices would actually increase learning in this case. Less would be more.

Second, almost all the students had a natural urge to wrap up their final projects in a neat digital bow. But digital history, at least in these early years of its development, does not yet possess a clear sense of the end product. There are plenty of tests involved, but not of the age-old blue book style. There is plenty of analysis involved, but not necessarily culminating in that analytic essay of yore.

In upcoming versions of the course, I need to create a pedagogical infrastructure that makes ambitious and high-achieving students feel comfortable experimenting rather than showing results—indeed getting them to realize that for now, for the purposes of this course, the results are in daring experimentation rather than rote answers. Creativity in the service of probing sources both primary and secondary should be our goal. Process matters as much as product. The capacity to invent new modes of gleaning patterns from the past, new techniques for analyzing source materials, new ideas for presentation and interaction—these are what we can explore in a digital history research seminar. And, I believe, nothing less is at stake in this endeavor than the future of the historical imagination itself.

I see that the digital is so overwhelming, and the idea of embracing experimentation so difficult, that I must develop smaller, more limited steps—footholds, as it were—into the digital historical ether. Though it sounds somewhat contradictory at first, I think that limiting wide-open spaces of exploration will actually enable more adventurous engagement by students. Putting more there there will help them feel more empowered. They will feel more prepared. And numerous specific, concrete engagements with component aspects of digital history will give them ample opportunities to have insights into new opportunities. Breakdown will encourage breakthrough.

So in future versions of the course, I will create what librarian-technology consultant Josh Honn calls mini-projects. These will help students simultaneously explore digital history and the folk revival—and ideally the places where and ways in which they intersect. Each mini-project will require students to use a small number of selected tools to complete exercises on the way toward a larger interpretive research project.

In tentative form, here are the mini-projects I am thinking about developing for the course. Comments, suggestions, critiques, ideas are welcome.

Digitizing Folk Music History Digital Breakdown:

  • (1) Multimedia: What does it mean to historicize different types of historical material? Students will use four digital tools to analyze text (official, informal, etc.) compared to image, sound and moving images (video, film). I am wondering whether there are other modes of representation worth including here (websites, email, other modes of digital media).
  • (2) Annotation: One of the problems I have seen in contemporary student writing is the inability to skillfully connect evidence to argument. Students come up with assertions, but do not convincingly articulate the way that the evidence leads to and supports the argument. Because it brings primary materials into relation to argument right before our eyes, the digital offers a way for students to work on the skills of argumentation. Annotation becomes the way of displaying the connective tissue of explanation that links evidence to interpretation.
  • (3) Data analysis: Students will use two to three digital tools for exploring large quantities of data (huge databases of recorded music, for instance). They can explore the use of algorithmic searches and other ways of harnessing computational power. Students will explore the possibilities and the dilemmas of translating culture into data and back again into cultural meaning and interpretation.
  • (4) Contextualization: Students will test out one to two digital tools for mapping out connections and contrasts among source materials. They will also test tools for researching and organizing secondary materials (from database searches to Zotero to other tools useful for exploring connections and comparison).
  • (5) Temporality and spatiality: Students will test out a digital tool for thinking about change and continuity over time using folk music history (here I am thinking of timelines, animation, mapping tools). They will also explore a digital tool for thinking about space—from built environments to geographic locations—as well as how to effectively “spatialize” research findings in digital form (such as charts, tables, maps, graphs, animation).
  • (6) Interactivity: What kinds of digital tools enable interaction among people to further historical analysis? How do we move beyond the comments pages to produce new historical insight? What is, and should be, the relationship—practically, ethically, interpretively—among multiple participants? How might we, ultimately, not only conduct crowd sourcing but also, as historians, something like source crowding?
  • (7) Intellectual property: We need digital tools for thinking about intellectual property. There are plenty of tools out there for remixing culture, but what about a number of tools to connect remix culture to intellectual property laws, ethics, and practices? Folk music seems like an apt topic to utilize for this, since the question of individual and collective ownership and the relationship between culture and commerce are both long-running themes in the history of the folksong revival.
  • (8) Narrative: Finally, what kinds of tools might be used to tell historical stories online? We need to design and test out tools that probe how narration functions online in terms of (a) linear presentation, (b) more networked narrative styles, (c) curation in relation to narration, (d) single-voice vs. multivocal narration, (e) the balance of an authorial voice against the presentation of documents and secondary sources, and (f) the place of design and digital architecture for narration of historical meaning.

Now my challenge in the course will be to integrate scholarship about the folk revival and active student research in the Berkeley Folk Festival archives into these components of digital historical practice. This will, ideally, allow them to think substantively about the folk revival through the lens of the digital. And it will do the opposite as well: it will enable them to think more critically and imaginatively about the digital using the history of the folk revival as a kind of useable past.

Here are tentative ideas for connecting the folk revival and the Berkeley Folk Festival archive to each digital history mini-project component:

  • (1) Multimedia: The folk revival offers a rich bed of multimedia materials to study. Within the Berkeley Folk Festival archive there is a great diversity of sources: text, posters, audio, video, and ephemera. I am thinking about secondary sources that accentuate awareness of multimedia sources. For instance, Benjamin Filene’s Romancing the Folk, in addition to being a good survey of the folk revival, also provides close analysis of a variety of sources, particularly audio recordings. We might also watch American Roots, which as a video documentary includes a range of non-textual sources.
  • (2) Annotation: The folk revival was as concerned with glosses on music as the music itself: from the work of folk music scholars (Lomaxes, Botkins, Rinzlers, etc.) to the ways in which performers such as Huddie “Leadbelly” Leadbetter perfected introductory comments on songs to the insanely recontextualized liner notes of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, there are numerous examples of annotation as a kind of argumentation, an interpretive framework between the music and its meaning for audiences.
  • (3) Data analysis: Smithsonian Folkways archive? Other online archives of folksong to study. Large databases of musical materials, text sources? Alan Lomax’s Cantometrics and Global Jukebox projects?
  • (4) Contextualization: Putting a few primary sources from the Berkeley Folk Festival collection in conversation with each other through digital means. Reading and using the contextualization provided in scholarship of Ron Cohen, Ellen Steckert, Robert Cantwell, Neil Rosenberg, Karl Hagstrum Miller, and others.
  • (5) Temporality and spatiality: Timelines and maps of folk music styles from the past? I’m thinking of the maps in Folk Songs of North America by Alan Lomax. Documentary films and books that focus on places such as Greenwich Village Washington Square folk scene? Bob Dylan’s sections of Chronicles, Vol. 1 on the Greenwich Village scene. Might be able to use sources from the Berkeley Folk Festival collection here too.
  • (6) Interactivity: This notion goes to the core of the folk revival: from Pete Seeger’s singalong politics to the whole notion of a folk song emerging from many individual versions, the whole issue of interactive cultural production has deep roots in the folk revival. These are vexed roots in many respects, but crucial ones for understanding the revival through digital means and understanding the digital through folk revival studies. Documentary film The Power of Song, on Pete Seeger, plus his writings on the “folk process.” Primary sources from the 50s and 60s that grapple with the question of interactivity and authenticity, such as Sam Hinton’s work both in scholarly publications and at the Berkeley Folk Festival.
  • (7) Intellectual property: John Shaw has been working on folk music and intellectual property issues in the 1930s revival, but the question goes deeper here to core folk revival issues about commerce in relation to conceptualizations of folk music, and to the role of memory workers (Filene) and questions of cultural democracy (Ivey, Bau Graves) and to concepts of remix culture (Lessig).
  • (8) Narrative: We might compare an oral history (Cohen’s Wasn’t That a Time, or a film documentary) to a very individualistic narrative (Cantwell, When We Were Good) to a satire (A Mighty Wind) to a more experimental film (Todd Haynes’s experimental ode to the enigma of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There). We might also examine narrative in traditional songs themselves since these are often strange, fragmentary, non-linear, wild, and mysterious—collage-like, associative, and working at levels of connection that oddly resemble the digital in their density of potentially-networked paths and meanings.

By breaking down the course into the component parts of digital history and asking students to use a select number of tools in relation to materials from the Berkeley Folk Festival archive and to folk music revival scholarship, the course hopes to bring together its multiple foci—folk revival, historical research methods, digital history—more productively and effectively.

Ideally, in this new version of my course, the breakdown becomes a way of building up to the richness of the topics at hand. Less becomes more as the smaller parts of the larger ensemble start to resonate together. Breakdown, then, becomes the key compositional act in structuring the pedagogy for the seminar.

And, I would argue, the pedagogical breakdown also has something to tell us about research in the emerging field of digital history. For these mini-projects seem to me, the more I think about them, to be the very components of digital history as a practice.

Like any good folk tune—and digital project for that matter—these mini-project components will need to change. They will, I hope, improve over time based on experiences, interactions, and communication, on listening, learning, practicing, and playing. To the fiddlin’ then.

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