The Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project

Berkeley Folk Music Festival 1968 Header

Principal Investigator
Michael J. Kramer
History and American Studies
Northwestern University
phone: 847 942 5182


The Berkeley Folk Music Festival ran from 1958 to 1970 on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, providing a model for the Newport Folk Festival, which began one year later. It featured many prominent musicians of the post-World War II “folk revival.” The archive of the festival, containing over 30,000 objects (papers, business records, recordings, posters, ephemera), has sat virtually unused in Northwestern University’s Special Collections Library since it was purchased in 1974 from festival director Barry Olivier. This project will preserve the collection digitally, present its rich holdings to a wider audience and interpret its significance in multiple formats (digital, print, traveling exhibition), and bring the archival richness of the collection to bear on new possibilities for learning about cultural heritage, music, and history in the digital age.

The Festival

The Berkeley Folk Music Festival (1958-1970) was directed by Barry Olivier, a Berkeley-raised guitarist and folk music advocate. The Festival was one of the preeminent folk festivals on the West Coast, predating the more famous Newport Folk Festival on the East Coast and presenting performers, artists, and scholars such as Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Doc Watson, Alan Lomax, Howlin’ Wolf, Phil Ochs, Alice Stuart, Jean Ritchie, Jean Redpath, Jesse Fuller, Big Mama Thornton, Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt, Slim Critchlow, Archie Green, Alan Dundes, Bess Hawes Lomax, Ewan MacColl, John Fahey, Robbie Basho, the Jefferson Airplane, the Youngbloods, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and many others. The festival’s willingness to embrace electric rock music and other forms of what would become known as roots music or Americana makes it markedly different from Newport, with its famous struggle over Bob Dylan going electric. It exemplifies the diverse and adventurous musical and cultural milieu of the West Coast—and the Bay Area in particular—and suggests a major revision in our understanding of the folk revival, of the relationship of culture to political events in Berkeley such as the Free Speech Movement, to commerce and civil society, and to ongoing issues and questions about cultural heritage, technology, diversity, and commonality.

The Project

The Digital Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project digitizes and preserves the archive in a way that makes its rich holdings available for a wider audience. It will also become a prototype for what a digital archive can be and do—or more accurately, what digital surrogates of the original materials in the archive can enable—through online exploration and expansion. In some sense, the project seeks itself to “revive” digitally this important but understudied event from the twentieth century folk revival so that we can better appreciate, analyze, and understand both its historical moment and our own contemporary times. Within a “digital river of song,” new ways of critically connecting the present to the past become possible.

The project consists of five related efforts:

Preservation and Documentation.

The Northwestern University Library and faculty member Michael J. Kramer and his students are working on the full preservation and documentation of the collection in both analog and digital form. Preservation efforts also concentrate on how to model the development of a digital collection: how might we think more critically about the ways to organize and code an archive’s materials so that the individual objects are available yet also coherently contextualized within the original archive? How might we crowdsource metadata and involve students in the creation of the digital archive? What are the best platforms and methods for digital preservation as it relates to presentation of the materials? How do we grapple with intellectual property rights and issues, a topic with a long and vexed (but useful) history within the folk music revival itself? Online, can we more seamlessly and usefully bring together materials concerning the Berkeley Folk Music Festival that are in other collections? Can we also connect the archive to related collections about arts festivals, the folk revival, folk music, cultural heritage, and the historical period of the postwar era in general? Can we model ways of creating a coherent archive that is also participates in the linked open source data movement?

Print-Based Interpretation.

Our belief is that digital, print, and other modes of interpretation and publication can complement each other. Because the Berkeley Folk Music Festival contains such rich photographic documentation, one print-based project arising from the research is a coffee table book that tells the story of the festival, with contributions from festival participants and performers as well as folk music scholars and historians. Potentially, the book will also include a DVD/CD of multimedia materials or link to the online archive. Michael Kramer is also at work on a monograph, tentatively titled “This Machine Kills Fascists: Technology and the US Folk Music Revival,” which probes the relationship between culture, memory, machines, and modernity in the folk revival movement. It focuses on figures such as Woody Guthrie, who famously wrote “This machine kills fascists” on his acoustic guitar during World War II, as well as folklorist Alan Lomax, avant-garde artist and Anthology of American Folk Music curator Harry Smith, folk musician and documentarian John Cohen, and the understudied history of the folk revival on the West Coast of the United States.

Digital Interpretation, Publication, and Interaction.

What would it mean to extend the Berkeley Folk Music Festival into the digital realm in creative and engaging ways? How do we carry forward the transmission, adaptation, and inspiration of cultural heritage in ways that are productively pleasurable and critically aware at the same time? How might we digitally expand what Pete Seeger and others have famously called the “folk process,” the passing along and reworking of songs to both remember the past and speak to the present and future? Might we even be able to draw upon the kind of learning that took place at the folk music workshops pioneered at the Berkeley Festival?

In response to these questions, we are developing a “workshop” software platform using the Berkeley archive. It will allow scholars, educators, musicians, aficionados, and the general public to explore the Berkeley Folk Music Festival collection and be a space in which participants not only can access objects, but also can “play” with them digitally. Consisting of a layered map of the Berkeley Festival year by year along with other modes of virtually “attending” the festival, the website seeks to be more than a flat presentation of the past. Rather, it will harness the virtuality of the digital to allow users to “touch” the materials in the Berkeley collection (and potentially other linked digital repository collections as well) in ways they could never do so with the actual originals.

This kind of digital archive has the potential to model how to bring archival objects into connection with their analysis in more dynamic and connected ways. Preservation feeds into analysis and interpretation through the ability to pivot in one space between, on the one hand, archival objects and, on the other, tools of multimodal experimentation, including visualization, sonification, algorithmic analysis, annotation, assemblage, horizontal and vertical narrative techniques, topic modeling, intensified collaboration among multiple users, and multimedia presentation capabilities. Users can rearrange items, collage them, compare multiple objects, layer annotations upon materials, view annotations by others, add comments, and contribute their perspectives to the archive. Their contributions themselves then become new objects in the collection.

The traditional archive, static and removed from circulation, still serves the purpose of preservation here, but it also becomes interactive, a space where memory and the past come alive in the present, and where the present itself flows or feeds back into the past in new ways. Previously concealed in the library stacks, the original repository now has a chance to come to life in a new form through digital technology. It can carry onward the best aspects of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival while also allowing for a space of critique, expansion, and even transformation.

In this imagining of what the digital archive can be and do, it potentially enables the valuable project of actively and critically passing along cultural heritage, enhancing experiences of art and music, and empowering scholars, educators, students, musicians, artists, and the general public to engage in deep, direct, meaningful historical learning.

Face-to-Face Presentation.

We will curate a traveling exhibition about the Berkeley Folk Music Festival. This exhibition will include poster art, photographs, sound installations, film footage, and a program of concerts, talks, and roundtables.

Expansion of the Collection.

We are undertaking an extensive oral history project with performers and attendees at the festival to expand the collection. In the past few years, director Barry Olivier and performer Alice Stuart have visited Northwestern for public conversations and concerts, met with students in Michael Kramer’s digital humanities research seminar, and participated in oral history interviews in the archives. These oral histories that emerge from engagements with archival materials offer a particularly useful new avenue for understanding the festival’s significance. Additionally, we work with Northwestern Information Technology’s Academic & Research Technology Division to capture live events, which then become part of the archive as well. For example, we now have a performance by Alice Stuart of “Rather Be the Devil” from the 1968 Berkeley Folk Music Festival and from her appearance at Northwestern in 2012.

Outreach and Civic Engagement.

Working with the Blue Bear School of Music in San Francisco and the Bay Area Field Study Group of Northwestern University’s Center for Civic Engagement, we will develop a music and technology program for students at the primary and secondary levels. The program consists of teaching students how to use programs such as GarageBand and, eventually, the Digital Berkeley Folk Music Festival archive and website for the historically-grounded creation of their own music. This program offers students the opportunity to acquire digital skills, literacies, and competencies alongside musical and historical knowledge. It also provides opportunities for undergraduate and graduate university students to participate in civically-engaged field studies.

Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project Blog.

Notes from Dr. Kramer’s course, “Digitizing Folk Music History.”


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