The Berkeley Folk Music Festival took place annually between 1958 to 1970 on the campus of the University of California. It became a key node in an emerging national (indeed, international) folk music circuit of festivals. It also became a crucial gathering site for the West Coast folk scene of the 1960s. The archive of the BFMF contains over 36,000 artifacts, including business records, audio and video recordings, posters, ephemera, and over 10,000 photographs. The collection has sat virtually unused at Northwestern University since the materials were purchased in 1973 from festival director Barry Olivier.
The Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project (bfmf.net) is a multimodal effort to digitize and curate this rich collection as a starting point for a broader inquiry into the folk music revival and cultural heritage on the West Coast of the United States. It uses a fully digitized repository, an Omeka multimedia and interactive narration, an audio podcast series, a gallery exhibition, a print catalog, and in-person events to investigate the histories lurking in the BFMF archive. So too, it uses the Berkeley event as a launching point for inquiry into what is missing from its archive: what stories of cultural and musical heritage emerge if we look to the “negative spaces” of the archive or read against the grain of its holdings. What is there? And what is absent?
Typically, narratives and interpretations of folk music in the US center on the East Coast and the South as key regions. What happens when the focus shifts to the West? There, the BFMF becomes a way to track renegotiations of tradition and modernity in Pax Americana after World War II, when California in particular led the way toward a new kind of ideal of the good life. At the same time, the very campus spaces occupied once a year by the Berkeley Festival also became contested sites of struggle over that California—and larger postwar American—dream. The tumultuous politics of the 1960s social movements, including the civil rights, black liberation, new left student, women’s liberation, gay rights, ethnic studies, disability rights, and other agitations, took place on the same ground as the Berkeley Festival. Additionally, the Cal campus was a public space in which these social movements ran directly into the rising forces of a new right conservative reaction. All the while, given the Berkeley event’s emphasis on tradition and the “acoustic,” it is important to note its deep intersections with the emerging computer electronics industry of “Silicon Valley” within the Cold War military-industrial complex that was centered, in many respects, in Northern California. This combination of technology and tradition marks the West Coast folk story as distinctive, and important to address in light of contemporary digital culture and its “folksonomies” of organizing the world and its history as data.
Performers at the festival included Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, “Mississippi” John Hurt, Arthel “Doc” Watson, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Chester Burnett (aka Howlin’ Wolf), Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, Alice Stuart, Jean Ritchie, Jean Redpath, the New Lost City Ramblers, Jesse Fuller, Mance Lipscomb, Bessie Jones, J.E. Mainer, Ewan MacColl, John Fahey, Robbie Basho, the Jefferson Airplane, the Youngbloods, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Joy of Cooking, Kathy and Carroll, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the People’s Macedonian Band, the Opelusa Playboys, Na Rhma Wa Ci American Indian Dancers, and Los Tigres Del Norte, among many others. The BFMF also featured numerous workshop panels with musicians, as well as presentations by scholars such as Alan Lomax, Archie Green, Alan Dundes, Bess Hawes Lomax, and Charles Seeger.
The festival’s willingness to embrace electric rock music and other forms of what would become known as roots or Americana music makes it markedly different from Newport, where the infamous struggle over Bob Dylan going electric became a major story in folk revival history. The relationship of leftwing politics to the bohemianism of the folk revival was also slightly different, as was the larger milieu in which the event took place: a Northern California context of rapid postwar suburbanization, the expansion of mass higher education, and other social transformations driven by a technology-obsessed Cold War military-industrial economy. Berkeley exemplifies a diverse and adventurous musical and cultural milieu that arose on the West Coast—in the Bay Area in particular.
And yet, the Berkeley event was also exclusionary. It often reproduced the national folk music revival’s obsessions and interests, privileging Southern US vernacular music over the larger range of musical and cultural heritage practices found in Northern California itself. This is not to condemn the festival’s organizers. There is ample evidence, in fact, of their effort, over time, to diversify the Festival’s programming. Yet, like all curations and presentations, the BFMF produced boundaries. In response to this, the BFMF Project seeks not to merely replicate or reproduce the knowledge and the “gaze” (or we might say the “ear”) of the Berkeley archive so much as use the elastic, interoperable properties of the digital medium and of interpretive historical curation as a whole to expand into the “negative spaces” of the collection, both adding to its knowledge and reading against the grain of its holdings.
Studying the festival more closely holds the promise of revising our understanding of the national—indeed international—folk revival in the decades after World War II. It also reframes the relationship between cultural activity in Berkeley and New Left political events such as the Free Speech Movement and People’s Park. And it offers a fresh lens on how musical heritage related to commerce and consumerism, state-funded cultural activities, technology and change, the existential search for authenticity, and the pursuit of a shared common life in postwar America and the world.
Methods and Goals
Three related efforts are at the heart of this public history project:
- Access to the Sources: Preservation and Documentation
- The Multimodal Approach: Digital, Print, Face-to-Face
- Expanding History: Reading Against, and Beyond, the Grain of the Collection
(1) Access to the Sources: Preservation and Documentation
The Northwestern University Library and digital historian Michael J. Kramer and his students are working on the full preservation and documentation of the collection in both analog and digital form. Bulding on the digital repository maintained by Northwestern, Kramer will pursue additional multimodal curation that enhances access to the collection and its historical significance. 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? And how do we at once reveal what is in a digital collection and, at the same time, seek out the knowledge and history it excludes or conceals?
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 digital collection that is also participates in the linked open source data movement? How might we harness digital tools for more speculative and adventurous reinterpretations of this history to access and include the stories and cultures that were marginalized or left out of the original event?
(2) The Multimodal Approach: Digital, Print, Face-to-Face
Our belief is that it is a mistake to force digital, print, and face-to-face modes of interpretation to compete with one another when they can be complementary. In this spirit, the BFMF Project includes:
A. Digital curation
A web-based interpretive narrative tells the story of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival in dynamic, interactive, and multimedia form.
B. Podcast series
An audio podcast series uses artifacts from the collection as well as interviews with participants, musicians, and scholars to expand access to the many people, stories, and histories contained in the Berkeley Folk Music Festival holdings. Younger musicians join Dr. Kramer on each episode to explore the BFMF’s history through commentary. They also present new musical interpretations of songs performed at the original event.
C. Gallery exhibition
The photographs, posters, and other objects in the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Collection lend themselves particularly well to a traditional gallery exhibition about this ephemeral, musical event. A traveling, curated exhibition will tell the story of the festival.
D. Print catalog
To accompany the exhibition and provide another avenue of access, a print catalog will tell the history of the festival through photographs and accompanying text.
E. In-person programming
The gallery exhibition provides an opportunity to bring people together for exploration of the history of the festival and the continuing story of folk music and cultural heritage in the United States and the world. Talks, workshops, hootenannies, and more draw upon the spirit of the original event to continue to explore heritage, history, music, and community.
(3) Expanding History: Reading Against, and Beyond, the Grain of the Collection
How might the multimodal approach feed not merely the reproduction of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival’s archive, but an opportunity to expand upon it, to push out into its “negative spaces,” and to deepen its holdings? Oral history, speculative archival tactics, and community outreach provide three ways of using the BFMF as a starting point for broader, more inclusive, and diverse inquiry into musical and cultural heritage on the West Coast of the United States.
A. Oral history
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, performer Alice Stuart, and Berkeley native, banjoist, and folklorist Neil Rosenberg (along with his partner Terri Rosenberg) have conducted public conversations and concerts, met with students in Michael Kramer’s digital history research seminars, and participated in oral history interviews as well as in-person explorations in the archives. These oral histories provide particularly useful new avenues for understanding the festival’s significance. 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.
B. Speculative archival tactics
Imaginative multimodal curation enables critical historical inquiry. Through digital means in particular, we can link the Berkeley archive to other digital collections of West Coast cultural heritage, politics, and history. Online, artifacts and stories can merge and blend through interactive remixing, allowing participants to both see the exclusions and boundaries of the past and reimagine cultural heritage and tradition in more just and integrated ways for the future. What would a Berkeley Folk Music Festival from the 1960s have looked like, or sounded like, for instance, if it placed Asian-American music and culture at its center? Why did it not do so at the time, given the large Asian-American population of the region? Or, what would an all-female BFMF have looked or sounded like? What would that program reveal? What might it conceal? Or, what would a BFMF look like if it did not focus on music, but rather on dance, literature, or craftwork? Creative, exploratory remix approaches activate the past in more dynamic and revealing ways. They do so not merely to criticize those who created the original events (though it can serve that purpose too), but rather in service of better understanding what happened then, and why. So too, archival remix can model how to enact cultural heritage today, in an age of what Wendy Hui Kyong Chun calls the paradoxical “enduring ephemerality” of the digital now.
C. Community outreach
Working through partnerships with the Arhoolie Foundation, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Old Town School of Folk Music, University of California Berkeley American Studies Program, and other organizations, the BFMF Project will include local participants in responding to and shaping its findings. The goal is to be inclusive, developing grant-funded workshops and convenings that allow for a wider set of voices to shape the meanings of the Berkeley event historically, and to use it as a starting point for broader inquiries into musical and cultural heritage on the West Coast, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Dr. Michael J. Kramer, Assistant Professor, History Department, The College at Brockport, SUNY, firstname.lastname@example.org.