The Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project

Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project Blog

Digitizing Folk Music History Research Seminar


The Berkeley Folk Music Festival ran annually from 1958 to 1970 on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. Its archive, containing over 35,000 artifacts (papers, business records, recordings, posters, ephemera, and over 10,000 photographs), has sat virtually unused in Northwestern University’s Special Collections Library since the materials were purchased in 1974 from festival director Barry Olivier. Digitizing, curating, and making available through online, print, and in-person experiences this rich material offers a new history of the folk music revival and its significance by shifting the lens to the West Coast. This project preserves the collection digitally and provides multimodal access to its rich holdings both for specialized research and for wider public investigation and learning.

The Festival

The Berkeley Folk Music Festival took place annually on the flagship campus of the University of California between 1958 and 1970. It 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 partly inspiring its concert-and-workshops model as well as its mix of older and newer performers from more vernacular and more commercial backgrounds.

Among others who appeared at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival were 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, and a post-Janis Joplin Big Brother and the Holding Company.

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.

Program cover, 1969 Berkeley Folk Music Festival.

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.

Mississippi John Hurt at the Greek Theater, University of California, 1964 Berkeley Folk Music Festival. Photograph probably by Kelly Hart.

The Project

The Digital Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project digitizes, preserves, and curates the archive to make its rich holdings available for a wider audience. It does so by blending online, print, and in-person delivery systems, and allows both specialized scholars and a wider public audience access to the less well understood story of the American folk music revival on the West Coast. It also asks questions relevant to the developing fields of digital cultural history, public history, and digital humanities: when representational artifacts such as sound, image, and print become forms of data that are not as easy to count, how might computation still reveal new aspects of the past. What does it mean to “revive” digitally what was already understood to be a “revival” when it was happening? How do we creatively approach the capacities of transforming older forms of artifacts into data in order to perceive new things about these historical sources?

1967 Berkeley Folk Music Festival Program.

Three related efforts are at the heart of this public history project:

  1. Access to the Sources: Preservation and Documentation
  2. The Multimodal Approach: Digital, Print, Face-to-Face
  3. Creating History: Expansion 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. Through an NEH grant, preservation efforts also examine 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? How might we also 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.

Digital curation: A web-based exhibition sits on top of the full digitized repository. It will tell the story of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival through multimedia narration.

Podcast series: An audio documentary podcast series uses artifacts from the collection to expand access to the many people, stories, and histories contained in the Berkeley Folk Music Festival holdings.

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.

Print catalogue: To accompany the exhibition and provide another avenue of access, a print catalogue will tell the history of the festival through photographs and accompanying text.

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 in the United States and the world through talks, workshops, hootenannies, and more.

Barry Olivier, festival director, at the Faculty Glade, Berkeley Folk Music Festival, University of California, 1964. Photograph probably by Kelly Hart.

(3) 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, 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.

Alice Stuart at the 1964 Berkeley Folk Music Festival. Photograph probably by Kelly Hart.
Alice Stuart, 1968. Photograph by Barry Olivier.
Alice Stuart performing at Northwestern University, 2012.

Principal Investigator

Dr. Michael J. Kramer, Assistant Professor, History Department, College at Brockport, SUNY,