Syllabus Draft—Digitizing Folk Music History

This spring quarter at Northwestern, I am teaching a new course in digital history. Well, in folk music history. Well, in American cultural history. Well, in library and museum studies. Well, actually, in all of those fields to some extent.

In this upper-level research seminar, students and I are going to explore how we might begin to create a digital history out of documents in the Northwestern Library’s Berkeley Folk Festival holdings. This will be part of a larger project I am beginning to work on, tentatively titled, The Digital River of Song: An Interactive History of the American Folk Music Revival. The goal in both the course and the larger project is to study the folk music revival as a kind of deep history for the exploration of what it means to study archivally-based materials and interpretations online.

The folk revival itself offers rich material for thinking about the digital, for in an earlier time period, it posed many of the same issues that the digital raises: what happens to older modes of community when they collide with newer modes of communications technologies? To whom does culture belong, politically, legally, ethically? What is an archive, exactly, when it takes on new patterns in the online realm (oh Harry Smith, where are you now?!)? How do we enable the folk process and what we might also call the active process of “making” history (that is, interactive formulations of evidence-based interpretations) in an online forum?

I, and occasionally my students, will use this blog to reflect on our learning experiences this spring, and to share our discoveries, challenges, insights, and questions.

For now, here is a rough draft of the course syllabus:


Digitizing Folk Music History: The Berkeley Folk Festival

(Part of The Digital River of Song: An Interactive History of the American Folk Music Revival Project)

Dr. Michael J. Kramer

History and American Studies

History 395-0 Sec. 40

Tu Th 12:30PM – 1:50PM

Harris Hall L04



What was the post-World War II American folk music revival? How might the tools of digital history allow us to understand this phenomenon more deeply? Using the Northwestern Library’s Berkeley Folk Festival collection, we will begin to develop a digital history of the American folk music revival. Students will work extensively with archival materials while also exploring the history of American music, Cold War culture, theories of the archive, and new concepts in digital history. This is an upper-level research seminar and will include intensive reading, listening, and viewing assignments; no musical expertise is needed to enroll in the course. Each student will be evaluated based on class participation, blog posts, presentations, and a final digital history exhibit and analytic essay based on primary sources found in the Berkeley Folk Festival collection. Our goal is not only to document the Berkeley Folk Festival, but also to interpret it through digital media: what was at stake in this long-running music festival (1958-1970) in relation to American culture and politics, to questions of race, class, gender, age, and region, to the strange workings of memory and music-making? And how can digital media help us to tell this story more effectively and probingly?

Required Materials:

  • Ron Cohen, Folk Music: The Basics (New York: Routledge, 2006), ISBN-13: 978-0415971607
  • Ron Cohen, A History of Folk Music Festivals in the United States (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008), ISBN-13: 978-0810862029
  • Neil V. Rosenberg, ed., Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), ISBN-13: 978-0252019821
  • Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), ISBN-13: 978-0674951334
  • Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), ISBN-13: 978-0807848623
  • Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), ISBN-13: 978-0813530475
  • Anthology Of American Folk Music, Edited By Harry Smith (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkways, 1997), ASIN: B000001DJU
  • Additional articles, listening mixes, videos, and other materials on course blackboard website.
  • Readings, viewings also available at library reserve desk.



Weekly discussion assignment. Each meeting, students will offer reflections on the readings: (1) what is the most important point you learned from these readings? (2) What questions do you have?

Weekly archives blog post. Each week students must spend at least 1/2 hour in the archive each week and post a brief analytic blog entry about materials. The post should be one to two paragraphs, and include observations, musings, thoughts, questions, and ideas about specific evidence from the archive that connects to our readings and discussions in class. Blog posts will be assessed based on their ability to clearly and precisely express linkages between evidence from the archives and topics and themes we are discussing in the course. Think of these blog posts as preparatory work toward your final digital project.

Project sketch. Due 5/2.

Project update. Due 5/16.

Project prospectus. Due 5/23.

Final digital project and project reflections/analysis essay. Due 6/8.


Week 1 –


Introductions: Transforming Traditions

Tuesday 3/29. What Is This Folk Music?

Introductions. Berkeley in the Sixties.

Thursday 3/31. Transforming Traditions.

Transforming Traditions, pp. 1-81, 258-274. “Is This Folk Music?” Listening Mix.

Week 2 –


Monday 4/4. Archive visit blog post due by midnight.


Folk Music, The Basics

Tuesday 4/5. The Basics 1.

Ron Cohen, Folk Music: The Basics, pp. 1-88. Watch American Roots Music 1, 2.

Thursday 4/7. The Basics 2.

Ron Cohen, Folk Music: The Basics, pp. 89-193. Watch American Roots Music Part 3 and 4.

Week 3 –


Monday 4/11. Archive visit blog post due by midnight.

The Folk Revival: Going Deep

Tuesday 4/12. “The Idea of the Folk Is Noble.”

Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, 1-152. Folk Revival 1 Listening Mix.

Thursday 4/14. Travelin’ Down Highway 61 with Bobby Zimmerman.

Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume 1, 1-104. Watch No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.

Week 4 –

Monday 4/18. Archive visit blog post due by midnight.

Tuesday 4/19. The Children’s Underground.

Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good, 153-188, 241-382. Ellen Stekert, “Cents and Nonsense,” in TT, 84-106. Folk Revival 2 Listening Mix. Watch Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.

Folk Music or Roots Music? The Problem of Authenticity

Thursday 4/21. The Folklore of Roots Music or the Roots of Folk Music?

Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk, pp. 1-46.

Week 5 –

Monday 4/25. Archive visit blog post due by midnight. Select 1-3 documents for digitization.

Tuesday 4/26 – The Blues Blues.

Filene, Romancing the Folk, pp. 47-132. Elijah Wald, Introduction and “What Is the Blues?,” in Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (New York: Amistad, 2004), xiii-13. MaryBeth Hamilton, “The Real Negro Blues,” in In Search of the Blues (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 201-246. Jeff Todd Titon, “Reconstructing the Blues: Reflections on the 1960s Blues Revival,” in TT, 220-240. Peter Narváez, “Living Blues Journal: The Paradoxical Aesthetics of the Blues Revival,” in TT, 241-257. Blues Listening Mix From Elijah Wald. Watch The Search for Robert Johnson.

Thursday 4/28. A Visit to Authenticity City.

Filene, Romancing the Folk, 183-236.  Ray Allen, “In Pursuit of Authenticity: The New Lost City Ramblers and the Postwar Folk Music Revival,” Journal of the Society for American Music 4, 3 (August 2010): 277–305. NLCR Covers vs. Originals Listening Mix. Watch The New Lost City Ramblers: Always Been a Rambler.

Week 6 –

Monday 5/2. Archive visit blog post due by midnight. Post project sketches online.

The Folk Festival: History and Theory

Tuesday, 5/3. History.

Ron Cohen, A History of American Folk Music Festivals, 1-132. Watch Festival. Special guest appearance: Ron Cohen.

Thursday, 5/5. Theory.

Robert Cantwell, “Feasts of Unnaming: Folk Festivals and the Representation of Folk Life,” in If Beale Street Could Talk: Music, Community, Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 71-110. Posen, “On Folk Festivals and Kitchens,” TT, 127-136. Helen Regis and Shana Walton, “Producing the Folk at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival,” Journal of American Folklore 121, 482 (Fall 2008): 400-440.

Week 7 –

Monday 5/9. Archive visit blog post due by midnight. Begin working with digital documents. Technology consultant available for appointments.


Archive Fever 1: What Was an Archive in the Folk Revival?

Tuesday, 5/10. Smith’s Memory Theater.

Cantwell, “Smith’s Memory Theater,” in When We Were Good, 189-240. Cantwell, “Darkling I Listen: Making Sense of the Folkways Anthology,” in If Beale Street Could Talk, 26-41. Cantwell, “The Magic 8 Ball: From Analog to Digital,” in If Beale Street Could Talk, 42-52. Cantwell, “The Ghost in the CD,” Village Voice, 1 August 2000. Greil Marcus, “Uncle Dave Macon: Agent of Satan?,” in Harry Smith: the Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular, ed. Andrew Perchuk and Rani Singh (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010), 175-185. Harry Smith, ed., Anthology of American Folk Music, Part 1, listen. Optional: Browse That Old Weird America Blog, Special guest appearance: Robert Cantwell.

Thursday, 5/12. Archives and Power.

Filene, Romancing the Folk, 133-182. Eric Hobsbawm, “Introduction: Inventing Traditions,” in The Invention of Tradition, eds. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 1-14. Smith, Anthology of American Folk Music, Part 2, listen. Guest: Robert Cantwell. Optional: Browse That Old Weird America Blog,

Week 8 –

Monday 5/16. Archive visit blog post due by midnight. Post project update. Last opportunity to adjust materials selected for digitization (1-3 documents).

Archive Fever 2: What Is an Archive in the Digital Age?

Tuesday 5/17. Archive Dust Theory.

Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002). Smith, Anthology of American Folk Music, Part 3, listen. Optional: Browse That Old Weird America Blog,

Thursday 5/19. Going Digital.

Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, “Promises and Perils of Digital History,” in Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas, “What Is Digital History? A Look at Some Exemplar Projects,” (originally published “Intersections: History and New Media,” Perspectives on History (May 2009). Carl Smith, “Can You Do Serious History on the Web?,” (originally published in AHA Perspectives (February 1998)). Roy Rosenzweig, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” (Originally published in American Historical Review 108, 3 (June 2003): 735-762). Daniel J. Cohen, “History and the Second Decade of the Web,” (Originally published in Rethinking History 8, 2 (June 2004): 293-301). Sheila A. Brennan and T. Mills Kelly, “Why Collecting History Online is Web 1.5,” Center for History and New Media, Case Study, Cathy Davidson, “Why is the Information Age Without the Humanities Like the Industrial Revolution Without the Steam Engine?,” HASTAC Cat in the Stack Blog, Terry Stephan, “Rock Repository,” Northwestern Magazine, Fall 2010, Wolfgang’s Vault, Pick one additional article from the following website to read:

Week 9 –

Monday 5/23. Archive visit blog post due by midnight. Final project prospectus due as blog post.

Into the Archives!


Tuesday 5/24. Research time.

Individual meetings with Professor Kramer and technology consultant.

Thursday 5/26. Open. Special guest appearance: Barry Olivier, founder and director of the Berkeley Folk Festival.

Monday 5/30. Archive visit blog post due by midnight. Update on project. Problems? Successes? Questions? Concerns?

Wednesday 6/8, 9-11am.

Final project due.

Analytic essay reflections due.

Presentations and reflections.

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