Syllabus—Digitizing Folk Music History

We’re about to get started with spring quarter at Northwestern, so my syllabus is almost ready. Here’s the updated version:

Digitizing Folk Music History: The Berkeley Folk Festival


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 the American folk music revival through digital media: what was at stake in the Berkeley Folk 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? 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 website.
  • Readings, viewings also available at library reserve desk.

Academic Integrity:

All Weinberg College and Northwestern policies concerning plagiarism and academic dishonesty are strictly enforced in this course. See for more details.

In addition, because we are using potentially copyrighted materials in digital form, you will be asked by the Northwestern library to sign a waiver form that you will not violate any copyright laws. If you do so, this also constitutes academic dishonesty. If you have any question as to what constitutes plagiarism or academic dishonesty or copyright violation, please feel free to contact the instructor. Please note that under WCAS and Northwestern policy, the instructor is required to report any suspected instances of academic dishonesty. The instructor also reserves the right to assign a failing grade for the course if a student is found to have violated college or university policy concerning academic integrity.


Special Needs:

Students with special needs and disabilities that have been declared and documented through the Northwestern Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) should meet with the instructor to discuss any specific accommodations. For further information, see the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) website:


Participation = 14% of final grade.

Discussion assignment. Please come to seminar meetings prepared to discuss the following:

(1)  What is the most important point you learned from today’s materials?

(2)   What is the most important question you have about today’s materials?

Weekly archives blog post = 36% of final grade (9 blogs x 4 % each).

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. You are welcome to make additional blog posts or start a Twitter or Facebook-type feed in addition to your “official” blog posts.

Final digital project (guidelines and rubric online) = 30% of final grade. Due 6/8.

5-6 page analytic essay on final project (guidelines and rubric online) = 20% of final grade. Due 6/8.


Week 1 –


Introductions: Transforming Traditions

Tuesday 3/29. What Is This Folk Music?


Thursday 3/31. Transforming Traditions.

Transforming Traditions, pp. 1-81, 258-274.

“Is This Folk Music?” Listening Mix.

Week 2 –


Monday 4/4. Blog post 1 due by midnight.

Respond to the following questions:

(1) As you begin this course, how would you define folk music?

(2) What questions do you have about American folk music and the history of the folk revival?


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.

Browse Berkeley Folk Festival Finding Aid.

Thursday 4/7. The Basics 2.

Ron Cohen, Folk Music: The Basics, pp. 89-193.

Watch American Roots Music Part 3 and 4.

Browse Berkeley Folk Festival Finding Aid.

Week 3 –


Monday 4/11. Blog post 2 due by midnight.

Must focus on reflections about visit to archive.

Respond to the following questions:

(1) What materials were you curious about in the archive?

(2) What was most insightful to you about Ron Cohen’s book and/or ARM documentary film?

The Folk Revival: Going Deep

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

Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, 1-114.

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. Blog post 3 due by midnight.

Must focus on reflections about visit to archive.

Respond to the following prompts:

(1) Continue to document your explorations of the Berkeley Folk Festival archive. What materials continue to draw your attention and why?

(2) Bob Dylan. Discuss.

Tuesday 4/19. The Children’s Underground.

Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good, 116-188, 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. Blog post 4 due by midnight.

*Select 1-3 documents for digitization.* Respond to the following prompt:

Why are you selecting these documents? What interests you about them? What do you think is their significance?

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. Blog post 5 due by midnight. Respond to the following prompt:

What kinds of digital history could you imagine creating out of your selected documents given no limits on time or resources?

The Folk Festival: History and Theory

Tuesday, 5/3. History.

Ron Cohen, A History of American Folk Music Festivals, 1-132.

Watch Festival.

VISITOR: 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. Blog post 6 due by midnight. Respond to the following prompts:

(1) What strikes you as most significant about the history and theory of folk festivals?

(2) Project sketch. Map out possibilities for your digital history project? What ideas do you wish to complete for the project? What problems or challenges do you foresee?


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

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

Robert Cantwell, “Smith’s Memory Theater,” in When We Were Good, 189-240.

Robert Cantwell, “Darkling I Listen: Making Sense of the Folkways Anthology,” in If Beale Street Could Talk, 26-41.

Robert Cantwell, “The Magic 8 Ball: From Analog to Digital,” in If Beale Street Could Talk, 42-52.

Harry Smith, ed., Anthology of American Folk Music, Part 1, listen.


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.

Kevin M. Moist, “Collecting, Collage, and Alchemy: The Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music as Art and Cultural Intervention,” American Studies 48, 4 (Winter 2007): 111-127.Browse That Old Weird America Blog,

Robert Cantwell, “The Ghost in the CD,” Village Voice, 1 August 2000.

VISITOR: 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.

Optional: Browse That Old Weird America Blog,

Week 8 –

Monday 5/16. Blog post 7 due by midnight. Respond to the following prompts:

(1) Post project update. What are your latest ideas, concerns, questions, conclusions about your project. Be specific.

(2) How have our recent readings changed or confirmed your interpretations of your materials.

Last opportunity to adjust/add 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.


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,

Articles at

Week 9 –

Monday 5/23. Blog post 8 due by midnight.

(1) Post a final, fully-developed project prospectus with a clearly-stated hypothesis about your interpretation of your materials, the details of your primary sources upon which you will focus, the digital history tools or design you wish to employ or propose, the secondary sources upon which you will draw, and any issues or challenges you face in completing your project.

Deeper Into the Archives!


Tuesday 5/24. Research time.

Individual meetings with Professor Kramer and Josh Honn, technology consultant.

Thursday 5/26. Meeting with Barry Olivier.

The founder and former director of the Berkeley Folk Festival joins us.

PUBLIC EVENT: A DISCUSSION WITH BARRY OLIVIER, Forum Room, Northwestern Library, Thursday, 5/26, 5-7pm.

Monday 5/30. Blog post 9 due by midnight.

(1) Informal update on you project. Problems? Successes? Questions? Concerns?


Wednesday 6/8, 9-11am.

Presentations and reflections.

Final digital history project due.

5-6 page analytic essay reflections due.

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