Digital Exhibit: The Berkeley Folk Music Festival & the Folk Revival on the US West Coast—An Introduction
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Dr. Michael J. Kramer, Assistant Professor, Department of History, SUNY Brockport, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project (bfmf.net) is a multimodal investigation of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, which took place annually between 1958 to 1970 on the campus of the University of California. Directed throughout its duration by Barry Olivier, the Berkeley Festival became a key node in an emerging international circuit of folk music festivals in the 1960s and a crucial gathering site for the West Coast folk revival. The archive of the BFMF, purchased by Northwestern University’s Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections in 1973, contains over 33,000 artifacts, including business records, audio and video recordings, posters, ephemera, and over 10,000 photographs. The multimodal project includes:
- a fully digitized, open-access repository (National Endowment for the Humanities Access and Preservation Grant awarded in 2017)
- an introductory digital exhibition (completed August 2021)
- multimedia essays, an audio podcast series, digital lesson plans, and an oral history repository (in development currently with support from a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Projects for the Public Discovery Grant)
- collaborations with the Arhoolie Foundation and local organizations to use the BFMF digital project as a platform for expanded access to cultural heritage in the Bay Area
- an in-person gallery exhibit and print catalog
The Significance of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival
Typically, 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 Coast? California in particular provided a new, jet-age ideal of the affluent, modern good life in the decades after World War II. Yet, Berkeley was also the site of stirrings against this conformist norm. How did the Festival fit into these dynamics?
The Berkeley Folk Music Festival took place in the very same spaces on the University of California campus that were centers of the tumultuous politics of the 1960s. The civil rights movement, Black liberation, the New Left student movement, the Free Speech Movement, the anti-Vietnam War peace movement, women’s liberation, gay rights, ethnic studies, the stirrings of the disability rights movement, the People’s Park controversy, and the rise of the New Right with California governor Ronald Reagan’s election in 1966—these agitations and reactions provide the context for the Berkeley Folk Music Festival. Yet the Festival was also, as its name suggests, festive. It sought to be inclusive, and was largely apolitical. It fostered cross-generational gatherings that were communal and welcoming. Even in 1968, as tensions flared during street protests on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, the Festival itself managed to take place peacefully on campus.
The Berkeley Festival also provides an intriguing lens on how Americans on the West Coast encountered and addressed tradition in a location that was at the center of an increasingly futuristic, computerized culture of the Cold War military-industrial complex. Unlike at infamous controversies such as Bob Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the Berkeley Festival worked out a much looser understanding of tradition and modernity, the acoustic and the electric, the amateur and the commercial. It was at once linked to a distinctive local movement of folk revivalists and possessed its own distinctive philosophy and the atmosphere, established largely by director Barry Olivier. It was an intimate, distinctive event, yet also a key part of a national—indeed, international—folk revival world, as suggested by the famous Humbead’s Revised Map of the World, a copy of which can be found in the Berkeley Collection.
While there is much to celebrate about the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, it also reproduced many of the hierarchies and exclusions of its times. The Festival sometimes 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 an effort 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. We plan to do so in collaboration with the Arhoolie Foundation and local Bay Area cultural heritage organizations.
Studying the festival more closely holds the promise of revising our understanding of postwar US history, in particular the cultural and social history of Northern California in relation to the national—indeed international—folk revival as it arose after World War II. The project also seeks to reframe the relationship between cultural activity in Berkeley and political events such as the Free Speech Movement, People’s Park, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Black liberation struggle, and the rise of various ethnic movements in the area. The holdings of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Collection also offer fresh perspectives 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.
Finally, the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project seeks to contribute to developments in digital public history and digital humanities methods. How might digital technologies “activate” archives of ephemeral social events such as a music festival from the past? How might digital modes of access and curation enhance the ability of scholars, educators, students, musicians, artists, aficionados, and anyone interested in studying the Berkeley Folk Music Festival to investigate its stories?
Who Performed at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival?
Musical luminaries who performed at the festival include:
- Pete Seeger
- Joan Baez
- Arthel “Doc” Watson
- “Mississippi” John Hurt
- Samuel John “Lightnin'” Hopkins
- Mance Lipscomb
- Fred MacDowell
- Robert “Pete” Williams
- Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee
- Reverend Gary Davis
- Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller
- Bessie Jones and the Georgia Island Sea Singers
- New Lost City Ramblers
- Mike Seeger
- Cisco Houston
- Los Tigres Del Norte
- The Hackberry Ramblers
- The Opelusas Playboys
- Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett)
- Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
- Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup
- James Cotton
- Roscoe Holcomb
- Almeda Riddle
- Jimmie Driftwood
- Sam Hinton
- Jean Ritchie
- Jean Redpath
- Janis Ian
- Phil Ochs
- Tom Paxton
- Richie Havens
- Ramblin’ Jack Eliott
- Ewan MacColl
- Peggy Seeger
- Mimi Fariña
- Tom Jans
- John Fahey
- Robbie Basho
- Larry Hanks
- Dr. Humbead’s New Tranquility String Band
- Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach
- The People’s International Silver String Macedonian Band
- Song of Earth Chorale
- Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company
- Jefferson Airplane
- The Youngbloods
- Red Crayola
- Steve Miller Blues Band
- Country Joe and the Fish
- Big Brother and the Holding Company (post-Janis Joplin’s departure)
- Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
- Joy of Cooking
- Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band
- The Na Rhma Wa Ci American Indian Dancers
- And many more.
The Berkeley Folk Music Festival Collection also includes many other wonderful holdings, including documentation on West Coast folk, jazz, rock, and pop music festivals; correspondence with participants in the folk music revival worldwide; materials about the emerging Bay Area rock scene; and information about the social, political, and cultural milieu of Northern California and Berkeley in the 1950s and 60s.
Project 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. Building 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 web-based interpretive narrative tells the story of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival in dynamic, interactive, and multimedia form.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.