~posted by Jenny C.
I’m a fan of history – reading books based in historical times (yes, sometimes even the romances), enjoying biographies of interesting people, delighting in extensive footnotes, and recreating historical activities, like folk dancing and fencing. What I like even better is experiencing original materials – all the weird and wonderful vocabulary when people tell their own stories, and all the wavering scratchy backgrounds when they sing their own songs.
Lately I feel like every time I turn around, someone is talking about folk songs with me, so let me just add to that conversation. One of my favorite online resources for discovering historic vocal music is the English Broadside Ballad Archive. I love it for its brilliant combination of image and music from the 1600s. Take, for instance, this song about Robin Hood and the Shepherd. You get to see what the original broadside looked like, woodcuts and all. Then you can see a version with legible text, a transcript version for easy singing along, and frequently a recording with their best guess of a how the song might have been sung. You might notice that none of the broadsides have musical notes on them. Broadside ballads were sheets of lyrics sold on the corner, with tunes that were either commonly known or shared by the seller on the spot, and many of those melodies are either changed or lost.
That project is pretty spectacular, but imagine my delight when I found the American Memory archive from the Library of Congress through the History, Biographies and Maps section on our website. I stumbled on a treasure trove when I found the folklife collection, because it has original recordings from several early American music collecting trips, like The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip which includes fieldnotes about their trip as well as recordings. Or the The WPA California Folk Music Project, which features immigrant singers from all over the world, and photographs of many of the performers. These recordings of ordinary people bring history alive to me in a way that few other things do. This is what people sounded like in the 1930s: singing lullabies to their children, calling in their chickens, or on board a ship singing music hall favorites from 1888. I think it’s extraordinary that we can hear them, through all that passage of time.