Sunday, January 25, 2009

NPR piece; Saving Folk History, One Recording At A Time

Saving Folk History, One Recording At A Time
By David Gura

All Things Considered
, January 22, 2009 - Judy Hyman plays fiddle in a band called The Horse Flies. In her living room in Ithaca, N.Y., there's a pine-wood dresser right next to the couch. It's not for shirts and sweaters — this used dresser holds hundreds of precious cassette tapes, an archive of rare recordings that spans more than three decades. She recorded many of them herself; the rest were gifts from other musicians and collectors.

Hyman's treasures include recordings of Jim Bowles and Harold Hausenfluck — both fiddlers, from Kentucky and Virginia, respectively. Their music is called "old-timey." It's what came before bluegrass.

This music has been passed down from generation to generation, and from musician to musician. There are versions of songs particular to different regions, and even to different families.

Recordings of these very particular performances — made in living rooms, kitchens and on front porches and called "field recordings" — are essential tools for anyone who wants to play this type of music.

"When you go down South and try to study with someone, they don't say, 'Well, you know, the first measure you play such and such,' " field recorder Ray Alden says. "They just play the tune."
Alden is a banjo player, a friend of Hyman's and a retired math teacher. One of the people he studied with was Fred Cockerham, a musician from Surry County, N.C. During his summer vacations, Alden scoured the South, looking for musicians.

"Unless you've got photographic memory," he says, "you have to record it, take it home, try to play, and then try again and just keep trying and trying until finally, hopefully, you get it."

A Grand Archive

A few years ago, Alden began to wonder what he was going to do with his collection of field recordings. He considered giving his collection to the Library of Congress, or to a university. However, Alden says he worried that they'd be hard for musicians like him to access, and that they'd gather dust lying on a metal shelf. Besides, what librarian in his or her right mind would let someone into the stacks with a banjo or a fiddle to learn a rare ballad or breakdown?

"If the people who are really interested and want to play it or hear it, have difficulty assessing it, what good is that?" Alden asks.

The rest of the story, plus music clips, is at

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