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Introductory Memo

This project has arisen not only out of my personal interest in folk music and the textile industry, but also out of my internship here at the Smithsonian Folkways collection in DC. Here in the archives, I spend every day going through many of the roughly 2,ooo Folkways recordings and their materials, tossing what is damaged beyond repair or otherwise unnecessary, and properly storing and cataloging what is left. I do not come in direct contact with the actual sound recordings, but rather spend my time processing the paper materials that go along with each record. These can include liner note and cover layouts, original cover artwork, slicks (the decorated paper label that is glued to the outside of every record cover), and in some cases, correspondence between Moses Asch (the creator of the Folkways recording company) and the artist. I take this material and remove anything harmful that might be attached, such as tape, and then I store it between acid-free paper and put it into an archival folder. Each Folkways record has a number and fits into a catalog system devised by Moses Asch. In a labeling system that I devised at the beginning of the semester, I order the material in numbered boxes in the archives. I also enter all of the information about each album, including the cover designer, editor, artist, catalog number, etc, into an Excel powered database so that in the future, people can come to the Smithsonian archives and quickly find any specific album information they may need.

I had the option to do a project directly related to my work in the archives, and seriously considered it, but I found myself tantalized by the music I was reading so much about, but not actually listening to. I decided initially that I would like to do a study of the artwork associated with a few specific albums and possibly focus on the primary album cover designer, Ronald Clyne, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to deal with the actual sound recordings. With this new direction in mind, I began to gravitate toward the recordings I had most enjoyed so far, and which tended to center around New England. I looked at recordings of Vermont and Maine musicians, and also found many albums of sea shanties. While heading in this direction, however, I inevitably stumbled across Pete Seeger recordings. While Seeger did relate to my then current project, I found that more of his songs revolved around protest, unionization, and mill labor. It is here that I came full circle. There is no topic that I enjoy writing about more than mill workers and the issues behind the textile industry. Though I have written about music before, I have never combined my two favorite subjects of song and labor. Here in the Folkways collection, I have found the marriage of my two great loves, and thus, the perfect subject for my project.

I decided to do my research in two separate parts, because while songs of protest are fairly self explanatory, I felt that a strong foundation in the history of unionization could only serve me for the better. With this in mind, I began my research at the Library of Congress and with material borrowed from various university libraries and the Smithsonian libraries. Though I have found a few books about union songs, I have tried to keep my research divided into two separate categories of organization history and musical recordings, as I would like very much to draw my own conclusions about the power of union music and its singers. I have many recordings of labor tunes borrowed from the Smithsonian archives that I listen to constantly and will analyze in my writings. I also have a broad range of historical background to write about as well. In some blog posts, the content will be entirely historical so as to give context, and in many, the writing will be a combination of musical analysis and a study of important musicians.

The final step in developing this project was to decide on a form of presentation. I knew that I did not want to write a paper. I have written papers of this kind before and felt that I needed to push out of my academic comfort zone into something more challenging. I also felt that this project lent itself to something more interactive. I considered doing a podcast, but that would have eliminated my ability to show pictures. I also thought about a slide show, but then realized that this would drastically reduce the size of my audience. A blog felt inaccessible at first, but as I looked into it, the more fantastic it seemed. With a blog, I can show images, link to recordings, receive feedback, and reach a massive audience. I love knowing that someone across the world who is interested in American folk music might type a key phrase into their search engine and end up reading what I have to say. It makes me feel both very small and very important. This is not something that I could have achieved in any other way, and I am very proud to be presenting my research in this form.

When I picture my audience, I definitely see a younger crowd. My limited experience with the blogging world thus far has left me with the impression that those in search of information in blog form, would probably be of an undergraduate or graduate level age and interest. I also hope to reach a cross-over audience by introducing the power of union song to those who are already versed in labor history, and visa versa. I would like for my writing to inform, but also inspire the reader to further investigate the Folkways collection and its vast array of musical genres, even beyond what I have mentioned here. Finally, I would like my bibliography to assist in the research of others, and possible fuel further research about my topic on the part of the reader. I have had access to rare and unbelievable written documents as well as wonderful and knowledgeable people, and I hope that my work can help and inform others in their own.

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