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The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
presents the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series

April 23, 2008 Event Flyer

From Oral Tradition to Critical Edition:
The James Madison Carpenter Collection of Folk Music and Drama

2008 Botkin Lecture Flyer for The Carpenter Collection

The James Madison Carpenter Collection consists of a wealth of British and American folksong and folk drama, documented in the period 1927-ca 1943.The bulk dates from 1928-35 when Carpenter, a native of Mississippi and a former doctoral student of George Lyman Kittredge at Harvard, conducted fieldwork in Britain, using a Dictaphone cylinder machine and portable typewriter. The collection comprises papers, cylinders, acetate discs, photographs and drawings, including the texts and tunes of approximately 1,000 ballads, 800 sea shanties, 750 other songs, 300 mummers' plays, and 50 instrumental tunes. Despite transcribing and editing parts of the collection, Carpenter never published it. He eventually sold it to the Archive of Folk Culture, Library of Congress, in 1972. The collection has since been digitized and is intended for online presentation.

Carpenter was proud of his collection. He claimed that it contained ‘the most valuable collection of ballads with tunes ever made' and cited the fact that he had recorded the extensive repertoire of one Bell Duncan of Lambhill, Aberdeenshire, whom he regarded as "‘the greatest folksinger of all time." In fact, even a more objective appraisal of the collection indicates that it is of outstanding significance. For Britain, it is one of the most extensive and diverse folklore collections, the first to use sound recording consistently, and the first by an academically trained collector. It bridges the gap between the turn-of-the-century and mid-century folksong revivals, and has singers in common with these earlier and later collections, as well as prolific singers who have not been recorded before or since. It contains some rare and unique items of balladry, important variants of better-known ballads, and multiple rather than the commonly found conflated versions of sea shanties. It also contains recordings of well-known fiddle players while in their prime, and is the first folk play evidence based on performers' rather than upper-class observers' testimony. The American materials include recordings of African-American folktales and a large number of children’s games and songs which substantially augment the record of these genres.

The James Madison Carpenter Project team, comprising folk music and folk drama scholars from the US and the UK, led by Julia C. Bishop, has been working on the collection since 2001 in close cooperation with staff at the American Folklife Center. The team has compiled a detailed finding aid, using xml (a platform-independent standard for data exchange) and, specifically, Encoded Archival Description, which was developed by the Society of American Archivists.

The finding aid allows the collection to be searched at item level (see External Link). It is complemented by a Name Authority File in which biographical information on contributors deriving from the collection and, increasingly from outside sources (official records and descendants' testimony), is presented. There is also a Placename Authority File which traces a large proportion of the locations named in the collection. The finding aid has the capacity to be linked directly to the digitized items in the collection when these become publicly available. It has also formed an essential foundation for the team's current work which is the preparation of the entire collection for publication in a critical edition (funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, in cooperation with the American Folklore Society and the British Academy). The justification for a critical edition in addition to the online presentation lies partly in the fact that, due to Carpenter's working methods, the papers in the collection survive in a highly disordered state, including multiple iterations of many of the most important items. The team's goal is to promote the use of the collection for both scholarship and performance, through enhanced access to the collection’s materials. This involves bringing together related items in the collection and presenting them in an authoritative manner, locating them within the broader context of folklore and literature, and making the collection available in a tangible, stable and permanent medium. The team also intends to establish a model for the editing of the Carpenter Collection. In so doing, they aim to stimulate debate regarding the editing of folkloric materials in light of current scholarly discourses concerning the editing of literary texts and the role of critical editions vis-à-vis digitized raw materials.

This lecture will showcase the variety and importance of this fascinating and voluminous collection, and describe its architect, Carpenter, and the way in which he compiled it. The work of the Carpenter project team will also be outlined, including the EAD finding aid, and some of the editorial challenges facing team members as they prepare the critical edition.

The James Madison Carpenter Project team: Julia C. Bishop, David Atkinson, Elaine Bradtke, Eddie Cass,Thomas A. McKean, Robert Young Walser, The Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen, UK.

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The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.


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