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Folk-Songs of America: The Robert Winslow Gordon Collection, 1922-1932


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Preface to the Online Presentation

by Michael Taft

As part of its celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Archive of Folk Culture (July 1, 2003), the American Folklife Center is re-issuing these recordings from the Robert Winslow Gordon Collection. Twenty-five years ago, for the Archive's 50th anniversary, these recordings were issued on an LP, along with extensive notes by Debora Kodish, Neil V. Rosenberg, and Joseph C. Hickerson. That LP, and the turntables that could play it, are now nearly as obsolete and inaccessible as were wax cylinders in the 1970s, but the value of the recordings and Gordon's legacy as the first director of the Archive have not lessened.

The notes to the LP, republished here, give an excellent account of Gordon's role in the history of folksong collecting and archiving. In the context of the present re-issue, it is worth pointing out that Gordon's interests extended beyond the folksongs themselves to include the means of capturing them. From childhood he was a tinkerer, fascinated by technology, and it is no surprise that he was a pioneer of the use of sound-recording equipment in folklore fieldwork.

Folk Songs of America original LP cover
Folk-Songs of America original LP cover

Gordon's cylinders and discs are of inestimable value and form part of his legacy. But they present a challenge given by Gordon to future archivists. Gordon's intent was not only to collect folksongs but to present them to the public -- his song columns in Adventure and the New York Times Magazine were an early form of applied or public folklore. Gordon's challenge to us is to make sure that these folksongs remain accessible to the public, that they not be hidden away in an archive. With each evolutionary step in sound recording technology, Gordon's challenge is renewed.

Over the years, the Archive of Folk Culture has met this challenge through reissuing material from its holdings, first as sets of 78rpm recordings, then later as LPs, and more recently as CDs and on the Internet. Each change in technology, however, has meant that the Archive's reissues have become almost as inaccessible as the original field recordings from which they were taken. The beginning of the 21st century is also the beginning of a new chapter in this continuing challenge, and the Archive is currently engaged in the digital preservation and presentation of its recordings.

It is altogether fitting that Gordon's cylinders and discs are part of this ongoing technological evolution. Gordon would approve.


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   June 23, 2011
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