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


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by Joseph C. Hickerson

July 1, 1978, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Archive of Folk Song in the Library of Congress. We are celebrating the semi-centennial year with a symposium and an exhibit on the archive's history, a special concert by folk musicians, an article for the Library's Quarterly Journal, and a commemorative long-playing recording. Throughout these events will be woven the name and accomplishments of the archive's first director (1928-32), Robert Winslow Gordon.

The recognition we give Gordon for his role in the archive's beginnings not only serves as leitmotif for our fiftieth-year celebrations but also publicizes an American folklorist whose work has been largely unknown. The reasons for Gordon's lack of acclaim are several. First, he pioneered folksong documentation at a time when the subject was appreciated by but a handful of specialists and aficionados. Second, his publications were few and largely ephemeral; he refused to compromise accuracy and scholarship for mass publication and exposure. Finally, federal support for folklore documentation and preservation was tenuous in the late 1920's and early 1930's. It took ten years, the Depression, and the New Deal to assure federally funded activities in folklore.

Robert W. Gordon's collection of over nine hundred cylinder and disc recordings, ten thousand songs in manuscript, and numerous ephemeral and popular publications related to folksong lay in storage in the Library's Music Division stacks for more than three decades. The accomplishments of later directors of the archive overshadowed the dormant treasures of the archive's first director. During the 1940s and 1950s, few scholars were aware of the Gordon collection, and virtually no one worked with it. More assiduous researchers such as Benjamin A. Botkin, Austin E. Fife, and D.K. Wilgus perused it. Others, including Herbert Halpert and Kenneth S. Goldstein were cognizant of the collection and realized the need to bring it to light.

I grew aware of the great riches of the Gordon collection soon after I began working at the archive in 1963. During the next ten years, I was able to direct a number of researchers to the collection for interesting song texts, often predating any other report on the songs in question. Occasionally, scholars were provided with tape copies of particular cylinders for their comparative and historical studies. Thus Gordon's pioneering efforts influenced the subsequent scholarship of Archie Green, Norm Cohen, Judith McCulloh, and a few others.

As time passed, other "champions" of R.W. Gordon stepped forward. Archie Green spoke of his accomplishments on many occasions, perhaps never more eloquently than in November 1968 at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society in Bloomington, Indiana. Interest also accrued at the University of Oregon, where Gordon's personal papers had been bequeathed through the auspices of Prof. Arthur Brodeur, Gordon's colleague and friend of many years. University of Oregon folklorist J. Barre Toelken directed students to this collection once it was housed in the university library's special collection as part of the Randall V. Mills Memorial Archive of Northwest Folklore (q.v. Grimm).

Photo: Duplicating wax cylinder recordings
Duplicating Gordon's original cylinders onto tape in the Recording Laboratory of the Library of Congress. From left to right: Robert B. Carneal, Head, Recorded Sound Section; Debora G. Kodish; Professor Neil V. Rosenberg, Memorial University of Newfoundland; and Erika Brady, LC staff engineer. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, June 1978.

In 1973 my own efforts to make the Gordon collection more accessible were joined by those of Deborah G. Kodish, a Lehigh University undergraduate who discovered its variety and extent while on a ballad research project. Subsequently, as an intern in the Archive of Folk Song, Kodish explored the many boxes of typescripts, correspondence, and index cards. During this period and later while working on her master's degree in the Folklore Department of the Memorial University of Newfoundland under the direction of Prof. Herbert Halpert and Prof. Neil V. Rosenberg, she made a number of lists and indexes and helped to prepare the manuscripts for preservation on microfilm. She interviewed Robert Gordon's daughter, Mrs. Roberta P. G. Nye, and her family in Shalotte, North Carolina, and also a number of other people throughout the country who had known Gordon. These researches, which were supported by grants from Memorial University, culminated in an exemplary thesis.

In 1976 the archive was able to place the Gordon cylinders on the Recording Laboratory's schedule for preservation duplication (the Gordon discs had been copied onto tape several years before). In preparation for this, two archive interns, Rebecca Martin and Susan J. Grodsky, prepared a provisional shelflist based on Gordon's own card index. The cylinders were copied by Mark Schellhammer under the supervision of Chief Engineer Robert B. Carneal.

Debora Kodish's study of Gordon at the Memorial University of Newfoundland spurred Herbert Halpert to order a set of the Gordon tapes for the university's folklore archive. Once the tapes and shelflist arrived in St. John's, folklore archivist Neil V. Rosenberg assigned to a graduate student, Robert McCarl, the task of listening to and further annotating the tapes. Rosenberg and the new Folklore Department director, Kenneth S. Goldstein, asked McCarl to give particular attention to items appropriate for issuance on an LP disc. Goldstein's and Rosenberg's keen interest in a publication of selected Gordon recordings dovetailed with interest in the Library of Congress in a suitable commemoration of the archive's anniversary. Initial selection for the LP was energetically carried out by Goldstein and Rosenberg in Newfoundland and by Kodish at the Library. Rosenberg and Kodish were on hand for a final tape duplication supervised by Carneal and assisted by Assistant Chief Engineer John E. Howell and Erika Brady, staff engineer.

The interest and efforts of many people led to the conception and completion of this recording. Extreme thanks are tendered to everyone who collaborated in this project. In addition, we thank the singers and musicians who recorded for R.W. Gordon and their next-of-kin who, when located, gave us permission to include selections on this LP. For general encouragement and specific guidance, we are much indebted to Kenneth S.Goldstein, Archie Green, Herbert Halpert, Alan Jabbour, Bert Nye, Roberta Gordon Nye and family, and J.Barre Toelken. Grateful acknowledgement is also tendered to Loyal Jones and to the James Stikeleather, Jr., family for photographs and to Sharon Cochrane, Donna Jean Fusione, Frank J. Gillis, John Hasse, Gerald E. Parsons, Jr., and Cindy Turpin for their assistance with annotations, transcriptions, and bibliography.

To the memory of Robert Winslow Gordon we dedicate this recording.

Joseph. C. Hickerson
Head, Archive of Folk Song


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   June 23, 2011
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