Duke Magazine: A deep dive into North Carolina's musical history
The Summer 2017 issue of Duke Magazine has a wonderful story about NC Jukebox, an FHI-supported Bass Connections project, that traces the genesis, discovery, and rediscovery of a remarkable folk music collection through three generations of Duke researchers. Thanks to the Jukebox team, a previously inaccessible archive of rare regional music, trapped in wax cylinders and glass discs that can no longer be played, has been digitized for public study and enjoyment. Listen and learn more about it here.
Scott Huler's Duke Magazine piece captures the passing of the scholarly baton across generations - historical and technological - of intrepid Duke students:
One day while wandering the stacks in the Perkins Library in 1969, Duke student Charlie Bond idly opened a door to what he thought was a closet. It turned out to be a stairwell, blocked at the bottom.
“And down at the bottom of that stairwell were a whole jumble of disks and little round cylinders,” he recalled, sharing the story with students sitting around a classroom table in the renovated Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The cylinders and disks were the actual materials of the Frank C. Brown Collection of Folklore—“the largest folklore collection,” Bond ’71 notes, “of any state in the United States.” Bond ought to know, since he spent his time at Duke turning those materials from an all-but-forgotten pile at the bottom of a blocked staircase into a repository of story and song that lived and breathed. He took advantage of a sixties interest in creative independent study.
“Duke had embarked on a ‘design-your-own-curriculum’ enterprise,” Bond says. “I ended up being the first. Which was a blessing and a curse.” A curse because nobody knew quite what an independent curriculum was supposed to look like. A blessing because when he stumbled on the old Brown archive and wanted to spend a couple years falling in love with it, that sounded fine.
[ . . . ]
Fast-forward to the turn of the twenty-first century. Archivist Trudi Abel, working with the Center for Instructional Technology at Duke, in 1999 created “Digital Durham,” an interactive online archive of maps, photographs, and records of Durham from its earliest days. “What I wanted to know,” Abel recalls, “was could I include audio?” That led to rooting around in the archives for audio worth sharing, which led her back to the Brown material. But because Duke no longer had working Ediphone or Presto machines, she says, the music was all “trapped on wax cylinders, trapped on aluminum disks.” She must have run across Bond’s reel-to-reel tapes, because when smart phones first appeared and Duke was encouraging instructors to find ways to use them as instructional tools, she convinced archives preservationist Winston Atkins to digitize one of Bond’s tapes. Students made audio postcards in a class she taught, but Abel yearned to do more.
Enter Bass Connections, one of Duke’s flagship interdisciplinary study and research enterprises. In a 2015-16 Bass Connections project, Abel helped students create the NC Jukebox, in which they made available online some of the songs from Brown’s work, addressing complex technological issues like how best to organize the material and make it available. They also considered topics like how different songs and singers were selected for inclusion and how to bring the music back to the families of those original singers.
In the class Abel was teaching in 2017, the students continued in that vein, doing independent research into some of the singers and their families in the context of the students’ times. In class they told Bond about their interests in the relations between men and women, between song and story as they became, in effect, the third generation of researchers to explore the mountains and their songs. Brown went with his Ediphone, to catch the music; Bond, poet, ethnographer, and musician, went to the mountains with his guitar and his reel-to-reel to pursue the lives of the singers. Now students in Abel’s classes study Brown’s songs and Bond’s context and reach out to family members to understand even more. “The class is the students doing a deep dive and actually connecting with these singers who sang these songs seventy years ago,” Abel says, “and also connecting with these primary materials.”