Saving Folk History, One Recording At A Time A small group of musicians is trying to preserve American folk music. These players aren't professional archivists or producers; their old, rare cassette and reel-to-reel tapes are scattered across the country. Members of the Field Recorders' Collective want to introduce these recordings to a new generation of musicians online.
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Saving Folk History, One Recording At A Time

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Saving Folk History, One Recording At A Time

Saving Folk History, One Recording At A Time

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris. A small group of musicians is trying to save American folk music one recording at a time. They're not professional archivists, but they've collected thousands of old rare cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes. And they want to introduce those recordings to a new generation of musicians online, as NPR's David Gura reports.

DAVID GURA: Judy Hyman plays fiddle in a band called The Horse Flies. In her living room in Ithaca, New York, there's a pine-wood dresser right next to the couch. It's not for shirts and sweaters, she keeps her socks elsewhere. This dresser, which she bought used many years ago, is full of cassette tapes.

Ms. JUDY HYMAN (Fiddle player, The Horse Flies): And we'll just open this up here and here, let's see, I have Jim Bowles from 1973. We have Mount Airy from 1982 here.

GURA: There are hundreds of cassettes.

Ms. HYMAN: Oh, this is a precious tape to me. This is Harold Hausenfluck and the Dixie Bee Liners at Galax, and I don't have a year on here, but this would have to be about 1981, I would think.

(Soundbite of folk song)

Mr. HAROLD HAUSENFLUCK AND THE DIXIE BEE LINERS: (Singing) I know something, something I don't need. A crosscut saw, and mother-in-law, and 44 chickens to feed Won't you come and go, Won't you come and go, I've made my friendly love I'm going to cross the sea Yeehaw

GURA: Now, you may not have heard of Jim Bowles or Harold Hausenfluck. They're fiddlers from Kentucky and Virginia, respectively. And Mount Airy, North Carolina and Galax, Virginia are two towns in the Blue Ridge Mountains known for, among other things, their annual fiddlers conventions.

Judy Hyman's dresser is an archive of rare recordings that spans more than three decades. She recorded many of them. The rest were gifts from other musicians and collectors. The music is called old time or old-timey. It's what came before bluegrass.

(Soundbite of folk music)

GURA: It's been passed down from generation to generation, from musician to musician by ear. Versions of songs are particular to different regions, to different families even. Field recordings like these are essential tools for anyone who wants to play this kind of music.

Mr. RAY ALDEN (Retired Math Teacher; Banjo Player; Field Recorder): When you go down South and try to study with someone, they don't say, well, you know, the first measure you play such and such. They just play the tune. (Laughing)

GURA: Ray Alden is a banjo player, a friend of Judy Hyman's, and a retired math teacher. During his summer vacations, he scoured the South, looking for musicians.

Mr. ALDEN: Unless you've got photographic memory, you have to record it, take it home, try to play, and then try again, then try again and just keep trying and trying until you finally, hopefully, you get it.

(Soundbite of folk music)

GURA: One of the people he studied with was Fred Cochram(ph), a musician from Surry County, North Carolina.

(Soundbite of folk music)

GURA: A few years ago, Ray Alden began to wonder what he was going to do with his collection of field recordings.

Mr. ALDEN: People such as myself are getting older. I'm in my mid-60s at this point. At some point, you say to yourself, well look, what am I going to do with all this stuff? And the logical thing or the thing that most people do is they donate it to archives.

GURA: He thought about giving his collection to the Library of Congress or to a university. But Alden worried that they'd be hard for musicians like him to access, that they'd gather dust on a metal shelf somewhere. And besides, what librarian in his or her right mind would let someone into the stacks with a banjo or a fiddle to learn a rare ballad or breakdown?

Mr. ALDEN: If the people who are really interested and want to play it, for example, or hear it, have such difficulty accessing it, you know, what good is that?

GURA: Alden talked to a few of his friends, like Judy Hyman, and they came up with an idea. They'd preserved their old recordings themselves, and they'd used the Internet to bring them to a new audience. Alden says it's music democratization.

He and his friends call their ad hoc group the Field Recorders' Collective. Every year, they re-master and release 10 to 15 old recordings. They use their home computers to edit audio, and they package every CD in a simple cardboard sleeve. Liner notes are available online with photos.

(Soundbite of folk music)

GURA: Tapes come from backyard jam sessions, house concerts and music festivals. Music that probably wouldn't interest most commercial labels, of everything from the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers from Shell Creek, Tennessee to Wade Ward(ph) from Independence, Virginia.

(Soundbite of folk music)

GURA: Most of the musicians on these recordings were not professionals, and many of them are dead now. Peter Hoover made this tape of Wade Ward, with Uncle Charlie Higgins and Dale Poe, a few years after he dropped out of Harvard in the 1950s. He did his best to make them feel comfortable. He shared meals with them, he listened to them play music in their living rooms, and he didn't bring out his suitcase-sized reel-to-reel recorder until late at night.

Mr. PETER HOOVER (Member, Field Recorders' Collective): You have to sit, and you have to visit, and you have to explain yourself and say, well, you know, I want to learn this music, and I hear you play it. Could you play me a few tunes? And after we got through that, I said, well, you know, could I record some of this stuff?

GURA: Today, Hoover, Ray Alden, and the other members of the Field Recorders' Collective - almost two dozen of them - do everything on the cheap or as inexpensively as they can so that other musicians can learn from the likes of Haywood Blevins, John Ashby, and Manko Sneed(ph).

Mr. HOOVER: Some of the names are so obscure that even aficionados of this music, who know a tremendous amount, have never heard of these people. But the music is just absolutely tremendous.

(Soundbite of folk music)

GURA: After the Field Recorders' Collective pays for production and shipping, its members give the rest of the money to the families of the musicians. Men and women, who in many cases still play the tunes their parents and grandparents did. Ray Alden hopes the Field Recorders' Collective will help a new generation share the experiences he and his fellow collectors had decades ago, without all the work. David Gura, NPR News.

(Soundbite of folk music)

NORRIS: And you could hear more music from the Field Recorders' Collective and see videos of the musicians they've recorded. That's at npr.org.

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