Special Folklife and Field Recording: Michael Taft

Michael Taft
Michael Taft, Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center

POV: Let's start off with a general question: would you say that folklife collecting is in a time of crisis, a time of prosperity, or somewhere in between?

Michael Taft: Folklife collecting is as strong as ever -- perhaps stronger. There are always traditions that need documentation, and there are more people around the world who are actively collecting folklife than at any time in the past. For example, when Alan Lomax began his collecting career in the 1930s, there were virtually no university programs teaching students how to collect traditions, and the American Folklore Society was a small club. Today, there are several major university programs in folklore, and almost every major university includes at least one course in collecting folklore. Thanks to a growing community of "public sector folklorists," almost every state includes at least one folklorist in their cultural agencies, and the NEA, NEH, Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress all are active in promoting the collection of folklore. The American Folklore Society now has over 2,000 members. The same growth in folklife collecting can be found around the world. Specific traditions may die as culture changes, or may change so much as to become unrecognizable, but folklife itself does not die -- it is an essential ingredient of human culture. So there will always be a need for folklorists, ethnomusicologists, anthropologists and other ethnographers to collect and study folklife.

POV: As part of the Library of Congress (LOC), the American Folklife Center collaborated with the Smithsonian Institution in the Save Our Sounds pilot to increase awareness about the need to digitize deteriorating sound recordings, and to make headway in establishing standards for digital archiving. What were the biggest lessons learned from the pilot program, and can we be hopeful that such programs like this will continue to receive funding in the future?

Taft: The biggest lesson learned from the project was that digital preservation is a highly complex and expensive process. Unlike the simple burning of a cassette or LP onto a CD, saving old field recordings involves all sorts of decisions: How bad is the deterioration of the cylinder, disc, wire or tape, and what kinds of equipment are needed to get the best possible sound from the item? What accompanying material, such as field notes, photographs and logs should be digitized along with the recording? What further information on the who, what, when and where should be included with the digital file of the recording to place that recording in its historical and cultural context? What standards, hardware and software should be used in the process? Save Our Sounds gave us the opportunity to work out procedures to solve these problems, as well as save valuable collections. The expense and staff time required to do the best possible job of saving old field recordings is a bit daunting -- but that is the lesson learned: there are no shortcuts in doing this work. We continue to digitally preserve parts of our archival collection, but funding is never certain. We are always looking for funding sources that will help us to continue our work. Luckily, a number of organizations are interested in the digital preservation of sound recordings, but at the same time, there are an increasing number of archives that need funding to save their collections. Unless more funding is forthcoming, many of the traditions painstakingly recorded over the last 115 years will no longer be available in the next 100 years.

Presto portable disc recorder, c.1940. Special Formats Division, Library of Congress
Presto portable disc recorder, c.1940. Special Formats Division, Library of Congress

POV: There's a great scene in Lomax the Songhunter when you take the viewer through a set of doors into a kind of garage/laboratory at the LOC that houses some old field recording equipment, including one very large disc recorder. How do you maintain that equipment? For playback and transfer, are you using the original equipment, or modern-day, re-engineered versions of them?

Taft: I have to admit that we are not doing much to maintain the old recording equipment. Little of it would be used today in preserving recordings -- with the possible exception of old wire recorders, which we still use to transfer wire recordings from the 1940s and 1950s. The rest of the equipment has been superceded by modern play-back equipment -- modern turntables and styluses for discs, modern tape decks for tapes, and even modern cylinder players for our wax cylinders. The old pieces of equipment are now museum pieces to show how recording used to be accomplished, but even if we restored all of that equipment to working order, we would not trust them to play back our fragile and deteriorating sound recordings.

POV: What do you see as being the biggest challenge to archiving folk materials that are "digitally native" such as websites, cell phone videos, SMS text messages, and the like?

Taft: The greatest challenge is collecting this material in the first place. Archives are accustomed to taking in analog collections -- physical items, such as so many recordings or photographs or manuscripts. But "born digital" collections are by nature ephemeral and transitory, existing on a hard drive or some other digital storage medium for a relatively short time. For example, since email, most of us write many more letters than previous generations did, but most of our messages are not easily archived, the way pen-and-paper letters are, and there will be little record of these writings for future researchers to read. Another problem is that websites and other digital forms tend to change over time. Which version of a website is the definitive version -- the first version or the latest version? And how can any archive collect all the "editions" of a website? Librarians, archivists and information specialists are trying to come up with answers to this problem, but it's still a relatively new area of concern.

POV: Like many field recordists, Alan Lomax was not shy about using new technology, and I'm guessing that he would be making use of the Internet if he were alive and working today. Yet, there's a growing sense that the Web itself is hastening the adoption of mass media, and regional media and traditions are vanishing more quickly than they ever were before. As an archivist and curator, how do you feel about the Web? Is it a blessing? A curse?

Taft: The Web is neither a blessing nor a curse -- it is an evolving aspect of modern culture. It is certainly having an effect on traditions by making it easier to communicate and share traditions and allowing new ways to create songs, stories, multi-media presentations and other forms of folklife. Traditions are not necessarily vanishing -- they are adapting to the new medium of the Internet. And future traditions will show their debt to this medium. But new technologies have always affected traditions -- the printing press allowed broadside ballads and sheet music to spread songs form one culture to another. Sound recording and film, radio and television, have all altered the form and transmission of traditions. But traditional creativity thrives on new media, and there's a whole new area of folklife involving the innovative uses of computer technology. I find it fascinating.

POV: What are the most important technologies being developed to assist in
the preservation of folk recordings?

Taft: The most important new development is "non-contact" playback of recordings. Through the use of lasers and digital imaging, it will soon be possible to "play" a recording without touching the surface of the recording. This technology will allow the playing of fragile recordings without adding to the deterioration of those recordings (as now inevitably happens). It also allows the playing of broken and peeling discs and cylinders, or even pieces of recordings, to get whatever information there is from the recording surface. The Library of Congress is presently testing prototype non-contact equipment and its accompanying software, as are a number of other institutions.

POV: According to the folklorist Robert Baron, Alan Lomax believed that a profit-motivated society destroys diverse cultures. Would you agree with him? Where are the most endangered cultures living today?

Taft: I believe that traditional culture is quite resilient, and adaptable to any socio-political or economic system. Reciprocity is a part of all cultures, whether a complex and formal society based on profit-motivation, or a small, traditional culture based on unwritten rules of obligation. The media has certainly exploited traditional culture for profit, but in return, traditional artists have exploited the mass media for their own purposes. Lomax's view of traditional society was a bit romantic in this respect. My view is that there is no such thing as purity or even "authenticity" in folklife; there is only ongoing and ever-changing creativity of the people. In this respect, there are no endangered cultures, except for those that are in danger of physical obliteration through genocide or ethnic cleansing. The British and American treatment of the Chagos Islanders comes to mind, but there are obviously many other examples, unfortunately.

POV: Do you have a personal favorite recording in LOC collection?

Taft: My personal favorites are recordings that I have not heard and often do not even know exist. These recordings are sometimes lost within our own archive of 3 million items and surface after having been misplaced for years or decades. For example, we recently discovered the original tape recording of an interview with Dewey Beard, the last Sioux survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn (Custer's Last Stand). It was recorded in Rapid City, South Dakota, by Bates Littlehales, on June 18, 1955, and although we had a copy of the interview, the original tape was rediscovered in a basement room of the Library of Congress only a few months ago. Sometimes the discovery comes from outside the Library, such as our recent acquisition of a 1942 field recording of the famous African American singer, Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Leadbelly). It was originally recorded by Library of Congress fieldworkers, Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin, but passed through several hands over the last 64 years before being donated to the American Folklife Center. It contains one song recorded nowhere else by Leadbelly, "Todd Blues."

Michael Taft is the head of the Archive of Folk Culture at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. A professional folklorist with more than 30 years' experience in collecting, teaching and writing about folklore, Taft is also a librarian and an experienced archivist of ethnographic material. He has written books on African American blues and Canadian folklore, among other topics.