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