Enthusiasms No 56
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
This article started life rather differently, some time ago, when I was exploring the sound files available on the British Library’s website. Here, you can find and listen to (among other things) some of the earliest extant recordings of English and Scottish traditional singers, captured on wax cylinders in the first two decades of the 20th century. It occurred to me that, had a selection of this music been released on a CD, we might expect to be able to read a review of it, whereas music ‘released’ as sound files for online listening gets no such treatment. This doesn’t seem right, especially in an age where evidence is starting to emerge that online distribution of music may overtake ‘physical’ methods quicker than we might have anticipated 1. [See comment at the end of this article - Ed.] So, I thought of doing a review, treating the online resource in the same way as I might treat a CD, but for various reasons, of which more later, I never quite got round to it, and in any case, I found myself getting increasingly interested in the general question of how public collections make their traditional music resources available online, and what’s currently available in this way. I also found myself reflecting on the way in which these institutions present traditional music on their websites, and what it might say about them (and maybe about the countries concerned, as well).
In the case of the BL, one early signal is the laborious navigation you need to work your way through before you get at this music. Starting from their home page, unless you know in advance that the sound files of the cylinder collection are available on a sub-site named Collect Britain (whose existence is not acknowledged at all on the current home page), the most direct route I could find involved no less than six levels of menu followed by various negotiations with a search engine before I could listen to the music. Rather than clutter this article up, I’ve outlined this process in a note below 2, but one key point is that at no stage along this trail is there any indication - never mind any proud announcement - that you might find an important collection of the nation’s traditional music at the end of it. In other words, I found this resource because I already knew it was there.
There doesn’t appear to be any audio available online at the websites of the National Library of Wales or the National Library of Scotland. What used to be known as the National Library of Canada has recently been subsumed into a new organisation called Library and Archives Canada, which is responsible for a major project under the rubric The Virtual Gramophone, but once again, there’s not a hint of it on the institution’s home page. This offers digitised, downloadable copies of commercially-issued Canadian and Canadian-related music from the 78 rpm era. You need to have some pre-knowledge to find your way around their database, and it does, of course, cover the whole range of music played by Canadians, but there are many, many traditional music recordings by the likes of fiddle player Isidore Soucy (check out his highly individual variations on Soldier’s Joy which is here called Reel Des Pompiers), accordeonist Tommy Duchesne, harmonica player Henri Lacroix and many others. You can also view images of original 78 labels and record catalogues, and call up biographies of major figures. This is a very rich resource and a real pleasure to explore, full of surprises. It isn’t hard to find this project via the parent site’s navigation, so long as you know that it’s there to begin with, and once there, it helps if you know what to look for 3.
In the USA, the website of the Library of Congress 4 presents its traditional music resources (along with much else) through a sub-site entitled American Memory, which is clearly heralded on the home page. The audio material can all be listened to online, or downloaded for offline listening. There is a great deal here of interest to lovers of musical traditions; outstanding examples include Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: an extensive documentation of the music of fiddle player Henry Reed, running to 184 separate recordings; California Gold: Northern Californian Folk Music In The Thirties, comprising 35 hours of songs and tunes recorded in twelve languages; and Southern Mosaic: the John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States recording trip, featuring 25 hours of music from more than 300 performers. The online access to these resources has clearly been put together with some considerable loving care.
In Australia, the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive have developed MusicAustralia 5, a portal designed to ‘help you to find, access and navigate a rich store of information on Australian music … (including) music scores, sound recordings, websites... held by a large number of Australia's cultural institutions’. I think it’s early days for this project, but I haven’t managed to find any traditional material to listen to - some nice pictures, though. I had no luck finding audio resources online from the national collections of other English-speaking countries, such as New Zealand and South Africa, but maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough. Language limitations preclude my having anything to say about other national collections, except for the Bibliotheque national de France, whose Gallica sub-site could be considered a kind of equivalent of American Memory or Collect Britain and which does offer a small (at the time of writing) selection of traditional songs and music. There are some interesting items here, but again it seems to me that they’re quite well-hidden 6.
Now, I’m filled with admiration for those within organisations like these who have managed to get some of their extensive collection of traditional musics online and available. The BL’s wax cylinder collection is hardcore listening, by any standards, even for those of us long inured to the barriers presented by surface noise, but what a joy it is to have this material available to all - these are very, very, valuable resources. Some, at least, at the BL evidently recognise their significance. But you can’t help feeling that you can detect an attitude on the part of the parent institution in the presentation of these unique resources. For example, you might contrast the fact that while the USA’s national library seems to recognise that traditional musics, in all their diversity, represent a key factor in the development of the nation’s identity, and a vital reflection of its democratic traditions, in the UK we seem to be almost embarassed by any such notions - our national library seems content to hide traditional music away in a corner. It’s impossible to avoid the impression that they are much prouder of their collection of wildlife sounds - on the BL Sound Archive’s samples page there are 17 clips of these available, as against one of British traditional music 7.
There’s another telling point. When you open a recording from American Memory, or one from Canada’s Virtual Gramophone, in Windows Media Player, you can save the recording on your own computer for future listening, to transfer to a CD or another device. When you play a recording from Collect Britain, this function has been disabled. In other words, you can listen online, but that’s as far as it goes. In fact, I must confess that this was a key factor in why I never got around to writing a review - the process of listening to a broad selection of tracks more than once was simply too much like hard work in itself. Let’s be clear that I do understand all the issues about copyright protection and intellectual property. And I know that while the Library of Congress collections mentioned above are its own (recorded by its own Folksong Archive), the British Library itself owns rights to little of what is in its audio collections 8 - the cylinders in the case mentioned above belong to the EFDSS. But all public collections are wrestling with the same questions; the difference is in the solutions they’re finding to them, and also - crucially - in how bold they decide to be. Is it simply a fear of making material too readily available, in case some shady character snaps it all up and makes a fortune by issuing it commercially? Surely it’s highly unlikely in the case of the cylinder recordings - so far as I can see, the worst that could happen would be that more people might listen to them, which - I would have thought - was the point of digitising them in the first place.
Another contrast, moving down the scale a bit, is a delightful little treasure trove to be found at a site maintained by the Libraries department of Gateshead Council. There you can download a wide selection of tracks by traditional Northumbrian musicians, taken mostly from private tapes of concerts, home sessions and folk club performances, and what a well-stocked resource it is. I could wax lyrical about it all, but just consider names like harmonica master Billy Atkinson, fiddlers Willie Taylor, John Armstrong and George Hepple, various pipers including Joe Hutton and Billy Pigg, Jack Elliott of Birtley and family, whistle-player Billy Conroy and more, as well as some spoken word material - a long interview with Hepple, and one with melodeon player Ada Reed. Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but this seems to me the perfect example of a public authority recognising the value of its traditional music, and taking sufficient pride in it to make bold decisions about making it available to a wide audience.
There are other sources of traditional musics around the web, maintained by individuals, groups of individuals, academic institutions or projects funded by other means, but those are out of the scope of this short piece, and I’m really only scratching the surface of what national collections are doing. If I’m drawing any conclusion here, it’s less that our public institutions are remiss in discharging their responsibility towards their traditional music resources, than that some of them seem afflicted by a fear that making too much of them will somehow undermine the institution’s serious credentials. I have a mental image of dedicated audio archive staff in national libraries preparing all these great resources, and a corporate webmaster turning up his or her nose at the idea of sullying the home page with any reference to them. But there’s a great deal out there for the intrepid explorer, and it’s worth the trouble of finding it.
Ray Templeton - 2.4.07
2. On the British Library's home page (www.bl.uk), select Collections from the horizontal menu in the panel in the middle of the page. On the next page select Sound Archive (note: Not Music, which will lead you to manuscripts). From the menu on the subsequent page, select Listen. On the next page, from the menu at the right, select Music: this takes you further down the same page, to a selection of online music samples from the collection (one of these is a clip of Walter Pardon, but it fades out frustratingly after two minutes, and they spell his name wrong). At the top of that list there's a link to a sub-site called Collect Britain - click on that. This takes you to the front page of the section on wax cylinders. From here you can get to the music in different ways - you can 'browse', which just means paging through a list of all 200 cylinder recordings available online, or you can search. In order to search, you really have to know what is in there, but for example, if you put 'EFDSS' into the search box you get a list of the 57 recordings available from the EFDSS collection. Clicking on one of these takes you to a short catalogue entry for the item, and you can click on a link that will open the recording in Windows Media Player. You're finally there, but you'll have noted that at no point along this lengthy trail is there any indication that a unique collection of recordings of traditional singers can be found at the end of it.
3. http://www.collectionscanada.ca/gramophone/index-e.html Hint: if you use 'Starr' (an early Canadian record label) as a search term, you can browse through results that include many traditional music recordings. As well as names mentioned above, others to try include Joseph Allard or J.O. La Madeleine.
4. From the LofC home page www.loc.gov, click on American Memory. At the next page, select Performing Arts, Music. This gives a list of the collections available online, so select one of these, say, Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier and you're into a well-designed environment offering a wealth of audio, text, video and and images on the life and music of Henry Reed.
6. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ The link Recherche at the top of the page takes you to a search engine. Not knowing what to look for here, I left the search boxes blank and unticked all the Types de documents except Documents sonores (i.e. audio), then clicked Rechercher. This could have been foolhardy, but in fact it produces 79 results (at the time of writing), quite a few of which are field recordings of traditional music and song - for example, there's some interesting trio fiddle-playing entitled Rigodon de Leaye-en-Chapsaur (Traditions 1939). If you select this, then click Ecouter la plage, it should play in Windows Media Player.
7. This is not to disparage the wildlife sounds, manifestly a great collection, and I've no doubt there are those who feel as passionate about it as readers of MT feel about traditional music. My complaint is with the ratio of 17:1.
8. I think the BL does own the rights to the wildlife sounds (see note 7), which - to be fair - is likely to be a reason why there are more of those available on the site.
Rod Stradling - 2.4.07
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