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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Archival Issues, Banjo History Connections, and Public Outreach in the Rinzler Archives

Tommy Jarrell (left) and Fred Cockerham,
Cockerham's house in Low Gap, N.C., 1966,
photo by J. Scott Odell
Archival issues, banjo history, and public outreach have become increasingly important parts of my life ever since I first became entranced by the banjo in the spring of 1994. Hoping to elevate my involvement in banjo-related initiatives and before beginning my graduate studies in library and information sciences, I came to the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections (RRFA&C) as an intern in January 2002. Working for Jeff Place and Michael Pahn on the Save Our Sounds Project, I was fresh out of undergrad with a music history degree where I studied classical guitar because I couldn’t major in banjo. Having been immersed for several years in the music of Pete Seeger and The Weavers and following a penchant for 19th century popular music, the banjo was at the center of my musical universe.

Working for several months as an intern in the Rinzler Archives, I digitized open reel tapes and consumed as much information as I could, especially about the banjo. In the fall, I returned as an archives-track graduate student in the University of Maryland’s library school program and worked with the Ralph Rinzler Papers as part of a 60-hour practicum. Feeling valued as an intern and as a graduate student worker at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage inspired me to develop a detail-oriented archival work ethic, maintain my passion for music, and pursue a personal mission to better understand the banjo and its complex history.

Nine years later I am back in the Rinzler Archives, this time as a contract archivist assisting in the processing of archival collections that were foundational in my professional and personal life. As an archivist, researcher, musician, and, more recently, a master’s candidate in the University of Maryland’s ethnomusicology program, I am still focused on the cross-sections between archival issues, the vitality of establishing deeper connections with banjo history, and outreach that helps connect the public with archival materials.

Archival Issues: For the time that I am here in the archives, my primary work plan is to focus on the continued processing of the Moses and Frances Asch Collection (the business records), the Ralph Rinzler Papers, and the J. Scott Odell Folk Music Collection. While I am delighted to be making notable progress on the Asch and Rinzler materials, one of the most gratifying interactive experiences has been to meet Scott Odell during his recent visits to the Rinzler Archives. Working with Odell, archivist Stephanie Smith, and archives intern Joydita Sarkar, we created a preliminary inventory of the latest accruals to the collection. While the collection reflects many of the important chapters in Odell’s career, I was, of course, immediately attracted to his banjo-related materials.

Joydita Sarkar, J. Scott Odell, and Greg C. Adams (left to right)
discussing the Odell Collection (photo by Stephanie Smith)

Banjo History Connections: Scott Odell is part of a generation of scholars and fieldworkers who continue to transform how we think about the banjo, the musicians who play it, and the traditions they represent. For example, the latest materials to now be included in the Odell Collection consist of images, documents, audio, and video associated with Cece Conway and Scott Odell’s 1998 Smithsonian Folkways release Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia. I feel privileged to work with these materials because they bring us closer to some of the most important and increasingly appreciated banjo players of the twentieth century—musicians like Leonard Bowles, John Jackson, Rufus Kasey, John Tyree, Homer Walker, and other names closely aligned with banjo history. Collections like this help make the Rinzler Archives an essential research spot for anyone hoping to better understand the banjo’s African American and multicultural history.

Public Outreach
: Like many other aspects of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Scott Odell’s collection is an important access point for researchers developing a vital awareness of musicians, music, and memories linked to our shared cultural heritage. Returning to the Rinzler Archives after all these years reminds me that archival collections and the archivists who maintain them are an important part of the life cycle of records, especially as it relates to outreach. As an archivist, I am in a position to make tangible contributions to the Institution and the people it serves. As a banjo researcher, I am closer to some of the most important evidence surrounding the banjo’s function and use throughout the twentieth century. As an advocate for greater public outreach, I feel empowered by the quality of new research and greater digital access coming to our documentary heritage.

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