I had a meeting with one of my advisors yesterday who is the archivist at the Smithsonian Folklife Collections. This was another exploratory mission to try to get a handle on what is available in another one of the audio collections at SI. It did me absolutely no good with regards to my prevalent feelings of overwhelm.
After letting me know that they record over 1200 hours of audio each and every year and have done that for the past 45 years or so, I got a tour of the room where all this stuff is kept. It was large and filled with shelf upon shelf upon cabinet upon rack of every format imaginable of audio recordings. They had everything from original aluminum master discs that were literally carved in real time while a performance was happening, to cassette tapes by the thousands. And rows upon rows of 1/4″ magnetic tape, neatly aligned chronologically or otherwise in labeled boxes (I learned to stay away from the early 80’s reels as the “tape was bad” in those years…something to do with shoddy manufacturing). My advisor knew where everything was; he’s been doing this for a while.
So what’s on the tapes? Lots of historical music stuff to begin with. That’s all great, but not really what I’m interested in. They have 40,000 tracks of ‘sounds from the 20th century’ as recorded by the original Folkways record label, including such herpetological hits as “Sounds of North American Frogs” by “Various Artists”. Apparently they even have the outtakes from these recording sessions which are probably pretty entertaining (“stop…cut!! you have to wait at least three seconds between each of your croaks!!”).
And then they have 45 years of complete recordings from the Folklife Festival which has been bringing together amazing people, cultures, activities, sessions on various folk-related (broadly interpreted) themes annually on the National Mall since the late 60s. These are of particular interest to me, but I’ll save those discussions for another day because I need to leave the office…now!