Fragile Music Recordings Preserved

02/10/11 12:44PM By Steve Zind
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VPR/Steve Zind
Vermont Folklife Center Archivist Andy Kolovos

(Host)   An important part of the state's cultural history is preserved on scratchy records and fragile reel to reel tape at the Vermont Folklife Center. 

The recordings we're talking about aren't the familiar interviews and oral histories - they're songs. 

Recently the center completed a multi-year project funded by a grant from the Grammy Foundation.  It preserves much of center's musical archives in digital form  - so future generations will be able to listen to them.

VPR's Steve Zind has the story.

(Kolovos) "We are entering the Vermont Folklife Center archive vault."

(Zind) We preserve history in many ways:  through photographs, old newspaper clippings and recorded oral histories.  But music has historical value, too.

(Kolovos) "I'm going to pull out Sterling Weed..  So this is a Wilcox-Gay.  These were recorded on an instantaneous disc recorder, basically like a record player that would cut the grooves into a blank disc."

(Zind)  Inside the vault at the Folklife Center in Middlebury live old recordings that require a climate controlled environment to preserve them.   Andy Kolovos is the center's archivist.

(Kolovos) "Anytime you play an old recording on tape, on cylinder on disc, could be the last time its playable.

(Zind)  Now thanks to a 29 thousand dollar Grammy Foundation grant and three and a half years of painstaking work by Folklife Center staff, volunteers and audio professionals, those recordings have been turned into digital files.

Kolovos says creating a musical archive isn't about finding only the oldest or the most unique songs. All kinds of music - even popular music - has cultural value.  It gives us a snapshot of life in a particular place at a particular time.  That's the case with the recordings of the Sterling Weed Imperial Orchestra. 

(Zind) Weed was a legendary Vermont band leader who taught generations of students in the St. Albans area, and he performed for decades with his orchestra. He died in 2005 at 104.

The Sterling Weed recordings that have been digitally preserved include live performances from what appear to be radio broadcasts from the 1940s.

(Kolovos) "It's a little window into a whole period of music in the state that isn't terribly well documented from the recording perspective.  Town bands were a huge deal in Vermont, in New England and in the country in general. But when we talk about vernacular music in Vermont, we tend to focus more on old time fiddling, on Franco-American song, on old ballads and we don't necessarily think about the important role that this kind of orchestral music used to play in everyday life around here for a long, long time. Sterling Weed used to play to sold-out crowds.

(Zind) Sterling Weed's music was the stuff of dance halls.  But other recordings in the Folklife Center archive were made at home - in parlors and kitchens.   

(Zind) Kolovos says the Grammy grant also paid for the digitalization of music by fiddler Louis Beaudoin and his brother, guitarist Willy of Burlington.  The two frequently recorded their musical get-togethers with family members and friends.

(Kolovos) "The Beaudoin stuff is mostly kitchen table recordings.  From what the sisters have told me their father was really into recording stuff and someone would hang the mike up from the ceiling and someone would sit at the piano and he would pull out his fiddle and they'd play." 

(Zind)  It's not just the Beaudoin's music, but the setting in which it was played that tells a story about Vermont's Franco American community.

Another seminal figure in that community was the late Martha Pellerin. Pellerin spent years recording and transcribing a massive catalogue of unpublished songs that had been passed down orally from generation to generation. 

Much of the music, the oral histories like this one and the handwritten manuscripts Pellerin collected have now been rendered to digital form. 

Kolovos says perhaps no other group of Vermonters has invested so much of its culture and history in its music as the state's Franco American families.

(Kolovos) "One of the nice things about doing the job that I do is it's really rooted in the idea of learning from people how they see the world.  That could be individual or it could be cultural communities or ethnic groups.  One of the things I've learned from talking to people of Franco-American descent is that music is ubiquitous."

(Fiddle Contest Announcer)  "And in the judge's chambers ready for our finals of the open contest, 1969..."

(Zind)  The Franco American culture is also well represented in the recordings of the longtime Northeast Fiddlers Association's Old Time Fiddler's Contest in Barre. This collection has also now been made into digital form. 

(Zind) Kolovos says turning an analog recording into a digital series of zeros and ones stored on a server somewhere doesn't render those old fragile tapes and phonograph records unnecessary.

(Kolovos) "The main reason why we keep the original analog stuff is because we don't know what the future holds in the ability to extract different information from that in the future.  We can't be sure we got all the information off of it and also there's, in a lot of cases, a high degree of what archivists would call ‘artifactual value' in preserving that original object."

(Zind)  We said at the beginning that music is history.  That's true especially in a rural state like Vermont.  In the days before television, and even before movies or radio, playing live music was how the time was passed when the chores were done.

(Kolovos) "Some of the earliest interviews that the organization did looking at old time farm life in Vermont. ‘What did you guys do for fun?' ‘Oh, well, you know, every once in a while someone would have kitchen tonk.'  ‘What was that?'.  Anyone who's familiar with Vermont history is well aware it was food, it was dancing, it was music.

(Zind)  The digital conversion of the old tapes and records also makes it possible for a wider audience to hear it. 

For the first time the St. Albans Historical Museum now has the music of the Sterling Weed Imperial Orchestra on CD.  

And the Folklife Center is working with the Center for Digital Initiatives at the University of Vermont to make much of the rest - from the Beaudoin family kitchen sessions to Martha Pellerin's manuscripts and recordings of handed down songs available online.  

For VPR news, I'm Steve Zind.

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