American Folk Music

album cover
Anthology of American Folk Music, various artists
1997, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

The Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith (1923–1991), is one of the most influential releases in the history of recorded sound. Originally issued by Folkways Records in 1952, the Anthology brought virtually unknown parts of America's musical landscape recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s to the public's attention. For more than half a century, the collection has profoundly influenced fans, ethnomusicologists, music historians, and cultural critics; it has inspired generations of popular musicians, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia, and countless others. - Smithsonian Folkways

The Smithsonian Institution is a rich source of information and historic collections related to American folk music. Smithsonian Folkways is home to both a significant collection of folk music recordings and also a rich history as a participant in documenting and supporting the growth of American folk. Visit the Albums page to explore a selection  of the Smithsonian Folkways collections, or visit Smithsonian Folkways Recordings directly to browse on your own. 

To see portraits of many of the key figures in the American folk music movement, visit the Musicians page. Most of these portraits are held at the National Portrait Gallery, and may be available to view there. Currently only the Russell Hoban portrait of Joan Baez is on view. 

Some of these musicians also appear on the African Americans and Folk Music page. African American music is a vital part of the American folk genre. Although many of the key figures best known to represent the movement, such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Alan Lomax, and Moses Asch, have been white, the music traditions on which they drew were frequently African American. Lead Belly is perhaps the best known name of the African Americans that helped define the genre, but in the collections here you'll also find portraits of Mississippi John Hurt, Odetta, and Joshua Daniel White, and music by Sonny White, Bill McAdoo, and Bernice Reagon, among others.  

As the civil rights movement gained attention, folk music came to be associated with it and other political efforts. "We Shall Overcome" is particularly well-known as a civil rights anthem, and the title and song feature prominently in National Museum of African American History and Culture collections. Folk music also played an influential role in environmental political efforts and anti-war protests during the United States' engagement in Vietnam. 

A number of instruments played by the artists mentioned above, along with those of less-known and unknown artists, are also housed in the Institution, primarily in the collections of the National Museum of American History.

American Music

Musical instruments, original sheet music, and portraiture preserved in the Smithsonian remind us that American music flourishes within a wide variety of traditions drawn from our multi-cultural heritage. From our country's urban centers to rural landscapes, the sounds of many musical sounds and styles fill our lives.

The patriotic marches of John Philip Sousa, the power and emotion of the blues, the swinging tones of the big band era, the seductive rhythms of jazz, the joys and sorrows expressed in country music, and the hard charging of rock ’n’ roll, all serve to unite us. Their rich variety communicates across generations, races, and languages, and serves to break down cultural barriers.

An Exploration of Collections Featuring African American Music

Describing the African-American influence on American music in all of its glory an d variety is an intimidating—if not impossible—task. African American influences are so fundamental to American music that there would be no American music without them.  People of African descent were among the earliest non-indigenous settlers of what would become the United States, and the rich African musical heritage that they carried with them was part of the foundation of a new American musical culture that mixed African traditions with those of Europe and the Americas.  Their work songs, dance tunes, and religious music—and the syncopated, swung, remixed, rocked, and rapped music of their descendants—would become the lingua franca of American music, eventually influencing Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.  The music of African Americans is one of the most poetic and inescapable examples of the importance of the African American experience to the cultural heritage of all Americans, regardless of race or origin.

See full article by Steven Lewis on how African American music is a vital part of America's musical heritage. 


The pages listed in the sidebar offer a chance to explore a selection of the Smithsonian's wide range of collections preserving the material history of African American musical history.  

Art of Sheet Music

The Smithsonian Institution is home to a number of collections of sheet music. Two of the largest are the Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music, at the Archives Center, National Museum of American History, and the Bella C. Landauer Collection of Aeronautical Sheet Music, at the National Air and Space Museum Library.

Bells of Ancient China and Beyond

bronze bells

Celebrate! Where Asia Meets America

Resound: Bells of Ancient China is on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery as part of the reopening of the Freer|Sackler on October 14, 2017.

Thousands of years ago, Chinese musicians worked with foundry technicians to cast matched sets of bronze bells of different sizes to produce a range of tones. They developed oval-shaped bells that, depending on where they were struck, produced two distinct pitches with an intentional interval between them. Resound investigates this advancement with displays of early instruments, including a graduated set of matched bells discovered together in a Chinese tomb, videos of ancient bells being played, and chances for visitors to compose their own music on virtual bronze bells.

Here you will find additional bells in the collections of the Freer|Sackler.

Bob Dylan: Musician and Poet

From folk troubadour channeling the spirit of Woody Guthrie to rock icon and Nobel Prize–winning poet, Bob Dylan has been an influential American voice practiced in the American art of reinvention. Widely recognized as one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, Dylan continued to grow as a musician and artist exploring and adding to the American songbook. Dylan participated in early 1960s recordings of folk and protest music for Broadside magazine under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt, reissued by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. In the recordings, Dylan can be heard crediting co-founder of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival and Folkways champion Ralph Rinzler for the idea for a version of "Roll On, John." The Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections contains digitized photographic contact sheets from Dylan's controversial foray into electrified rock and roll music at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Chuck Berry

Collection items related to rock and roll pioneer Charles E. "Chuck" Berry (October 18, 1926–March 18, 2017). You can see Chuck Berry's red Cadillac and electric guitar nicknamed "Maybellene" in Musical Crossroads at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Dance and Music

Dance and music, music and dance. One inevitably happens in the presence of the other. Even in dances with no music, the absence of music is felt, and the dancers nonetheless keep a beat or tune in their head or feet. We describe particularly enjoyable music as being "foot-tappingly good," calling out our desire to move to the music.

This exploration of Smithsonian collections highlights some portraits of renowned dancers and dance musicians, sheet music written for dancing, and an event held at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in 2005: A National Powwow.

Duke Ellington

Born in Washington, D.C., Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington rose to fame at Harlem's Cotton Club in the late 1920s. His career as a musician, composer, and bandleader spanned more than 50 years. Among his many compositions are hundreds of short pieces and more ambitious extended works, including operas, ballets, musicals, concert pieces (such as "Black, Brown and Beige"), and the "Sacred Concerts." He was decorated with numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (presented by Pres. Nixon, 1969). Smithsonian Jazz at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History explores the American experience through the transformative power of jazz. Browse addtional information related to Duke Ellington from across the Smithsonian and in the Archives Center.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996) was a gifted American jazz artist. She had a warm and lovely voice, with notable rhythmic sense, versatility, and intonation, as well as exceptional talent at scat singing. Inventing her vocals as she sang, she produced melodic lines that put her in the category of great instrumental improvisers. In a career spanning seven decades, she created a legacy of acclaimed performances and a celebrated body of work.

— Read more about Ella Fitzgerald in the First Lady of Song: Ella at 100 Online Exhibition

This collection showcases objects at the Smithsonian Institution that remember or were owned by Ella Fitzgerald. After Fitzgerald's death in 1996, a selection of her papers and belongings were donated to the National Museum of American History with the aid of the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation. In addition, the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum are among the other Smithsonian units that are home to additional miscellaneous objects related to Fitzgerald.

Fifty Musical Treasures Featuring Work

Work inspires music and music inspires work. With the celebration of Labor Day, this Spotlight focuses on the ways in which work and music inspire one another to produce more fulfilling work and more meaningful music. Enjoy essays, videos, and objects drawn from across the Smithsonian, and get creative with how you incorporate music into your own daily work life.

Fifty Smithsonian Treasures Featuring Jazz

Jazz grew out of African American culture as it developed in the southern United States during the nineteenth Century. It became intertwined with many other musical traditions, including Hispanic and Euro-American styles.

Since its beginnings, jazz has thrived on improvisation and change. Its greatest musicians have extended the technical and emotional ranges of their instruments and created new musical styles like bebop. On the bandstand and concert stage, these inspired innovators have taken musical risks and created a legacy of  enduring recordings. Chance has influenced virtually every other style of 20th Century American music. It has become recognized as one of our country's greatest cultural achievements.

Greg Adams - On the Banjo

Few musical instruments are more deeply connected to the American experience than the banjo. The banjo was created by enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean and colonial North America. Here, they maintained and perpetuated the tradition within a complex system of slave-labor camps, plantations, and in a variety of rural and urban settings. From the earliest references in the 17th century, and through the 1830s, the banjo was exclusively known as an African-American tradition with a West African heritage. What further distinguishes the banjo is that it did not come from Africa “as-is” as an unaltered tradition. Rather, the banjo’s creation was the result of a blending between West African and European forms. Sharing some similarities with the guitar, the best-documented form of the early banjo includes a drum-like body made out of a gourd (or sometimes a calabash) and a neck that could accommodate 4 strings—three long strings that run the full length of the instrument and one short thumb string that stops about halfway up the side of the neck. The drum-like gourd body and strings of different lengths are uniquely African, while the flat fingerboard and tuning pegs are more commonly associated with European traditions.

Highlights of Latino Music Collections

View a sample of the Latino and Latin American music resources in the Smithsonian's collections. 

Highlights of the Collections Featuring Music and Spirituality

Music and spirituality are intricately related, with spirituality often being the inspiration for the creation of music, and music so often creating the desired atmosphere for a spiritual occasion. 

While spirituality is not necessarily experienced through religion, many people use religion as a conduit for their everyday spirituality. The objects selected here help demonstrate the relationship between music and many of the world's largest religions. 

Hip-Hop and Rap Across the Smithsonian

Hip-Hop AnthologyComing late 2018, the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap will be the first collection to include music from every major label and dozens of independent label recordings. The anthology explores important issues and themes in hip-hop history, and it provides a unique window into the many ways hip-hop has created new traditions and furthered musical and cultural traditions of the African diaspora.

Explore hip-hop and rap-related collections from across the Smithsonian.

James Brown: Godfather of Soul

James Brown set the standard for dynamic live performance in American music. Inspired by preachers in the black church, Brown started out singing in gospel quartets. As the "Godfather of Soul," he transmuted gospel into secular music centered in the emotional conduit of the soul singer. As "the hardest working man in show business," Brown turned ballads into virtuosic theatrical turns—falling hard on his knees, busting into splits and half spins, popping the mike to the floor and back, each move ratcheting up the song’s emotional intensity. As "Soul Brother No. 1," Brown acted as a cultural leader, writing hit songs calling for racial pride. As a progenitor of funk music, Brown with his band created a stripped-down, rhythmically driven aesthetic that has influenced world music from reggae to Afrobeat. Much of popular music since the 1960s comes through James Brown’s moves and grooves. Hip-hop is unimaginable without him.

James Dewitt Yancey: J Dilla

James Dewitt Yancey (February 7, 1974–February 10, 2006), better known as J Dilla, was a prolific hip-hop artist who collaborated with many hip-hop greats—from Questlove to Erykah Badu to Eminem. The podcast, "Sidedoor: ep. 13 | this one’s for dilla," tells the story of J Dilla’s life and legacy through those that knew him best—his mother (aka Ma Dukes), James Poyser, and Frank Nitt—and some surprising objects on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

 

Jazzed About Art

Rhythm. Color. Movement. Seeing sound through art.

The rich sounds, rhythms, and colors of jazz inspired prominent visual artists of the 20th century. In depicting African American culture, Romare Bearden painted jazz scenes, incorporated titles of favorite performances in his collages, and created specific works for albums by Charlie Parker, Donald Byrd, and other greats. Stuart Davis said jazz was one of the things that made him want to paint, and he credited jazz with influencing the development of his vibrant style. Jackson Pollock's action painting technique reflected the improvisation, freedom, and rhythm of the jazz music he loved.

Looking for music? Join the Smithsonian in April for Jazz Appreciation Month or visit Smithsonian Jazz at the National Museum of American History and Smithsonian Folkways

Judy Garland: An American Icon

Singer and actress Judy Garland (June 10, 1922–June 22, 1969) achieved fame and success early on. At 13, she quickly gained popularity among studio executives through her films with costar Mickey Rooney. Garland received a special Oscar in 1940 for outstanding performances as a juvenile screen actor, including her role as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz (1939). The Smithsonian is home to the famous Ruby Slippers that Garland wore in the movie. Her 1939 Decca recording of “Over the Rainbow” is not the version featured in the film, but it reached no. 5 on the Billboard charts in 1939 and became her signature song. The song also endeared her to the gay community, which identified not only with the song but also with Dorothy who non-judgmentally welcomed a host of unique characters she met along the "yellow brick road." And Garland became an icon to the gay community for her humanity, personal struggles, and fabulous style.

Join the Smithsonian Associates for a special program, Judy Garland: Climbing Over the Rainbow, Wednesday, June 27, 2018 - 6:45 p.m.

 

Lady Day: Billie Holiday

Duke Ellington called Billie Holiday "the essence of cool," a reference to her equipoise in performance. One of the most influential jazz vocalists of all time, Holiday had a controlled emotional power that transformed even trite ballads into romantic short stories. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by Lester Young, she performed with Count Basie in 1937 and became one of the first African American vocalists to headline an all-white band when she joined Artie Shaw’s Orchestra in 1938. A year later, Holiday introduced “Strange Fruit,” the haunting indictment of southern lynching that would become one of her most iconic songs.

Latin Music Legends Forever Stamps

In 2011 the Unites States Post Office issued stamps commemorating Latino music legends Celia Cruz, Carlos Gardel, Carmen Miranda, Tito Puente, and Selena. 

Love and Music

This collection highlights objects at the Smithsonian that relate to love and music. Most of the objects fall into one of three categories: art depicting love and music, images or memorabilia of a musician with love song "hits," or sheet music. 

The art is largely from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, with a piece from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and an interactive piece from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Some of the selected art pieces portray personifications of love and music, while others depict stories or people that connect the themes of love and music. 

Love is a popular theme in music, and many musicians are particularly known for their love songs. The Smithsonian has a large collection of memorabilia related to well-known musicians, largely at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of American History, as well as a number of portraits and photographs at the National Portrait Gallery. The selection here includes objects from these collections that relate to musicians well known for their love songs.

There is also a separate page in this presentation for sheet music, which highlights some of the Smithsonian's sheet music collections and includes a selection of love songs from them. 

Music & Musical Instruments

The Museum's music collections contain more than 5,000 instruments of American and European heritage.

Music Anniversaries in 2018

The year 2018 marks the anniversary of a number of remarkable music events and people. The pages in this collection travel back through history to look at some of the Smithsonian collections that relate to notable music events and people 50, 100, 150, 200, and 250 years ago. 

Music and the Cosmos

These objects from the Smithsonian collections represent ways in which artists, musicians, and scientists have reached out to the cosmos and tried to capture the poetic relationship between music and our universe. Some objects have actually been part of our journey to outer space, while others are artistic imaginings of the universe reaching out to us here on planet Earth. 

Musical Treasures at the Smithsonian

From Louis Armstrong's trumpet to Grandmaster Flash's turntable and from a Central African harp to an Apache violin, these objects represent just a sampling of how music is collected, curated and studied at the Smithsonian. Explore these photographs, objects, and artifacts that help explain how music infuses our everyday life, brightening it with its sounds and beats.

Native American Music

Across the Americas there are many different Native American cultures, each with unique musical traditions. The National Museum of the American Indian and other branches of the Smithsonian include in their collections musical and music-related objects from many of these cultures. Gathered here is a sample of those objects.

Origins of Stringed Instruments

Richard Kurin discusses the evolution of stringed instruments from the ektar to the dutar, sitar, qatar and finally to the guitar.

Playing the Piano

A celebration of piano players, known and unknown, as they practice their artistry.

Rock and Roll

Any old way you choose it, for many, it's got to be rock and roll music.

As you explore our collections and videos below, don't miss Chuck Berry’s Cadillac. This Cadillac was driven on stage at the Fox Theater in St. Louis in the documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll! It was the same theater that turned him away as a child because he was black. See An Exploration of Smithsonian Collections Featuring African American Music from Smithsonian Music; hear from Wanda Jackson, the "First Lady" of rock and roll; watch a webcast with rock icon Van Halen as he discusses his American journey; and more.

The Art of Rock and Roll

From psychedelic concert posters commissioned by the legendary promoter Bill Graham for his shows at the Fillmore Auditorium to objects d'art featuring Elvis, a selection of rock and pop inspired art in the collections.

The Hammered Dulcimer

To most modern Americans, the hammered dulcimer is a new and unfamiliar instrument. Even people who know much about American music often confuse the hammered dulcimer with the three- or four-stringed "mountain" or "plucked" dulcimer, although the two have nothing in common except their name. Surprisingly, the hammered dulcimer, which is an ancient ancestor of the piano, at one time enjoyed widespread popularity throughout this country.

The hammered dulcimer probably originated in the Middle East about 900 A.D. and is related to the much older psaltery. It spread from there across North Africa and was brought into Europe by the Spanish Moors during the 12th century A.D. It is possible that hammered dulcimers were played even earlier than this in Ireland, where they were called "tympanons."

Hammer Dulcimer Played by Chet Parker
Released in 1966, when the hammered dulcimer's future was uncertain, this album features medleys of mostly old time fiddle tunes played on this psaltery-like instrument.

Throughout the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the dulcimer remained a popular instrument in both eastern and western Europe. It was known by different names in different countries. For example, the dulcimer was called a "tympanon" in France, a "hackbrett" in Germany, and a "cymbalon" in Hungary. In England it was so popular during the late 16th century that the translators of the King James version of the Bible used the term "dulcimer" as the English translation for the Greek "symphonia." This term was actually a mistranslation for a type of Greek bagpipe that gave rise to the often quoted, but incorrect, belief that the dulcimer is as old as the Bible.

It is unclear when the first hammered dulcimer was brought to America, but the earliest reference to its use in this country comes from Judge Samuel Sewall who wrote of seeing one played in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1717. Hammered dulcimers are particularly interesting because, unlike the piano, dulcimers were often built at home, or in small shops and factories, and hence tended to reflect differing regional and personal folk styles. During the 19th century, these small shops, which usually employed less than a half-dozen craftsmen, operated in places like Norwich, Connecticut, Chautauqua County, New York, and Brooklyn, New York. Mail order companies (e.g., Montgomery Ward) also sold dulcimers.

Why the dulcimer virtually disappeared during the first half of the 20th century is something of a mystery, but possibly it was due to competition from the more fashionable piano. Fortunately, this beautiful instrument is now enjoying a revival. For the first time in many years, new dulcimers are being built, and there is an increasing number of new players.

Prepared by the Division of Music, Sports and Entertainment
in cooperation with Public Inquiry Services, Smithsonian Institution

PIMS/Mus35/rev 9-97

The Ukelin and Related Instruments

"Ukelin" is one of the more common trade names of a type of stringed musical instrument marketed from the early 1920s until about 1965.

Ukelins combine two sets of strings, one group of sixteen strings tuned to the scale of C (from middle C on a piano to the C two octaves above) plus four groups of four strings, each group tuned to a chord. The instrument is meant to be placed on a table with the larger end toward the performer, and while the right hand plays the melody on the treble strings with a violin bow, accompanying chords are played on the bass strings with the left hand using either the fingers or a pick. Each string and chord group is numbered, and sheet music is provided in a special numerical system intended to simplify playing for persons unable to read standard musical notation.

Ukelins were sold by the Phonoharp Company of East Boston, Massachusetts, and its subsidiaries, which apparently included the Bosstone Company. A patent for this instrument (Patent #1,579,780) was filed December 3, 1923, and awarded April 6, 1926, to Paul F. Richter, who assigned it to the Phonoharp Company. In 1926, the Phonoharp Company merged with Oscar Schmidt International, Inc., of New Jersey, and ukelins were then sold by them and their subsidiaries, which included the International Music Corporation and the Manufacturers' Advertising Company of Newark, New Jersey. Similar instruments were sold by the Marxochime Colony, New Troy, Michigan, under the names Pianoette, Pianolin, Sol-o-lin and Violin Uke. Other names sometimes encountered include Banjolin and Hawaiian Art Violin.

Ukelin-type instruments were usually sold by door-to-door commission salesmen, often on a time-payment plan, and were intended for home music-making by persons without a formal musical education. Judging from the volume of inquiries received by the Division of Music, Sports and Entertainment they are not yet rare and frequently turn up in attics and second-hand stores. The International Music Corporation published an instruction booklet for the Ukelin, a complete copy of which is preserved in the files of the Division of Music, Sports and Entertainment.

 

Prepared by the Division of Music, Sports and Entertainment,
in cooperation with Public Inquiry Services,
Smithsonian Institution

PIMS/Mus37/8-97

Violins

The Smithsonian's priceless collection of musical instruments are brought to life through the the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society's exhibitions, concerts, tours, broadcasts, recordings, and educational programs. View violins and portraits of violinists and fiddle players in the Smithonian's collections. Read about research to understand the engineering and craftsmanship that Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) built into each of his renowned instruments.

 

World War I Music

Sheet music covers from the era with songs meant to inspire action, entertain, or comfort.

World War I Centennial