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Libba (Elizabeth) Cotten's Guitar, 1950, C. F. Martin and Company, National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. 

Short Articles and Blog Posts

The articles below are a selection of the many online articles, blog posts, and artist biographies shared by Smithsonian museums, cultural centers, and research centers on the topic of American folk music. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage are particularly rich sources of similar articles, along with the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Smithsonian Collections Related to American Folk Music

The Smithsonian is home to a number of primary resources chronicling the history and legacy of American folk music. Moses Asch was instrumental in much of the folk music revival, and along with his wife, left a large collection of archival material in the Smithsonian's care, the Moses and Frances Asch Collection. The four additional collections shown below also include photographs, sheet music, and paper that document the history of the folk music revival. 

Many of the museums and cultural centers at the Smithsonian care for objects or music that are part of the history of folk music in America. Some are from the folk revival, others remember folk music in situ, as it were, having been used or created in conjunction with the performance of American folk music. Some of these can be seen below in the slideshow, or explored further by visiting our selection of American Folk Music objects. 

Diana Davies Photographs, 1963-2009

Diana Davies is a well-known photographer of folk performers and festivals. Davies photographed the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in its earlier years…. Davies' folk photographs represent about one-quarter of her body of work; her other major photographic work includes the Civil Rights Movement, the Peace Movement, and theater. 

Read more about the Diana Davies Photograph Collection...

Lee Hays papers, 1923-1981

Lee Hays (1914-1981) was an influential American singer, songwriter, author, and activist. His legacy, both literary and musical, emphasizes the dynamic relationship between traditional culture and contemporary events and issues. The Lee Hays papers, which date from 1923-1981, contain personal and business correspondence; typescripts of Lee Hays' fiction, non-fiction, scripts and poetry; miscellaneous project and idea materials; business documents; and audiorecordings made by Lee Hays. 

Read more about the Lee Hays papers...

Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music

DeVincent collected sheet music and related materials during most of his lifetime. His interest included both the music and the cover art. The collection originally included 781 boxes of American sheet music and assorted clippings, articles, photographs, etc.; also 93 boxes of 33-1/3 RPM phonograph records, 30 boxes of 45 RPM records, and 20 boxes of 78 RPM records. Organized by topic, Series 3 is the section on African American Music, and Series 16 holds Country, Western, and Folk Music. There are twenty-four series in the collection at this time. 

Read more about the Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music...

The Robert C. Malone photographs, 1957-1961

The Robert C. Malone photographs document the performances of folk singers. The collection dates from 1957 to circa 1961. During the late 1950's and early 1960's, Mr. Malone moved between Chicago and New York photographing folk singers such as the Weavers and Cisco Houston.

Read more about the Robert C. Malone photograph collection here... 

Recordings of American Folk Music

The Smithsonian's record label, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, is "dedicated to supporting cultural diversity and increased understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound" (Mission and History, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings). American folk music was among the earliest music documented by the label, and remains an important part of the Smithsonian collection. The albums shared below are a selection of the many American folk albums available through Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and can be sampled or purchased by clicking on the album thumbnail to visit the Smithsonian Folkways website. 

Albums

American Folk Ballads

Logan English

“From the wild-flower dusks of mountain twilights, out of steamy southern mud-flats and dusty midland prairies, off the sun-silver steel of cinder-blown railroad tracks and out of the chill damps of prison cells - from churches and saloons, cradles and gravesides come the songs of America that must be sung.”

American Folk, Game and Activity Songs

Pete Seeger

Kick off your shoes, tap your feet, and clap your hands along with Pete Seeger, whose contagious performances have introduced generations of children to the richness of traditional American music. Accompanied by his banjo, Pete Seeger presents 22 songs for young children that the whole family will enjoy.

Anthology of American Folk Music®

Various Artists

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.

Classic African American Songsters from Smithsonian Folkways

Various Artists

Classic African American Songsters from Smithsonian Folkways ventures beyond the blues to show the true breadth of African American secular song.

Early American Folk Music and Songs

Clark Jones

"Some of the songs on this album will make you laugh while others will evoke bittersweet memories. Some will make you want to do an allemande left and a do-si-do and be child-like again, if only for a few moments." This album presents some classic early American folk songs which all deal in some way with nature and its "Simple Gifts."

Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes

Elizabeth Cotten

This complete reissue of Elizabeth Cotten's first LP is best known for containing the original recording of her classic Freight Train. The breadth of her repertoire and endearing style have captivated generations of guitarists and fans of traditional American music.

Introducing American Folk Music

Various Artists

This recording is the audio companion to ethnomusicologist Kip Lornell’s 1993 edition of Introducing American Folk Music. Lornell researched the book while a postdoctoral fellow at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Lead Belly's Last Sessions

Lead Belly

Spontaneous, intimate, spellbinding recordings from 1948. Four discs contain 96 songs and include the two remaining unissued tracks from the Last Sessions, plus Lead Belly's best-known songs such as Midnight Special, Goodnight Irene, and Rock Island Line.

We Shall Overcome: Songs of the Freedom Riders and the Sit-Ins

Various Artists

This 1961 recording of spirituals, gospel and new music to "express the spirit of freedom" was the result of an effort by producer and performer Guy Carawan to bring together singers representative of hundreds of thousands African American students from the south participating in sit-ins, stand-ins and freedom rides for "first class citizenship"

Additional Resources

Additional resources for understanding and exploring American folk music can be found across the institution. Here are a few of the resources available. 

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Stewart Five-String Banjo, 1889-1899
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, Gift of Mrs. Richard S. Tilton

Smithsonian Music Banjo SpotlightA spotlight on banjos at the Smithsonian Institution, highlighting collections and resources relating to the banjo, and featuring videos by Smithsonian staff member and banjo scholar, Greg Adams.

 

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32 cent Woody Guthrie Single, United States postage stamp
1998, National Postal Museum
Copyright United States Postal Service. All rights reserved.

This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie (Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, toured from 1999-2002; presented at the National Museum of American History May 26, 2000 – September 24, 2000): "This Land is Your Land explored the life and work of one of America's greatest folk heroes, Woody Guthrie. Poet, singer, artist, and humorist, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie left dust-bowl poverty to commence a life of music and adventure that never lost ties to the less-advantaged in American society. His deep empathy for the common man infused his music with purpose and sparked a life-long dedication to social activism. Woody was a traveling folklorist, collecting cowboy songs, mountain ballads, religious music, blues, and work chants and then blending these styles into more than 1,000 original songs, each revealing an aspect of the American soul" (SITES Archive). 

The exhibition traveled around the country for three years, including a stop at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. More information on the exhibit can be learned from visiting the SITES Archive or visiting the Woody Guthrie website exhibition archive (the previous link directs to a website not affiliated with the Smithsonian).

 

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Album cover, Classic Protest Songs from Smithsonian Folkways
2009, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Educational Materials and Lesson Plans: The Smithsonian Institution offers collections-based lesson plans available to educators free of charge. A number of these are centered around American folk music, including, but not limited to, the following examples.

 

Header photo credit: Collections photo of Libba (Elizabeth) Cotten's Guitar, 1950, C. F. Martin and Company, National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. 

This spotlight was created by Kate Duffus Stein on behalf of Smithsonian Music.