A deep dive into North Carolina's musical history

Years after an alumnus uncovered a folklore collection, Duke students bring it into the digital era
Writer: 
May 26, 2017

One day while wandering the stacks in the Perkins Library in 1969, Duke student Charlie Bond idly opened a door to what he thought was a closet. It turned out to be a stairwell, blocked at the bottom.

“And down at the bottom of that stairwell were a whole jumble of disks and little round cylinders,” he recalled, sharing the story with students sitting around a classroom table in the renovated Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The cylinders and disks were the actual materials of the Frank C. Brown Collection of Folklore—“the largest folklore collection,” Bond ’71 notes, “of any state in the United States.” Bond ought to know, since he spent his time at Duke turning those materials from an all-but-forgotten pile at the bottom of a blocked staircase into a repository of story and song that lived and breathed. He took advantage of a sixties interest in creative independent study.

“Duke had embarked on a ‘design-your-own-curriculum’ enterprise,” Bond says. “I ended up being the first. Which was a blessing and a curse.” A curse because nobody knew quite what an independent curriculum was supposed to look like. A blessing because when he stumbled on the old Brown archive and wanted to spend a couple years falling in love with it, that sounded fine.

Brown, professor of English at Duke from 1909 to his death in 1943, started the North Carolina Folklore Society in 1913 and was its secretary-treasurer and chief collector until 1943. Brown crisscrossed the North Carolina mountains, asking rural people to sing into his Ediphone recorder, which he ran using a gasoline generator or a battery that he carried in the trunk of his car. (He later advanced to a Presto machine that recorded onto aluminum discs.) The collection ultimately was documented in Duke University Press’ seven-volume book The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore. The problem, Bond says, is that the book represents the collection in a dusty, academic way—the lyrics of the folk songs and ballads appear, for example, in volumes two and three; volumes four and five address the tunes. Brown spent his life collecting and never got around to publishing; of the collection of scholars who published his work, says Bond, “none of them knew squat about North Carolina history or ethnography, what makes the state tick.

“I was much more interested in ethnography—what music meant to people.”

Bond grew up in a family with Kentucky roots and music in its blood; he traveled with his family to fiddle and old-time music conventions all over the South, so he wanted to hear the music, not read about it. Which meant that he played the cylinders into a reel-to-reel tape recorder, improving quality by removing pops and clicks either by splicing or, sometimes, by using a Moog synthesizer. In a room in the Duke library, he came to feel connected to the songs and their singers, moved especially by a recording of one Vana Trivett, singing a song called “Free Sarah.”

“The whole singing style reminded me of my grandmother,” he said, “who I would listen to as she hung wash on the line.” He decided to do what Brown had done himself. “So I got in a car with a tape recorder and a guitar” and headed west. Stopping at stores and asking around, he eventually “triangulated the Trivett family. And I went up and knocked on the door, and lo and behold, Vana Trivett answered.”

Many such visits, a lot of research, and an entire multiyear independent study project later, the result was a senior thesis called “Music from the End-of-Nowhere: Singing Styles in a North Carolina Mountain Community.” Visiting the singers combined with his own family background to give a Bond a fuller understanding of the songs. He talks about the Republican and Democratic versions of “Tom Dooley.” The Republican one is the somber one you’ve heard, where the murderous Dooley is going to hang; the lilting, energetic Democratic version was about an innocent man railroaded by unfair law enforcement. (Remember, too, these are Civil War-era Democrats and Republicans; the Republicans were haughty conquerors; the Democrats unreconstructed rebels.)

Upon graduation Bond decided he could best support his “bad habits of poetry and music” by practicing law, and that he’s done his adult life, though he still plays music and writes poetry. But that meant that the end result of his work simply added one more written tabulation of material in the Brown collection, and a pile of reel tapes joining the pile of cylinders and aluminum disks.

Fast-forward to the turn of the twenty-first century. Archivist Trudi Abel, working with the Center for Instructional Technology at Duke, in 1999 created “Digital Durham,” an interactive online archive of maps, photographs, and records of Durham from its earliest days. “What I wanted to know,” Abel recalls, “was could I include audio?” That led to rooting around in the archives for audio worth sharing, which led her back to the Brown material. But because Duke no longer had working Ediphone or Presto machines, she says, the music was all “trapped on wax cylinders, trapped on aluminum disks.” She must have run across Bond’s reel-to-reel tapes, because when smart phones first appeared and Duke was encouraging instructors to find ways to use them as instructional tools, she convinced archives preservationist Winston Atkins to digitize one of Bond’s tapes. Students made audio postcards in a class she taught, but Abel yearned to do more.

Enter Bass Connections, one of Duke’s flagship interdisciplinary study and research enterprises. In a 2015-16 Bass Connections project, Abel helped students create the NC Jukebox, in which they made available online some of the songs from Brown’s work, addressing complex technological issues like how best to organize the material and make it available. They also considered topics like how different songs and singers were selected for inclusion and how to bring the music back to the families of those original singers.

In the class Abel was teaching in 2017, the students continued in that vein, doing independent research into some of the singers and their families in the context of the students’ times. In class they told Bond about their interests in the relations between men and women, between song and story as they became, in effect, the third generation of researchers to explore the mountains and their songs. Brown went with his Ediphone, to catch the music; Bond, poet, ethnographer, and musician, went to the mountains with his guitar and his reel-to-reel to pursue the lives of the singers. Now students in Abel’s classes study Brown’s songs and Bond’s context and reach out to family members to understand even more. “The class is the students doing a deep dive and actually connecting with these singers who sang these songs seventy years ago,” Abel says, “and also connecting with these primary materials.”

As the students in the Rubenstein classroom described their pursuits to Bond, he smiled. He “triangulated” on his subjects by asking at roadsides and stores, whereas the current class uses Zillow, but it’s still the same process. “It’s really cool that you guys are looking into the people and what makes them tick,” he said. “And why they were singing what they were singing.”

The library has received a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, so eventually all the songs in the Brown collection will be digitized; the original fragile cylinders and disks are currently at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Massachusetts, where machines read them with lasers. NC Jukebox, a work in progress, soon will share more songs from the collection. And more and more of the Brown—and Bond—collections will enable students to reach out and connect with the songs and their singers.

“All history is local,” Bond said before he left them. “It just expands as you learn more.”

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.