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James Madison Carpenter was a native of Mississippi. After studying at the University of Mississippi and working as a minister and teacher, he entered Harvard in 1920 to do a PhD in English. There he encountered George Lyman Kittredge, a leading literary scholar and folklorist. With Kittredge as his supervisor, Carpenter worked on a thesis entitled 'Forecastle Songs and Chanties' and gained his doctorate in 1929.
Carpenter's thesis contained sea shanties which he had collected during 1927-28 from retired sailors in America and on his first trip to Britain and Ireland in summer 1928. He returned to Britain in 1929, on a Sheldon Fellowship from Harvard, to continue collecting folk songs. He bought a car and spent the next six years travelling around the country, primarily in search of singers. He later became interested in mummers' plays which he noted from ex-performers.
Carpenter collected most intensively in the North East of Scotland, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, the Cotswolds and Cornwall. His contributors include people (or their descendants) who had sung for the Edwardian collectors such as Cecil Sharp and Gavin Greig, and some who would be visited by later collectors such as Hamish Henderson and Kenneth Goldstein. Carpenter also located many other singers never recorded before or since. The most prolific of these was Bell Duncan, an Aberdeenshire woman in her 80s, whom he described as 'the greatest ballad singer of all time'. Her repertoire apparently consisted of 300 songs, including 65 Child ballads.
Carpenter was the first folk song collector to make extensive use of sound recording in Britain. His classic method was to record several stanzas of a singer's rendition using the Dictaphone cylinder machine. He then asked the singer to start again and dictate the words while he typed them up on a portable typewriter. He sometimes then checked the words with the singer and wrote notes and corrections onto the typescript.
Carpenter returned to Harvard in 1935, keen to publish the ballads he had collected. He taught himself to transcribe the tunes and produced notations for hundreds of items on his cylinders. He also copied the cylinders onto discs around this time. Meanwhile, he earnt a living from occasional talks until he gained a part-time teaching position in the English Department at Duke University in 1938. Here he undertook work on editing the ballad texts. He left Duke in 1943 and became Head of English at Greensboro Women's College, North Carolina, where he stayed until his retirement in 1954.
Carpenter returned to his hometown of Booneville, Mississippi, in 1964 and remained there until his death. He never completed his ballad publication and only ever published a handful of items he had collected. He sold the collection to the Library of Congress in 1972.
The Carpenter Collection consists of 13,500 pages of papers, 179 wax cylinders (35 continuous hours of examples), 220 12-inch lacquer discs (Carpenter's own copies of the cylinders), 563 photographs, and 40 drawings (created for Carpenter by the Gloucestershire folk artist, Geroge Baker). The items in the collection date from c.1927-1943. The majority of them are songs. There is also a significant corpus of mummers' plays. The plays and most of the songs were collected in Scotland and England in 1929-35. Other items were gathered in Wales, Ireland and the USA. Some were collected by Carpenter's students whose papers have been preserved as part of his collection. The collection includes sea shanties, maritime songs, and dreg songs (of oyster fishers on the Firth of Forth), Child ballads, rural songs (including bothy songs from the North-East of Scotland), nursery rhymes and children's singing games, seasonal songs, spirituals, blues ballads, mummers plays, fiddle tunes, folk tales, and descriptions of folk customs, games, dances, and dialect.