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JMC The James Madison Carpenter Collection

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The James Madison Carpenter Collection
James Madison Carpenter Collection (JMC)

10 containers of collected materials, and 1 box of supporting information
Date created

Scope and Contents of the Papers

The James Madison Carpenter Collection consists of manuscript materials, sound recordings, and graphic materials that document primarily British and American folk music, dance, and British ritual drama. The materials span the years 1928-55, with some dated 1972 and 1987. The bulk of the material was collected between 1928-35 by Carpenter during fieldwork in England and Scotland; other material was collected in the United States between 1937 and 1941 by Carpenter and his Duke University students. Through this effort, Carpenter amassed a collection of an estimated 1,000 ballad texts and 850 tunes of the Francis Child canon; 500 sea songs (including chanteys); 1,000 other ballads and songs (texts and many tunes) from Britain and America; 200 children's singing games, riddles, and nursery rhymes (texts and many tunes); 300 British folk plays (texts and some tunes); miscellaneous folktales, African- American spirituals, Cornish carols, and so forth; and approximately 500 related photographic images and 40 drawings.

Two hundred twenty-three 12-inch discs of songs, sea shanties, folk plays, folktales and other material some copied from cylinders (AFS Cyl. 4501-4679) recorded in England and Scotland, others recorded in North Carolina and Mississippi, ca. 1929-1940.

Collection Overview

The James Madison Carpenter Collection spans the years 1928-1987, with the largest portion dated 1928-35. It is arranged into two groups or series. Series I, the bulk of the collection, consists of the materials purchased from Carpenter and includes manuscripts, sound recordings, and graphic materials. It contains the results of Carpenter's fieldwork, his subsequent work on the collection, and documentation of other professional activities. Series II consists of material about the collection, primarily generated by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. It includes manuscript material, sound recordings, and graphic materials. It is an open series.

Through multi-format documentation Carpenter captured approximately 1,000 ballad texts and 850 tunes of the Francis Child canon; 500 sea songs and chanteys; 1,000 other ballads and songs (including bothy ballads and dreg songs) from Britain and America; 200 children's singing games, riddles, and nursery rhymes; 300 British folk plays; miscellaneous folktales, African-American spirituals, Cornish carols, and so forth; and 500 related photographic images and 40 drawings.* Although Carpenter used his collections as the subject of numerous lectures in colleges and universities, he never was successful at publishing his findings.

The collection represents not only the results of Carpenter's fieldwork, but also documents his fieldwork process. Traveling throughout Britain and Scotland in a small roadster (an Austin Seven), he searched for singers and dancers. While Carpenter found many of his best informants through chance and circumstance, he purposely tracked down some of the singers and performers documented by Francis Child, Gavin Greig, and Cecil Sharp. One of his most prolific informants, Scottish singer Bell Duncan, gave him 300 songs and ballads, of which 62 balads were previously collected by Child. Using a dictaphone powered by a six-volt battery, Carpenter recorded his informants on wax cylinders. He also typed the text with a manual typewriter while the singer dictated. Later he transferred many of the recordings to 12-inch acetate discs, and also taught himself music notation to transcribe approximately 1,000 of the recorded tunes. To record the folk plays, Carpenter usually enlisted several informants to recite the entire ritual drama, thus obtaining multiple versions of each one.

While Carpenter's focus was on the spoken and sung word, his collection includes some documentation of dance and related dance activities (see Appendix A). Many of the mummers' play texts, particularly the sword dance plays, include references to and some description of dance. The sound recordings include fiddle tunes used in morris dance. In addition, photographs depict morris dance (with broom dancing), sword dance, the Helston Furry dance, and dancing at May Day and English Folk Dance Society festivals.

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Close James Madison Carpenter

James Madison Carpenter (1888-1983)

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.