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Folk collection returns ‘back home’ to new audiences

A renowned folk collection that was recorded around Britain over seventy-five years ago and has been stored in America ever since has been brought to new online audiences, thanks to a project led by the University of Aberdeen’s Elphinstone Institute in partnership with the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS).

James Madison Carpenter was a Harvard-trained scholar who collected a wealth of traditional songs, ballads and folk plays. Most of them were collected in Britain in 1928–35, with a smaller number coming from the USA, between 1927 and around 1943. Carpenter took his British materials back home to America, and in 1972 it was purchased by the Library of Congress in Washington DC, where the whole collection has been preserved and digitised.

Now, thanks to a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the collection has been incorporated into the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’s digital archive, an essential folk resource. Scholars based at the Elphinstone Institute had already catalogued the collection as part of an earlier project, also funded by the AHRC. The catalogue data was converted and enhanced for online publication in partnership with the staff from EFDSS’s Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and is being presented for the first time in conjunction with the Library of Congress’s digitised images.

The collection contains more than 3,000 traditional songs and 300 folk plays, as well as fiddle tunes, folk customs, children’s games and traditional tales and games. 

Carpenter travelled forty thousand miles around Britain,including Cornwall, the Cotswolds, Lincolnshire, the North-east of England, and the Northeast of Scotland. He spent time in local communities recording traditional ballads, ‘bothy songs’, sea songs, and more. Unlike earlier collectors, he made sound recordings of his contributors, including some whose songs and tunes had previously been notated only by hand.

Laura Smyth, Director of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, said: “We’re incredibly excited to have this collection join our online digital archive. Carpenter was collecting in the early 1930s – a time when very few collectors were out in the field – and so it bridges the gaps in folk research showing how the songs have developed, changed, and been passed on through the decades. This addition to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’s digital archive also significantly develops its geographical scope, reminding us that folk songs have always freely crossed between nations.”

Dr Julia Bishop of the University of Aberdeen said: “We are delighted that the Carpenter Collection is now freely accessibly online. This means that the riches it contains can be discovered again by new audiences, such as performers, researchers and the families and communities and places where so much of it originated. In particular, the distant voices that we can hear on Carpenter’s 179 cylinder recordings testify to their artistry and skill as performers.”

Dr Tom McKean, who worked alongside Dr Bishop as part of the project, added: “It is thanks to the preservation and digitisation of the materials by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, funding from the AHRC, and the work of the EFDSS in establishing their digital archive – that we have been able to make it freely accessible to all.”

A series of events and activities are bringing the Carpenter Collection to new audiences across the UK. Learning resources for schools will also be created using materials from the collection.

A highlight of the project is a celebration concert at Cecil Sharp House on Tuesday 27 March 2018.

Read more about the Carpenter Collection at

Browse the complete Carpenter Collection online for free at

Explore all 222,457 Carpenter Collection results in the VWML digital archives with an Advanced Search on ‘Archive catalogues: James Madison Carpenter’

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