Echoes from the Past: Preserving the Voices of the Ozarks
Pictured above: Tim Nutt and Lora Lennertz archive Ozark Folksongs at Mullins Library in Special Collections. | Photo by Matt Reynolds
Mary Celestia Parler made it possible for some Arkansans to hear the voices of their grandparents for the first time.
Parler began the University of Arkansas Folklore Project in 1949. She and her students spent 16 years trekking across the Ozarks collecting more than 4,000 audio files – folksongs, folk tales, instrumentals and countless conversations. Descendants of her subjects are naturally fascinated by these recordings, finding familiar voices among the hand-labeled boxes of tapes.
Professor Robert B. Cochran of the English Department, the original steward of the collection, recognized the value of the recordings and what they offered listeners. He worked with the University Libraries’ Special Collections to find them a permanent home in the collection.
The University Libraries later appointed Lora Lennertz, director for academic and research services, to direct the campaign to preserve the tapes digitally, broaden access to their content, and capture for posterity an entire era of Ozark Mountain culture.
A Collection in Peril
Researchers and archivists had known for some time that the tapes were deteriorating – the magnetized reel-to-reels were demagnetizing and the collection could be lost. In 2005, Special Collections sponsored a conference to discuss preservation options and gather support from researchers. The conference caught the attention of the Happy Hollow Foundation, which signed on to fund the audio preservation. The digitization of the transcripts was funded by a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council.
“The project is really about bringing these songs out of their boxes, off of creased tapes, and out into the public,” said Tim Nutt, head of Special Collections.
The scope of the project broadened over the next several years to include the transcripts Parler and her students carefully created. The audio files captured voices generations old in dialects that have faded in time and are unfamiliar to many listeners today. The fully searchable transcripts are often critical to the understanding and use of the songs, Lennertz said.
Metadata Makes the Collection More Visible
The tapes and their transcripts convey a riveting story, but it was only part of what they could tell. Lennertz worked with Deb Kulczak, music cataloger and metadata expert, to create a sophisticated web of descriptors that made the collection more searchable.
The original collection guide limited searches to the name of informant or title of the song, leaving many songs unfound and unheard. Now users can search for the student transcriber’s name, the first line of a song’s chorus, and the location of the recordings, alongside poetically rich themes, keywords, places, or even fictional people.
The past comes alive through this extensive collection, for descendants, students, and scholars alike. And digital preservation has protected not just the voices and vernacular of the Ozark Mountains, but a chronicle of a field of study. Now this important work is linked across the Internet to other collections like it, making connections that many living in the isolated mountain communities of the 1950s were unable to make themselves. Lennertz said, “With this collection, we are far better able to ‘walk in the shoes’ of both the Arkansans and the folklorists of the last century.”
“The Battle of Prairie Grove” sung by Fred High