Early Folk Music Tapes To Be Preserved

For 25 years, a cramped apartment in New York served as one of the first recording studios for dozens of struggling artists, some of whom would go on to be the biggest names in folk music. Bob Dylan,

For 25 years, a cramped apartment in New York served as one of the first recording studios for dozens of struggling artists, some of whom would go on to be the biggest names in folk music. Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Janis Ian were among those who made the trip from the Greenwich Village coffeehouses to an Upper West Side housing project for jam sessions worthy of a country front porch.

Agnes "Sis" Cunningham and her husband, Gordon Friesen, a pair of former Communists who became a sort of counterculture mom and pop, recorded reel after reel of guitar-rich ballads and protest songs about nuclear war, racism, and Vietnam.

Cunningham -- an accordion and guitar player who performed in the 1940s with Woody Guthrie -- would then transcribe the lyrics and melodies for "Broadside," a mimeographed magazine the couple began printing in their apartment in 1962. They sold them for 35 cents. The recordings and magazine chronicled a moment and a movement.

In 1997, nine years after the couple stopped their informal recording sessions and a year after Friesen's death, Cunningham gave up their collection of 236 three-inch reels to the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina, in hopes they would be preserved and also made available to the public. Now, the Recording Academy, the same group that sponsors the Grammys has stepped in to help with a $22,649 grant, or about $96 a reel.

Dylan's folk anthem "Blowin' in the Wind" was published for the first time in "Broadside." Seeger recorded his nuclear war parody "Mack the Bomb" in that New York living room. Ian, then known as Janis Fink, sang an early, stripped-down version of her popular "Society's Child."

"These were some of the best topical songs of the day," Seeger, now 82, said from his home in Beacon, N.Y. "The big companies at that time were not interested."

The collection includes 1,000 to 1,500 songs, as well as interviews with several artists, including Phil Ochs, who committed suicide in 1976. "It's a tremendous collection. It's a snapshot of an era," said Jeff Place, archivist for the Smithsonian Institute Folkways archive, one of the nation's largest collections of folk music.

The Broadside recordings are just a small part of the university's archive of nearly 90,000 sound recordings, more than 3,000 video recordings and 18 million feet of film. But this small acquisition has gotten attention. The Smithsonian borrowed about a dozen of the tapes for its album "The Best of Broadside 1962-1988: Anthems of the American Underground from the Pages of Broadside Magazine." The album was nominated for two Grammys in 2001 -- for liner notes and historical album.

It's the historical aspect that makes the recordings attractive to Steve Weiss, head of the UNC folklife collection. He says folk music's Southern roots stretch back at least 150 years. Like their Southern forerunners, many of the 1960s songs weren't written down, one reason that Cunningham -- now 93 -- and Friesen felt they should document the life of the folk movement. The grant from the Recording Academy will pay for conversion of the tapes to more durable compact discs and preservation-quality master tapes.

Recording Academy president/CEO Michael Greene said his group didn't want to risk losing the 40-year-old acetate tapes that he called "living history. Let's face it, many times, the most candid comments, the most revealing situations that people put themselves in are in those demos," he said.

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