In a mid-century rambler on a quiet street in the south Everett neighborhood of Pinehurst sits a remarkable collection of Pacific Northwest folk music recordings, spanning over half a century. Thanks to its owner, Bob Nelson, and the Puget Sounds project at the University of Washington Libraries Media Center, it will soon be available to the world.
Nelson, a retired carpenter and co-director of the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society, has been recording local folk music for the last 57 years. Initially he used reel-to-reel, then switched to cassettes in the 1970s. Combine his own collection with those of John Ashford, Ed Bremer, Patti DiLudovico, and Walt Robertson, the late founder of the society — all of which have been entrusted to Nelson’s care — and you have nearly 300 reel-to-reels and over 400 tapes preserving the sounds of long-ago concerts, lessons, and hootenannies. (Incidentally, Pete Seeger is supposed to have picked up the use of “hootenanny” to mean “folk jam session” in Seattle. The word, of Appalachian origin, was originally a synonym for “whatchamacalit.”)
Seeger is probably the best-known musician to make an appearance in this collection, on five to six songs recorded with Sonny Terry and J.C. Burris in the basement of Nelson’s parents’ home in Burien. A teenage Nelson found himself president of the Seattle Folk Singing Society, which in 1957 put on a concert by the trio at the Moore Theatre. They drew a full house, striking some of the first blows against Seeger’s blacklisting. Other familiar names in the archive include Tom Paxton, Utah Phillips, and — especially to those native to this area — Ivar Haglund. Still, there are plenty more recordings by those who, in Nelson’s words, are “lesser known, but very good.”
For three to four hours every morning, Nelson digitizes part of another recording — he estimates it takes up to 8 hours per reel — burning the digital files to CD-R and filling in as much metadata as he can. It’s a boon that the folkie and the archivist are combined in the same person. Even though the UW library-science student he is working with is a fiddler, only Nelson would be able to look at a note saying, “Patti and me and an unknown couple,” and be able to get the missing information from DiLudovico in Santa Cruz.
Why is Nelson doing this? “I don’t have a choice,” he says. “It’s my obligation.”
There’s a sharing ethos in the folk world that he picked up at the feet of Bill “WilliWaw Willy” Higley, a KVI DJ in the mid-’50s. Higley, who took the teenage Nelson under his wing and let him read the occasional weather and traffic report, later moved to Westport to operate a charter fishing boat. Nelson spent a few summers there working for and learning from Higley. He remembers him drilling him on the English murder ballad “Matty Groves” for hours and hours, until he was able to flawlessly sing all 33 verses. “[Higley] always ended every single lesson by saying ‘you have an obligation to pass it on. I’m teaching you, you teach it,’” he said.
It’s for much the same reason that John Vallier, head of distributed media at UW Libraries, was interested in adding Nelson’s archives to Puget Sounds, which is also home to historic recordings from the Crocodile Café and Kearney Barton.
"It's about preserving and providing access to the music, but it's also about providing access to history,” says Vallier. “A history that's overlooked oftentimes by mainstream society, and maybe purposely overlooked by the culture industry and major labels. I see this as part of what we do, our obligation to provide access to knowledge in all of its forms."
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