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."
Nelson began to seriously think about the future of his archive around the turn of the millennium, after a conversation with the editor of Sing Out! Four years ago he began moving forward in earnest, and has managed to digitize over a third of the reel-to-reels in that time. After a few other plans failed to come to fruition, he finally signed the deed of the collection to the UW this fall.
Some logistics: Nelson is handing over the digital files and physical tapes to the university. Just what will be posted to the Web depends on copyright and permissions issues — fortunately for Nelson, that’s the UW’s problem to deal with — but the public will still have access to the entire collection if they are willing and able to visit the Odegaard Undergraduate Library. (The bulk of the compositions are in the public domain, but there is the matter of those that are not, and any rights or preferences the performers or their estates may have.) Final disposition of the tapes is undetermined. There is talk of their ending up at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, but everyone’s immediate goal is to get as much available to the public as soon as possible. A few songs are available now, but it’s likely to be a year before the collection formally launches.
It’s sobering to think that, had Nelson less time, inclination, or historical foresight, these recordings might be languishing unplayed in basement boxes, waiting for an eventual trip to the landfill. He literally saved the bulk of DiLudovico’s collection from the garbage truck. He and some friends did the same with 22 boxes of reel-to-reel tapes belonging to the late John Ross, past president and director of the folklore society. Nelson lacks the bandwidth to add them to his project, so in another past president’s basement they will sit until some other would-be archivist comes along. And there are “at least six [other] houses where this stuff is.” Happily, he has agreed to take on Linda Allen’s tapes, when his own project is complete.
Nelson is at pains to emphasize that this project is about the music, and not about him. The name of the collection may end up changing as a result. “Fifty years from now,” he says, “I hope that someone will discover this collection and say something like ‘Wow . . . I never heard that verse to "Pretty Saro."'" This is true. It is about the music. But it’s also about the people who make the music, and who make that music available.
I told Nelson this, and said that 50 years from now, I too hope someone will say that about “Pretty Saro,” but I also hope they’ll notice the name Bob Nelson, wonder who he is, be able to find out a little bit about him, and thank him in their minds. He asked if I were therefore, by writing this piece, archiving him. Well — in a sense — isn't that what we do when we tell someone's story?