Ozark Folksong Collection

A conversation with Angela Fritz and Lora Lennertz

Mary Celestia Parler recording Fred C. Smith and an unidentified musician in Oriole Barber Shop, Bentonville, Arkansas, ca. 1950 - Ozark Folksong Collection
Mary Celestia Parler recording Fred C. Smith and an unidentified musician in Oriole Barber Shop, Bentonville, Arkansas, ca. 1950. Mary Celestia Parler Photographs (MC 896), Folder 1, Image 8, Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

Angela Fritz, the interim Head of Special Collections at the University of Arkansas Libraries, and Lora Lennertz, the Director of Academic and Research Services at the University of Arkansas, talk with Choice about the Ozark Folksong Collection, “the largest and most complete collection of traditional music and associated materials from Arkansas and the Ozarks in the nation.” The collection won the 2016 PCA/ACA Award for Best Electronic Reference Site.

Angela Fritz serves as the interim head of special collections at the University of Arkansas Libraries. Lora Lennertz is the Director of Academic and Research Services at the University of Arkansas. She was asked to participate in the project while in her previous role as Head of Performing Arts and Media.

How would you describe the Ozark Folksong Collection to a perfect stranger?

LL: The Ozark Folksong Collection provides a window into life in the Ozarks from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. While songs are the primary vehicles for that expression (there are over 4,400 available in the collection) the performers also provide the context for their music through casual conversations with the collectors as well as folk stories, tales, and jokes. While many of the songs represented in the collection have traveled over the distance of time and space, most impart a purely personal view of the world. It is a collection that tells of life through the voices of the people.)

Could you give us some historical background and context for the collection? How does it aid our understanding of midcentury Ozark lifestyles?

AF: The Ozark Folksong Collection is really a celebration of a distinct regional culture. The collection is an amalgamation of the experiences of immigrants, Native Americans, and African Americans who lived primarily in the southern half of Missouri, the northwestern and north central part of Arkansas, and the northeastern part of Oklahoma in the early to mid-twentieth century. Our best understanding of this region is through the work of early folklorists, who chronicled Ozark culture through audio-recordings, field notes, and photographs. The research of folklorists offers a rich archival legacy of the stories and songs that were passed on through families and communities who lived in the Ozarks.

The Ozark Folksong Collection is based on the work of one such folklorist, Mary Celestia Parler who was an English Professor at the University of Arkansas. Mary Parler arrived at the University of Arkansas in 1948 while working on a dissertation on southern dialects. In 1949, she developed the University of Arkansas’s first folklore course, and she became director of the University of Arkansas’s Folklore Research Project. During that same year, she began traversing the state, with the help of her students, to compile the recorded materials which make up much of the Ozark Folksong Collection.

Through the participants’ voices, Parler was able to capture the rich diversity of culture and preserve important intersecting narratives— the result of which is an unprecedented educational and research tool that will allow students and scholars to contextualize the regional history of the Ozarks within the contours of the American experience.

What other materials are included in the Mary Parler collection housed at the University of Arkansas Libraries?

In addition to folk songs, Parler and her students collected a myriad of “Ozark-isms” written on index cards which were compiled into typescript volumes of folk stories, superstitions, proverbs, tall tales, riddles and jokes. Over 800 class reports of Parler’s students depict rural culture through photographs, drawings, and interviews. These reports provide a treasure trove of information on home remedies and cures, games, dances, “play parties,” art and crafts, celebrations, ghost stories, myths and legends, and family histories of the region—all of which provide a fascinating background for many of the recorded songs.

Who is the intended audience of the collection?

AF: Collected over the course of two decades, the breadth and depth of these recordings is astounding. The collection documents over 700 performers ranging from Lithuanian immigrants to African American performers and includes fiddle tunes, jokes, tall tales, and oral histories. Because of the richness in subject matter, the digital collection will have great appeal to students and scholars from a range of disciplines including history, musicology, anthropology, American studies, and regional studies.

How do you envision undergraduates using this collection?

Professor Mary Celestia Parler with University of Arkansas students reviewing Ozark folklore materials, ca 1950s.
Professor Mary Celestia Parler with University of Arkansas students reviewing Ozark folklore materials, ca 1950s. Mary Celestia Parler Photographs – MC 896 – Folder 1, Image 5, University of Arkansas Special Collections.

AF: The Ozark Folksong Collection offers students the opportunity to explore the rich legacy of Ozark folksongs. As they listen to original recordings, students can interact with the songs as “cultural artifacts.” Students can interpret, contextualize, and share these songs in research papers and class presentations and projects.

In many ways, these folk songs are the ultimate primary source for teaching historical content and cultural context. The performers are speaking in the first person conveying a range of stories, beliefs, feelings, and local histories. Through research papers or group projects, students have the opportunity to discover “cultural clues” that will help them understand how the development of “a regional sound” translates to local or community experience as well as discuss what that regional experience tells us about American history. Examining the meaning, history, and origins of these songs—allows students to connect and engage with history in ways that are tangible, relevant and personal.​

What are some of the challenges—technical, logistical, personal—involved in converting what was originally an analog collection to a digital format? What, if anything, is lost in that transformation? What is gained?

LL: Working with the collection was a labor of love for a number of people. One of the largest challenges was working through the paper records of the collection and comparing that information to the recordings found on the digital reels. We found undocumented songs, “off the record” comments, and sometimes inadequate or biased transcriptions. While some continuity may be lost through the division of performances from compiled reels into individual recordings, we have gained deeper knowledge and access to the songs through full-text searching and enhanced indexing. The digital recordings still maintain the atmosphere of the original audio recordings; however, now parts of the tapes that were previously inaudible or simply unknown can now be heard.

The collection is incredibly vast and covers a wide range of topics, from familial roles to environmental catastrophes. Is there an aspect of Ozark folk music documented in the collection that strikes you as particularly fascinating? What about it interests you?

LL: One of the areas of the collection which intrigues me is the presence of a number of variations of individual songs. These variations were handed down from other performers, were created as a response to a particular event, or as a local version of a widely known tall tale. I find it particularly interesting to hear songs, stories and tales of interactions with famous persons such as outlaws and cowboys. While some of the tales are true and others imagined, it is notable how typical folk invested their songs with such personal meaning.

Lora, I noticed that in the Short Take video, you said that one could simply search their grandmother’s name in the collection. Have you ever witnessed something like this occur in real life? I imagine that it would be incredibly profound to connect with a lost part of one’s roots by finding a relative’s song in the collection.

LL: Throughout the years, I have watched people listen to the recordings of songs sung by their family members on our reel-to-reel tapes. These folks would gather around the machines – often with amazement on their faces – as they listened to their loved ones. I recall several people literally crying with joy. Families would have reunions in our department and often shared personal stories and memories with our staff and student assistants.

The joy of an online collection is that it allows family members to travel to those memories from within their own homes. Unfortunately, we are unable to be there for the journey. However, the libraries have received from many heartfelt thanks from family members for preserving their families’ voices and traditions.

What is the most rewarding part of your involvement in the Ozark Folksong Collection?

AF: One of the most rewarding aspects of this project is knowing that such an important collection will be preserved and made accessible for new generations of students and scholars. Mary Parler not only captured a wealth of folklore, oral traditions and folk ballads but she also preserved the fragile history of the region much of which was maintained and passed on from generation to generation in the oral traditions of storytelling and songs. Through this digital collection, the University of Arkansas Libraries has reconstituted her original work into bits and bytes, metadata, and MP3 files enabling unprecedented access to her work while promoting rediscovery, reimagining, and reconnection for a twenty-first century audience.

Explore the Ozark Folksong Collection at digitalcollections.uark.edu.

Watch a short video on the Ozark Folksong Collection.

Learn more about Mary Celestia Parler’s documentation process.

About the interviewer:

This interview was conducted by Anna Denton. She is a publishing intern at Choice and a sophomore at Wesleyan University.