In this interview, Kate Blalack, the former senior archivist and registrar of the American Song Archives at the Woody Guthrie Center, talks with Choice about the Woody Guthrie Center Archives and its mission to preserve the legacy of America’s most enduring and inspiring songwriters. More than just a hub of information on the life of folk musician Woody Guthrie, the center and its archives also celebrate the legacies of folk musicians who have followed in Guthrie’s footsteps and champion social justice in the present through prizes that recognize outstanding activists and a growing network of community partners and “freedom fighters.”
How would you describe the Woody Guthrie Center Archives to a perfect stranger?
The Woody Guthrie Archives is a place to learn more about the life of Woody Guthrie as an artist, especially as an inspiration for creative and positive social change. His personal philosophy, rooted in a deep altruism, is very much alive in his writing and his artwork, and is inspirational, prolific, and multi-faceted.
However, along with Woody’s body of work we also have collections of many of Woody’s contemporaries and those folk musicians who “follow in his footsteps,” meaning that they use their abilities to inspire positive societal change. These include, but are not limited to, Phil Ochs (and his siblings Sonny and Michael), Cynthia Gooding, and Tom Paxton. In addition, we also house several large research collections, such as the Ronald D. Cohen Folk Music Research Collection (an extensive archival collection and reference library); the Ed Cray and Joe Klein collections (two of Woody’s biographers); the business papers of Woody’s manager, Harold Leventhal; and numerous other small collections.
We are very fortunate to have a climate and environmentally controlled research facility and vault. We have a nitrogen fire suppression system (which is in place of the Halon systems that had previously been used widely), and we are able to use professional-grade archival materials, so our collections are well cared for. This is really the point of it all, to preserve these materials to allow future generations to keep history as an alive and thriving part of cultural memory.
Who is the intended audience? How do you envision undergraduates, researchers, or the general public using the Archives?
In the archives, our intended audience is both scholarly and non-traditional researchers, and we have a small international audience, which is growing. I was elected to a secretarial post for the International Council on Archives (ICA), Human Rights Group. This was strategic on my part, because I know that the Council’s intentions are the same as individual people and entities that come together for a common cause. At our next international conference, you can be sure I will be bringing the world of Woody with me. We are attempting to give Woody’s voice as far a reach as possible.
In the microcosm, we work with researchers very actively. We have two fellowship opportunities that we offer independent researchers. Both are focused on scholarly projects (from either traditional or non-traditional researchers) and provide financial support for the recipients to visit the archives for a period. These are the Phil Ochs Fellowship, funded through a Still Small Voice, Inc., which provides a total of $5000 for one of more individuals, and the Woody Guthrie Fellowship, which is funded by the BMI Foundation, also awarding a $5000 stipend/award for one or more researchers to come to the archives to complete projects. This year we had two recipients for both fellowships; it is rare that we only award one.
Mark Davidson, the Archives Director (who works primarily with the Bob Dylan archival collection), and I have also provided reference for internal staff, curators, marketing, and sales, as well as preservation recommendations.
I noticed that the Woody Guthrie Center hosts educational programs and workshops for K–12 students. Is the Center particularly focused on reaching younger students? If so, does this focus affect the process of selecting and curating materials for inclusion in the Archives, or for developing new exhibits?
Exactly, except it might be thought of the other way around, since the archives informs the Center and the education team of various possible projects that might utilize our collections, and/or follow our vision. It’s really a very organic and holistic way of working. We inform each other and we feed each other.
Yes, the permanent exhibits in the Woody Guthrie Center, featuring his extremely extensive personal papers, are geared toward a younger audience, but also toward the general public, which includes people with varied backgrounds and a wide range of interests. Deana McCloud, the curator for the Woody Guthrie Center is careful in selecting materials for this very reason. Woody was a master of disguise and multi-faceted art exploration. I have been guilty of putting up a really nice manuscript for viewing only to later realize there was a suggestive painting in the background that I did not notice in sometimes very hyper-focused concentration. Another time I was reading what I thought was a very sweet story only to find something with a darker twist at the end. Woody was a very deep and dynamic personality. I like to tell my more philosophical researchers and students that Woody’s writing has seven layers of meaning like the Sufi masters. Selecting what is shown in the exhibits in an art-form in itself.
However, we also have a special exhibits gallery that showcases traveling exhibits, and some of these exhibits are very edgy. We have a new junior curator, Chloe Fourte, who is working with some cutting-edge concepts. These usually have ean extra admission cost and are monitored because the content can be varied.
Our overall educational planning as an organization is under the direction of Dr. Stevie Johnson, who has been putting in grass-roots efforts around the state to educate the public about Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Massacre, most recently through the multi-media artist collaboration Fire in Little Africa.
The Archives have grown over the years from Woody Guthrie’s personal collection (transferred after his passing) to include not only his life, literary, and artistic works, but also “the works of artists who have and do inspire social change, and those directly inspired and/or affected by [his] life.” Accordingly, viewers can peruse collections relating to musician Phil Ochs, folklorist Stetson Kennedy, and folk historian Ronald D. Cohen, among others. How did the Archives develop into such an extensive institutional repository and what led to the decision to include collections on other figures?
We base our collection development policy around the vision of the American Song Archives as a whole, and within this particular collection, the mission of the Woody Guthrie Center. Our vision is to “inspire creative social change by providing access to the life and legacy of Woody Guthrie,” and our broader mission statement is below:
When we developed the collection development policy for the Woody Guthrie Archives, we had the intention of growing the collection. Archival collections are thriving entities that must have new content added and explored in order to remain relevant to public consumption and dilution. Most of our collections are traditional in the sense that they are composed of mostly unpublished materials. So, it is a research goldmine, so to speak, with many areas for cross-disciplinary research as well as traditional historical research. It might surprise you that there are over 2000 loose lyrics that have never been published along with numerous manuscripts, poetry, and verse.
According to the website, the Center is an “actively growing research center” that accepts donations of relevant materials from individuals. Could you talk about the process of sorting and selecting (or rejecting) donated materials? Is there a little-known treasure among the collection that visitors may be surprised to learn came from an individual’s donation?
We have several individuals in our organization who make these decisions. I personally follow our collection development policy. If an individual wants to donate materials that do not fit our policy, I recommend another institution. I try to direct individuals with, widely accessible, previously published materials, to libraries or institutions that do not have as many resources. We are traditional in the sense that we keep three copies of published items, no more, and we are selective in what we accept due to our size. The full-time staff (plus our amazing interns!) are careful to make decisions very ethically.
One of our most treasured collections is the Maxine Crissman “Woody and Lefty Lou Radio Show” Collection. This collection was donated by Patricia Dempsey (the only living relative of Maxine Crissman, aka Lefty Lou) with the purchase of the banjo that was depicted with Woody and Maxine in publicity photo for KFVD Radio. This collection contains hundreds of fan mail letters, artifacts, photographs, a diary, and four original unpublished song books that were arranged by the couple for the show, including anecdotes written by Woody about each song performed. The heart of the collection is a correspondence from a young Black scholar in California, educating Woody on his use of racist lyrics over the air-waves. This is a beacon piece, because one could say this was a turning point in Woody’s self-awakening as he conquered his own biases, something not many of us can claim.
Most archives tend to be housed at universities or other research institutions, which makes the Woody Guthrie Archives somewhat unique as part of an independent institution devoted to the life and legacy of Woody Guthrie. I understand that the collection has moved a few times over the years, how did it come to be an independent center and is that important to its mission and functioning (i.e., in attracting visitors from schools and the general public)?
The collection moved from Mount Kisco, New York in 2013 and we opened in 2014. The idea was to move Woody back to his home for inspiration, and to make more visible the mystery of what an archives is, how it serves the public, and what can be discovered. The dual goal was to be transparent and inclusive to all people interested in Woody’s life, and also to make the mystery of what an archives is more understandable and clear. All people can make use of the knowledge and wisdom contained within. One of Woody’s strengths was acceptance of all people, all economic and cultural backgrounds, and we follow his guidance.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the operations of the Center and the Archives? I noticed that the Center offers curated virtual exhibits through a YouTube playlist. Were these virtual tours developed prior to or during the pandemic? Has there been any effort to make the archival holdings digitally available in a similar capacity?
We do not offer our collections online for proprietary reasons, but we do make efforts to help researchers who cannot come into the archives. However, the experience of working with the papers can only be fully appreciated in person, in context, so it is always difficult to migrate this to a digital platform. We do have plans for the future, however.
Woody Guthrie was especially known for his activist spirit and for infusing his music with this sense of social consciousness. How does the work of Archive, or the Center more broadly, speak to and continue his legacy of pushing for social change and giving voice to the voiceless?
Woody Guthrie by Robin Carson. Courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archives.
In addition to what I have outlined above, we offer two prizes—the Oklahoma Changing World Prize and the Woody Guthrie Prize—honoring both musicians and activists who have done outstanding work to promote this message by word and deed. We also strive to keep up with community partners and grow our network of “freedom fighters,” in the surrounding community, the larger community, and hopefully one day the world stage.
About the interviewee:
Kate Blalack is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma in the School of Library and Information Studies. She was formerly the Senior Archivist and Registrar of the American Song Archives at the Woody Guthrie Center, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She holds an MLIS in library and information studies (with an emphasis on archival management) and an MA in human relations, both from the University of Oklahoma.