The Night Is Drawing Nigh: Selections From The Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives (forthcoming)

Below are the liner notes for the forthcoming compilation that I assembled from the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives. Since 2006, I've worked with archivists, historians, and family members to create a half dozen projects stemming from the historic recordings contained at Berea.  


Listening to the Berea Appalachian Sound Archives

Barbara Kunkle’s 1973 field recordings of Lexie Baker, J.P. Fraley, and others begin not with a tune but instead invite the listener in with conversation. Just as the tape starts and Fraley says, mid-sentence, “...bring some more chairs in here,” a coo-coo clock strikes eight times and laughter erupts. Kunkle declares, “That’s going to be the best beginning of a tape I ever had!” Later on the tape and amid lively banter, a fiddle begins to tune up and a melody emerges, soon joined by guitar. In these recordings, there are no exact beginnings or endings to either the tunes or the environment in which they are played: they are blurred together. The conversation becomes musical, and the music conversational. 

The recordings that I have chosen and edited for this album represent a tiny fraction of the collections housed in the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives in Kentucky. They are also a skewed and intensely personal selection rather than being an accurate or exhaustive cross-section of all that the archives have to offer. The tracks here are a reflection of what has inspired and moved me, beginning with my first visit to Berea in 2006 as part of the Sound Archives Fellowship Program. Since then, I have worked on a number of projects that sample recordings from the Berea Archives and transform them into new sound works. While the tracks for this album are not the same as those used in earlier projects, they are often related, and I am drawn to them again and again. Much like Kunkle’s recordings above, they serve as a starting point, an invitation to listen and explore.

One of the many strengths of the Berea Archives is the variety of its collections and styles of music, which span over eighty years. Many of the nearly thirty collections refer back to the person who sought out and recorded musicians across Appalachia, such as Bruce Greene, John Harrod, and Leonard Roberts. Other collections focus on self-made recordings and collected documentation of professional or amateur musicians, such as Nora Carpenter or Asa Martin. Still others focus on radio, public events, or festivals like Berea’s own Celebration of Traditional Music. Within these collections, many different genres are represented: ballads and banjo music, fiddle tunes and folk tales, radio gospel programs and lined-out hymns. Most importantly, what is contained here is the documentation of many distinct and personal narratives that create an archive assembled from the bottom up. The result is an intricate patchwork of many individual voices, each with a story to tell. These stories begin with the performers yet are ever expanding to include collectors, archivists, historians, and even listeners hearing these accounts for the first time.

The variety and depth of the Berea Archives present a challenge to those who wish to access it: how do you listen to and interpret such an overwhelming archive? What kind of story can you find that will help guide you through the recordings in a meaningful and respectful way? There are some common musical characteristics and thematic threads that tie these particular recordings together. Many are modal and plaintive, others bright and celebratory, but all are searching and striving to understand subjects still relevant today: life, death, relationships, work, family, and place. A variety of styles and instrumentation are present, including solo ballads, group singing, instrumental music, radio commercials, interviews, and even instructions on tuning a banjo. To my ears, they all transform into music.

More than anything else, it is the sheer pleasure of listening that has provided the most important guide in my understanding and interpretation of the Berea Archives. This is reflected in how I have assembled the tracks. Heard together as a singular album, their arrangement allows them to flow into one another. Juxtapositions and connections across time and place form new narratives in my mind. Somehow, the recordings––much like a group of loosely connected short stories––come together as a coherent whole. People, homes, memories, invocations, and conversations all merge into and map a sonic novel related to but different from the sum of its parts.

As each recording unfolds, I listen carefully and in solidarity with the many voices of those recorded. I listen with a musician’s ear, reflective of my own background and training. I also listen with an ear for the many social and historical contexts that are revealed through the sounds taking place before, during, and after the tunes; sounds that otherwise would be cut out in a commercial recording. 

Sometimes I hear a performer struggling to remember a tune or lyrics only to have them almost surprisingly spill out, as Walter McNew reveals in his rendering of “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” At other times, these in-between moments become an inseparable part of the fabric of the listening experience. When the Helton Family finishes singing the hymn tune “I Know It Was the Blood,” the music doesn’t really stop. Something magical happens, and the song immediately transforms into many things at once. A man clears his throat, and begins a conversation heard in the background. A young girl continues to sing her part of the hymn’s melody. Jackie Helton describes the song and recites the words. The fiddle picks up again, joyfully switching to a new tune, “Keys to the Kingdom.” Conversations, stories, and voices come together in counterpoint and become a new piece of music, all captured spontaneously on a single recorded tape.

Often the recordings reveal humanity and vitality regardless of polish or musical technique. Even though the renditions of “Young Edward” and “Roll on, John” by Hiram Stamper no longer display the technical ability that he once had when he was younger, they are no less musical. To hear the rich open notes of Stamper’s fiddle or the strong rhythms of his pounding foot is to know that he was present and active in the music, and any distinctions between right or wrong notes fall away. The recording is both a reflection and a celebration––mistakes and triumphs together––of a person and who he was at that time in his life. 

The practice of listening closely and repeatedly to these recordings fosters an ability to glean some of the many narratives present, but also to add additional narratives into the mix. In Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes, Jeff Todd Titon remarks that, “fiddlers do not quite possess the tunes but, rather, use and care for them as a good steward tends a fertile field.” I believe this applies not only to fiddlers and musicians but also to all who come in contact with these archival artifacts. The movement and exchange of the recordings is not limited to the performer or the collector. Rather, the recordings are in motion and pass through, with each new listener caring for them and adding yet another layer to them as they continue on, ever changing and expanding.

In William Tallmadge’s field recording of “Tarry With Me O My Savoir,” Howard Chalmer leads a group of men and women in “lining out” the old hymn. Just like the recordings above, Chalmer begins singing before others finish speaking. As the group comes together, I listen to many voices moving along a single melody. Each voice is distinctly heard, and each makes subtle changes, turns, and inflections that serve not only as embellishments but also as marks of individuality. But there are other sounds, too. Children are playing in the background; perhaps it is midday. A bell rings, and later a distant train whistle blows, coinciding in pitch with the singing. The tape warbles, indicating its age and how it has changed while sitting on a shelf over several decades. All of these sounds come together to offer a glimmer of the time and place in which the recording was made, as well as an account of the history it has had ever since. 

It is this aural image of many individuals and everyday sounds coming together to sing in unison––but also with variation––that seems to me to be an appropriate way to understand the Berea Archives. The Archives are broadly held together through their connection to the larger Appalachian region and its many cultures, but they also allow for hundreds of distinct voices to exist alongside each other with no single dominating style, performer, or collector. They remain both independent and interdependent, singular and connected, and powerfully express the history of the region as it continues to unfold in the present and into the future. 

- Brian Harnetty