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Sound and vision blog

14 posts from December 2020

28 December 2020

Recording of the week: Sámi Yoik; evoking reindeer, the wind and 'wind nose'

This week's selection comes from Finlay McIntosh, World & Traditional Rights intern for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Although in the UK, reindeer are associated with Christmas and winter wonderlands, for Europe’s only recognized indigenous community, the Sámi, they are a part of everyday life.

A herd of reindeer
A herd of reindeer at Jukkasjärvi in Lapland. Man in a Sami costume. Courtesy of Swedish National Heritage Board

The Sámi inhabit Sápmi—a territory stretching from the northern areas of Norway, through Sweden and Finland to the Kola Peninsula in Russia—and their livelihoods traditionally revolved around reindeer herding. This way of life has largely changed throughout decades of modernization and cultural assimilation into nation-states but the reindeer has remained central to Sámi culture and identity.

We see this strong bond between the Sámi and their animals in these examples of traditional yoik or joik, recorded by Maggie Hamilton in 1997, in Jokkmokk, Sweden.

Yoiking is an age-old Sámi tradition that can have many functions. In the past, some yoiks were used in shamanistic rituals to contact the spirit world, whereas nowadays some tell epic narratives and stories for entertainment. Some yoiks can be extremely personal and are used to evoke an ancestor or friend, whereas others can act as a personal signature, which if performed, can be seen by others as boastful. Sámi parents can yoik their children to sleep like a lullaby or even drown out a baby’s crying with their powerful performances.

A yoik is a direct reflection of its subject, which can be anything from a person, place or landscape to an animal, including, of course, the reindeer. Through performance, the yoiker tries to express the soul of what is being yoiked, and in effect, yoiks the subject into being. This is why it is often said that a yoik is not about something; it is that thing.

This also brings up interesting questions about musical ownership. As a World and Traditional Music Rights Intern, I spend a lot of my time contacting rights holders, who we consider the owners of the recordings in our collections. Whereas we may think the creator or performer of a piece of music is its owner, the Sámi hold a different view: as yoiking attempts to evoke the subject into being, it is thought that the subject owns the yoik, rather than the performer.

This is certainly the case when yoiking people but perhaps yoiking reindeer is another matter. Needless to say, I have not asked any reindeer for their permission to use these recordings!

In this first example, the performer yoiks an adult reindeer, which he describes as heargi, or a big and strong reindeer. This is just one of the hundreds of different and often poetic descriptive words the Sámi reindeer herders use to differentiate the reindeer in their herds. The Sámi language’s extensive reindeer-related vocabulary describes every possible size, shape, colouring, temperament and antler position of the animal. We can hear how the performer evokes this heargi reindeer bull with his rich, deep voice.

Adult reindeer yoik (BL REF C1650/73 BD 4)

In this second example, the performer yoiks the wind. Introducing the yoik, he tells us how the wind helps the reindeer herders to navigate vast expanses of tundra and locate their herds. He says that because reindeer often run face-first into the strong-blowing north wind, the wind tells the herders which way the reindeer are travelling – North. This also helps the herders to find their animals easily.

Wind yoik (BL REF C1650/73 BD 5)

This is a fascinating example of how yoiks can contain and transmit knowledge specific to the Sámi lifestyle. They can pass on knowledge about reindeer management practices and navigation as well as expressing the close connection between animal and environment.

In this final example, the performer yoiks biegganjunit, or wind nose, which is a very specific metaphor embedded in Sámi culture that conjures up the image of the reindeer as they are running against the blowing wind with the ice-cold air rushing up their noses. The performer tells us that although this yoik contains few actual words, it depicts the scene of these reindeer as they run, smelling for the scent of wolves and other predators that are being carried in the wind.

Wind nose yoik (C1650/73 BD 6)

Again, this shows that the meaning of a yoik does not just come from the lyrics. In fact, some yoik do not have any words at all. Yoiks can express a meaning that goes beyond words but this can only be understood when the performer and their audience are closely connected.

Yoiking and other elements of Sámi culture were repressed throughout periods of Christianization and state assimilation efforts. However, since the 1960s, it has experienced a revival. Sámi yoik has been incorporated into a variety of popular music genres and has gained more visibility on the international stage—it even made an appearance at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest with Norway’s entry “Spirit in the Sky,” performed by Keiino. By continuing to yoik throughout history, the Sámi manage to maintain their cultural identity and now the tradition is thought to be one of the oldest continuous musical practices in Europe.

However, yoiking is an oral tradition at its core and some have questioned the value of documenting it in archives. As these recordings show, much of a yoik’s meaning is created between the yoiker, what is being yoiked and an initiated audience who can construct meaning by connecting the dots. When yoiks have such a strong attachment to a specific place, people and environment, some argue that if removed from that context, written down, recorded or translated, yoiks lose their complex layers of meaning and feeling. How can they mean anything to people who are not Sámi and do not know the specific contexts from which they come from? Despite this, without archives, many of these traditional yoiks—untouched by folklorizations and Eurovision song contest sparkle—would have been forgotten and not passed onto the younger generation of Sámi.

If you want to learn more about the yoik recordings in the Maggie Hamilton Collection, you can read the catalogue entries in our Sound and Moving Image catalogue. There are examples of yoik evoking bears, moose, mountains, the performer’s grandfather and even Christianized yoik, with the performer providing fascinating information about the tradition, its history and meanings.

These sound recordings were donated by Maggie Hamilton to the British Library and have been digitised as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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21 December 2020

Recording of the week: Sheffield’s pub carols, a secular tradition

This week's selection comes from Andrew Ormsby, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Recorded by Ian Russell on Christmas Day 1974, in The Black Bull public house, Ecclesfield, Sheffield, this rousing rendition of ‘Six jolly miners’, followed by ‘Hark! Hark! What news’, captures the democratic and exuberant nature of the local ‘pub sing’, a tradition which goes back to the 19th century, and still thrives in certain pubs in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire.

Map displaying view of Sheffield from Park Hill in 1740
View of Sheffield from Park Hill in 1740, taken from ‘The illustrated guide to Sheffield and the surrounding district etc.’, published Sheffield, 1879

The Sheffield carol tradition has its roots in reforms carried out by the Oxford Movement, an influential group of Victorian clergymen, whose attempts to make worship more serious resulted in a purge of certain carols, which were thought of as not really suitable for singing at Christmas. The village musicians, whose presence was no longer required in the west galleries of their parish churches, took the rejected carols to their local pubs, where they have remained ever since. The pub carols often feature different words and tunes to the more familiar Christmas repertoire, and there are variations from pub to pub and village to village. Each area is proud of its own tradition, and some have their own carols, often named after the location itself, such as ‘Stannington’, written in 1950 by Mina Dyson, who was the organist at the local church in that part of Sheffield.

Despite the subject matter, the fervour you can hear in these songs is really an expression of community spirit and uninhibited enjoyment, rather than an outpouring of religious feeling. In many of the recordings you can hear the clinking of glasses, the exchange of Christmas greetings, general pub chatter (including the odd swear word) and an atmosphere of communal enjoyment that rings out in every line. ‘Awake to joy and hail the morn’, sing the locals in the Black Bull, sounding like they’re about to raise the roof. It’s hard to listen without wanting to join in.

Recording of carol singing in Ecclesfield, Sheffield, South Yorkshire 

Made by Ian Russell in 1974, as part of his research towards his Ph.D. thesis 'Traditional Singing in West Sheffield, 1970-1972', this recording is part of the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture, which consists of sound recordings of the former Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies (IDFLS), part of the University of Leeds from October 1964 to September 1983, and dialect-related sound recordings made prior to the establishment of the Institute.

The sound recordings were donated to the British Library in 2019 for digitisation as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The Ian Russell Collection (C331), documenting traditional English carol singing in the north of England from 1984, will also be digitised and readily available as part of this project.

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18 December 2020

Caulking the ethnographic gap – A Trobriander perspective on the songs, dances, stories and performers of the Malinowski Cylinder Collection (C46)

linus digim’Rina is a Trobriand Islander and an anthropologist. He is currently Head of Anthropology at the University of Papua New Guinea. He provides a Trobriander perspective on the Malinowski Cylinder Collection (C46), which has also been described on the Sound and Vision blog today.

Nigadabuwa canoe with Namwanaguyau doing a slow punt along the shores of Khaulukuba beach. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI/3/4/8

Above: Nigadabuwa canoe with Namwanaguyau doing a slow punt along the shores of Khaulukuba beach. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI/3/4/8

All these items originated from the Bweyowa cultural heritage of the Trobriand Islands, part of its gulagula. With a slight exception on the Gumagabu song dance, the images and recordings have over time been removed from the cultural ambience of the place, Bweyowa, Kilivila, Kiriwina or the Trobriands. As with Rogaewa from the Iwa people, it will probably struggle to find a comfortable niche back at its original home. Yet it is not completely isolated and could potentially and mutually be invited back ‘home’ like the proverbial prodigal son in the Christian bible.

Gumagabu, according to Malinowski, was in 1918 owned by To’uluwa, chief of Omarakhana, and whose ancestors acquired it from the descendants of Tomakam through laga payment. If this claim by To’uluwa was true then laga payments by Bweyowa custom is outright alienation whereby holdership of previous tenant is completely terminated. I have since then not heard of any other group or village that contested this claim by To’uluwa.

Gumagabu dance. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI/3/7/13

Above: Gumagabu dance. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI/3/7/13

Other than this there are no plausible other claims of ownership for Rogaewa, which the Okheboma people occasionally and sentimentally lay claims to, nor is it possible for Ilakhavetega and WosiTuma for that matter. The images too are neither offensive nor emotionally heart-rending. In fact, both the sound recordings, despite the poor quality perhaps, and dance images would generate a mild reminder of perhaps a slipping-by Bweyowa cultural heritage – a certain phase of cultural paradigm that is worth reflecting upon for the future. In this view, I would suggest seeking the endorsement of the incumbent of the Bweyowa/Trobriand office of the paramount chief – GuyolaKilivila. He is the sanctioned overall custodian of Bweyowa/Kilivila gulagula. This immediately disqualifies all Church leaders, politicians of various levels and modern day professionals.

Personally, and after listening to many of the tunes, not to mention themes, of these so called archaic sounds, and generally from South East Asia through to the Pacific region, I recognise a fundamentally common similarity in the tunes, flows, humming and repetitiveness of the songs. (I wish I was a musician to explain this a bit more clearly.) This is found in poems, magical chants, mourning dirges, laments, heralds and songs. For the time being and in the absence of a better label I suspect this alluring similarity to be fundamentally Austronesian!

Malinowski today

As with Malinowski and those immediately before him, the chosen field approach together with its fine field documentation methods generated its own values, and indeed part of which we are appreciating. Over time we have all become part of the journey of documentation hence, ‘caulking ethnographic gaps’ has become our immediate task that has probably opened up more possibilities. These songs, dances and stories are alive, have been enacted, details adjusted and adopted – and continue to live on. This is a result of often mutually combined efforts between the chronicler and the informants and/or collaborators. Insofar as one can see for the Trobriand Islands at least, the anthropologist-informant relationship is by and large ephemeral suggesting unsustainability by average standards. I wonder if this is an unanticipated end result of objective-imbued field observation and documentation approaches. For, and on the other hand, the Christian churches approach do not necessarily document like the anthropologist and yet leave behind apparently a more lasting active legacy with the people – often derided as been subjective. Christian missionaries tend to impose, observe and adjust methods of cultural integration including appropriating cultural spaces such as renaming places and persons – to which the anthropologists do not. Through the institution of baptism for instance, church legacies have lived on as part of the local people’s annual cultural celebrations and personal names like Peter, Jacob, Benjamin, Esther, being proudly carried on and shielded by its received forms of morality. By contrast therefore, the world famous name of Malinowski is faintly recalled, and I know of no Trobriand child named after him. A few of the elders use his books mainly for the images and tales rather than the ideas expounded. Malinowski is not alone and indeed this includes all the other anthropologists that came after him, as well as myself at Basima, on nearby Fergusson Island. Of course, immediate family members playing hosts do rename one or two of their off springs after the anthropologist but this is where it ends, generally. This is perhaps why the world famous Malinowski shall remain obscure and often on the recesses of living Trobriand Islanders’ lives unless one is a travel writer or becomes a student of anthropology, as I have been.

Returning to the songs and dances for the last word, modern day performances lacks systematic documentation except for a few parents and school teachers insisting upon children to learn, display and be involved in cultural performances. The language is spoken everyday but not so much of the singing and dancing of those traditional themes and tunes. The introduced ideas and beliefs together with more dynamic technology have evidently taken over much of the cultural spaces. In fact only the occasional travel writers, tourists, journalists, office of tourism agents, social media enthusiasts and urban based relatives that pick up performance images for various purposes. This casual form of documentation characteristically lacks the vital cultural context. There still remains hope however for the present generation to embrace the potential of today’s technology towards the fosterage of that ‘slipping by’ Bweyowa culture.

The Rogayewo, a slow dance performed by men wearing fibre skirts, and holding pandanus streamers in their hands. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI/3/SOS/58

Above: The Rogayewo, a slow dance performed by men wearing fibre skirts, and holding pandanus streamers in their hands. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI/3/SOS/58

For further information and commentary from linus on the Malinowski Cylinder Collection, please visit the True Echoes website.

True Echoes: Malinowski’s 1915 – 1918 Trobriand recordings

The Bronislaw Malinowski 1915-1918 Trobriand Islands, Territory of Papua Cylinder Collection (C46) is a collection of five black wax cylinders (British Library shelfmarks C46/1397–C46/1401) recorded by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski between 1915 and 1918 during fieldwork in what is today Papua New Guinea. The collection came from the Museum of Mankind to the British Library’s National Sound Archive in 1985.

An example of one of the Malinowski cylinders

Above: An example of one of the Malinowski cylinders

This collection is part of the True Echoes project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Learn more about True Echoes in a previous post. This is the smallest, and most recent, of the eight collections within the project, and one of three from Papua New Guinea.

Malinowski (1884–1942) was born in Poland, and moved to London in 1910 to study at the London School of Economics under Charles Seligman and Edvard Westermarck. He also corresponded with Alfred Cort Haddon and W. H. R. Rivers at Cambridge. These were amongst the leading anthropologists and sociologists of the time.

From September 1914 to March 1915, he conducted anthropological fieldwork in Territory of Papua, the southern half of what is now Papua New Guinea, including three months on the island of Mailu. He made two further trips to Papua from July 1915 to March 1916, and from November 1917 to October 1918. For much of these second two trips, he based himself in the village of Omarakana on Kiriwina in the Trobriand Islands.

In his most famous work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), Malinowski described the kula, a ceremonial exchange system involving shell valuables that operates across the Trobriand Islands and throughout much of maritime Milne Bay Province. Many regard Malinowski as one of the founding fathers of British social anthropology, and Argonauts as a seminal work. He is often seen as the originator of the ‘participant observation’ method of ethnographic fieldwork, first described in Argonauts, which became a hallmark feature of the discipline. You can read more about this method on the Cambridge Encylopaedia of Anthropology website. He went on to teach anthropology in the UK, most famously at the London School of Economics, and subsequently at Yale in the USA.

Malinowski’s map of the “Kula District”. The Trobriand Islands are just to the left of the text reading “The Northern Massim”

Above: Malinowski’s map of the “Kula District”. The Trobriand Islands are just to the left of the text reading “The Northern Massim” (Malinowski 1922:30).

For his fieldwork, Malinowski borrowed a phonograph from Charles Seligman, as noted in Argonauts (Malinowski 1922: xix), and purchased 72 cylinders in London. We do not know of any recordings made during his first trip to Papua. At least four of the five cylinders in the British Library appear to have been recorded in the Trobriand Islands; one is dated to 17 July 1918.

In partnership with Prof Don Niles at the Institute of Papua New Guinea studies, we have been able to correct the metadata in our records and find out much more about both the songs and the performers through archival and historical research. This research is highlighted on the True Echoes website. We have been assisted in this research by Michael Young, Gunter Senft and linus digim’Rina. As both a Trobriand Islander and current Head of Anthropology at the University of Papua New Guinea, linus has given us his own perspective on these recordings in a document on the True Echoes website and accompanying blog post ‘Caulking the ethnographic gap – A Trobriander perspective on the songs, dances, stories and performers of the Malinowski Cylinder Collection (C46)’.

The recordings feature songs sung by men with no accompanying instruments. The cylinder boxes have some information written on them in blue crayon. Michael Young, Malinowski’s official biographer, has confirmed that this is Malinowski’s handwriting. For four of the cylinders, the song or genre title and performer’s name is written.  

For example, C46/1399 has the words 'Usi Tuma by Monakeu' and 'Ragayewo by Tokulubakiki' written on the side of the cylinder box.

The cylinder box for Usi Tuma (C46/1399) showing part of the notation in blue crayon

Above: The cylinder box for Usi Tuma (C46/1399) showing part of the notation in blue crayon

Malinowski wrote about both Monakeu - also spelt Monakewo - and Tokulubakiki in his diary and in letters home. Tokulubakiki was from the chiefly clan of the village of Omarakana; Malinowski described him as his “best friend” and his “favourite informant in Omarakana,” (Malinowski 1929:148. 161). In a letter to his wife, Malinowski noted that Tokulubakiki was “a decent, honest, straightforward man” (Wayne 1995:151). Tokulubakiki features in a number of Malinowski’s photographs.

Tokulubakiki and his wife Kuwo’igu in front of their yam house. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI_3_SOS_26

Above: Tokulubakiki and his wife Kuwo’igu in front of their yam house. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI_3_SOS_26

There is no information about the contents of the song or story of Ragayewo. The only time that Malinowski mentioned it is in his diary: in Kiriwina, on the evening of 30 June 1918, he “sat and wrote down and translated Ragayewo” (Malinowski 1967:295). We do not know what has happened to this transcription and translation.

Usi Tuma by Monakewo and Ragayewo by Tokulubakiki [C46/1399]

In 1985, a television documentary series on early anthropologists, Strangers Abroad (Central Independent Television) featured an episode on Malinowski’s work, Off the Verandah. The production team took at least one recording back to Kiriwina, probably 'Gumagabu by Paluwa' (C46/1398). An older man, Bwabwa’u, remembered Malinowski and translated this recording. Translation was difficult as the song was several generations old and used an archaic dialect. . In a letter to the British Library’s Sound Archive in 1985, producer Steven Seidenberg noted that the song was “about a man from Kiriwina who has been ship-wrecked … on Dobu [Island] and who has been eaten by cannibals (possibly for ritual sacrifice?). Gumagabu is the name of the man who has been cooked.”

Gumagabu by Paluwa [C46/1398]

Don Niles, Acting Director of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, said of the True Echoes project:

“In working with these early collections from Melanesia, we will gather as much information as possible about the recordings, from the cylinders themselves, the collector’s diaries, photographs, collected artefacts, and published accounts. We aim to contextualise the collections with information about the collector(s), their fieldwork, and their academic involvements. With this most basic information, we will attempt to reconnect the recordings with the people for whom they have the greatest significance: the descendants of those recorded and others whose traditions are represented. We very much hope that they will be able to tell us more about the music and the performers, their intertwined histories, as well as the recordings’ significance today.”

Vicky Barnecutt

True Echoes Research Fellow

Further reading:

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: Routledge. [British Library shelfmark Asia, Pacific & Africa V 10295]

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1929. The Sexual Life of Savages in Northwestern Melanesia. New York: Liveright. [British Library shelfmark General Reference Collection YC.1993.b.3568]

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1967. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. Trans. Norbert Guterman. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. [British Library shelfmark General Reference Collection X.809/4015]

Wayne, Helena, ed. 1995. The Story of a Marriage: The Letters of Bronislaw Malinowski and Elsie Masson. Vol. 1, 1916–1920. London: Routledge. [British Library shelfmark General Reference Collection YC.1997.b.1016]

17 December 2020

Public libraries in a pandemic year

Hand drawn collage illustration of people using a public libraryLiving Libraries Project Illustration

In the last days of January, as the first two Covid-19 cases were confirmed in the UK, I visited Newcastle City Library. I shared the lift with a tired-looking man hugging a rolled-up sleeping bag. He’d lost his job as a builder, and with that, his home, he told me; his mum had died suddenly and his “head was all over the place”. He was looking for Citizens Advice on the fourth floor.

In times of crisis, it turns out, people often head to their local library.

Together with my colleague Professor Shelley Trower, I spent several months in late 2019 and early 2020 visiting libraries across the UK: in Falmouth, Colliers Wood, Newcastle, Peterborough and Chester. The primary aim of our project, Living Libraries, was to investigate the changes – both positive and negative – that public libraries have gone through, particularly over the last ten years. We set out to understand and communicate something of the multifaceted, responsive nature of contemporary public libraries in the twenty-first century.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, run by the University of Roehampton, and supported by National Life Stories and five public libraries across the country, Living Libraries has assembled an archive of oral histories focused explicitly on public libraries and the people who use, work in, and run them. We interviewed forty-seven people in total: library assistants and Heads of Service, librarians and volunteers, security and janitorial staff, and other professionals in the sector, as well as library users of all ages. The archive, which will be made available by the British Library in 2021, preserves these voices in perpetuity – all speaking up in various ways for public libraries and their unique, and perhaps unexpectedly complex, societal role.

At Chester’s multi-million pound library and arts centre, Storyhouse, I met Jolyne, a young woman who explained how visiting the library had eased her severe anxiety and agoraphobia: without the library in her life, she said, she’d be missing “an actual life... there would be just a huge hole”.

Jolyne Thomas on Storyhouse, Chester (C1868/21)

Download Jolyne Thomas on Storyhouse Chester Transcript

Alan, a Digital Inclusion specialist who had recently taken on a new, paid role at Newcastle City Library after a long stint as a volunteer, talked me through the need for access to technology that many take for granted.

Alan Robinson on Newcastle City Library (C1868/39)

Download Alan Robinson on Newcastle City Library Transcript

In Colliers Wood Library, in South West London, I spoke to Baha, who came to the UK as an adult, teaching himself English from the autobiographies of “footballers and pop stars... Arsene Wenger, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, George Michael”. As the library’s security guard, he takes on some library assistant duties too, such as reshelving books, switching the computers on in the morning. Growing up in Sudan, without a public library system, Baha is now a staunch advocate for libraries: the government, he explains, “should send someone to public libraries just to listen. The elderly would come and talk to you, the young would come and talk to you. Everyone here has their own story.”

Baha Sideek on Colliers Wood Library (C1868/15)

Download Baha Sideek on Colliers Wood Library Transcript

Since my encounter in the lift in Newcastle, back in January, the pandemic has pulled everyone’s year off course. Public libraries shut their doors in March, before gradually re-opening from July, and adapting speedily to the current uncertain present: operating click-and-collect services, limiting browsing, reducing fines, making it easier to join from home. Yet, even as physical library buildings were closed, libraries and library workers continued to provide for their communities. And not only by performing the kind of public service you might anticipate: diligently sharing accurate information about Covid in the early days of the pandemic, moving toddler ‘Rhyme Times’ online from the start of lockdown, and supporting older, vulnerable or marginalised members of their communities with phone calls, e-books and audiobooks. The Dudley Home Library service distributed urgent prescription medicine. Cambridgeshire’s mobile library took hot meals to rough sleepers. In Aberdeenshire and Gateshead, libraries’ 3D printers were repurposed to make visors for Personal Protective Equipment.

The assembled voices of the Living Libraries archive illustrate that libraries are valuable not only for the vital resources they offer – accurate information, printing facilities, the internet – but for other, less tangible reasons too. For community. For comfort. Libraries are warm, safe spaces where everyone is welcome and no one has to pay. At least, that’s the ideal. Interviewees speak of a reality compromised by budget cuts, restructuring and increasing pressures stemming from other public services being closed. Many workers are, as one interviewee put it, “sick and tired of managing decline, and constantly having to find more and more, to the detriment of the service”.

Yet even as Covid-19 exacerbates an already stretched and difficult situation, libraries continue to provide a space for all kinds of people to come together, even briefly, virtually, or at a distance. People take problems of all shapes and sizes to the library – personal, practical, environmental, epistemological – searching for answers, advice or support that they are often unable to access anywhere else. “Libraries are alive”, Jayne from Falmouth Library told us – and they’re essential to our post-pandemic future.

Blog by Dr Sarah Pyke, formerly Impact and Engagement Officer for the AHRC-funded Living Libraries project, University of Roehampton, which ran from 2019 to 2020. To find out more about the project, please visit the Living Libraries project website or search C1868 at the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

Oral History of Jazz in Britain: Max Jones interviews Adelaide Hall

By Sarah Coggrave, Data Protection and Rights Clearance Officer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) Project.

In 1988, jazz author, radio host and journalist Max Jones (1917–1993) interviewed jazz singer Adelaide Hall (1901–1993) for the British Library project Oral History of Jazz in Britain (British Library ref. C122). The audio recording of this interview has recently been cleared for online release as part of our National Lottery Heritage Fund-supported Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project. Previous blogs about this collection focused on Kathy Stobart, Major James Howe and Champion Jack Dupree.

Adelaide Hall was born in 1901, in Brooklyn, New York, where her father, a piano teacher, introduced her to music from an early age. Hall describes an upbringing filled with musicians, instruments and music. Sadly she lost both her father and sister at a young age, and sought out work to support her mother. Her early successes in theatre enabled her to do this, and more.

In her interview with Max Jones, Hall describes three of the professional jobs that kick-started her career. The first, Shuffle Along, was a hit Broadway musical by Noble Sissie and Eubie Blake, which according to Hall, involved some dancing and a few leading parts. This was performed in New York in 1921. She later became part of an all-black revue called Chocolate Kiddies, and the group toured Europe in 1925. Some of the songs were written by Duke Ellington, with whom she would later collaborate on a career-defining recording of the song Creole Love Call in 1927. In this excerpt from the interview, she describes how this came about.

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 1

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 1

The third show that helped to cement Hall’s reputation as a performer was the Blackbirds production of 1928. Based on a production staged in London in 1926, starring Florence Mills, Blackbirds was created by Lew Leslie, who planned to develop the show on Broadway. However, his main star, Mills, died in 1927, aged just 31. Adelaide Hall took her place and became one of the show’s biggest stars in 1928, along with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, who she is pictured with below.

Adelaide Hall and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson

Adelaide Hall with Bill Robinson. Image from the Richmond Planet, 15 November 1930, sourced via Wikimedia Commons and licensed by CC-SA 4.0.

Blackbirds, like Chocolate Kiddies, took Hall back to Europe. This time her destination was the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris, France, where the show was a great success. She then spent much of the early 1930s on tour, both in Europe and in the U.S.A. on the RKO circuit. During this period Hall performed at the renowned Cotton Club, as well as being accompanied by a young Art Tatum on the piano, before he found fame. She recalls encouraging Tatum to accept his first big offer, in spite of knowing that she would lose a fine accompanist in the process.

Hall's accompanists also included Francis Carter and Bernard Edison, and the piano, as an object, became an important stage prop, when Hall began to request not one, but two pianos on stage when she performed.

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 2

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 2

Adelaide Hall cites her husband Bert Hicks (1924-1963), a British sailor born in Trinidad and Tobago, as a major support and collaborator in her career. Together they devised clever, creative ways to present her performances, and thanks to his language skills (which included French), they were able to buy and run a club called the Big Apple (La Grosse Pomme) in France. Between 1935 and 1938 the couple made this venue into a success with visitors and locals alike. Hall was the resident star, performing a cabaret show nightly. Here she describes making a dramatic entrance, from a spiral staircase repurposed by her husband:

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 3

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 3

Such was Hall's popularity, it would not have been practical to keep the club open without her, so when she decided to take up performance opportunities in the U.K., her husband came with her and they closed the club in 1938. They soon found a new home in the Old Havana Club in London, which they took over and renamed the Florida Club.

However, this new life in the UK had a turbulent start, and coincided with the start of the Second World War. The couple’s club was destroyed by a landmine in 1939, and Hall remembers an eerie premonition before the event, which earned her the nickname 'Miss Ouija Board'. Feeling somehow that something bad was about to happen, she told everyone to leave the club. Her husband Bert was in the cellar when the explosion occurred, although miraculously survived.

In spite of the war, Hall’s career continued to go from strength to strength, with recordings, performances, broadcasts and even her own radio show with the BBC. She appeared in an Oscar-winning film (The Thief of Baghdad), and later added television appearances to her credits. The interview also covers her stage performances in the 1950s, including Kiss Me Kate and Love From Judy, as well as the Duke Ellington Memorial and Eubie Blake's 99th birthday. She describes visiting Billie Holiday shortly before the talented singer’s premature death, as well as her friendship with Louis Armstrong and his then wife Lil.

At the time of the interview, conducted in 1988, Hall would have been in her eighties, and was still actively performing, with plans to record an album the following year. She describes having to take more care with health and sleep, but otherwise feeling as fit as a woman in her fifties!

The interview reveals a warm, funny and talented artist, with a great zest for life. In one of many touching moments she sings a song with friend and interviewer Max Jones and suggests they have a drink together.

I would like to thank Nick Jones for help with the rights to this collection (you can read more about Max Jones’s work on the Max Jones Archive web site), and would encourage everyone to check out Adelaide Hall's remarkable career. The British Library’s collections include other interviews, copies of Hall’s many recordings and even some recordings of live performances, as well as Iain Cameron Williams’s book Underneath a Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall (2002). Materials about her life and work can be found in various archives, including Indiana University (U.S.), Yale University Library and Archives (U.S.) and the National Jazz Archives in the U.K.

16 December 2020

True Echoes launches new research website

The True Echoes research project launches its new website today, providing access to in-depth research on the British Library’s extraordinary collection of Oceanic wax cylinders.

The website, true-echoes.com, was originally planned as an output for the end of the project. However, due to the impacts of COVID-19, particularly on international travel, we decided to bring forward the development of the site and adapt it as a valuable tool for online collaboration and research with True Echoes’ Oceanic partners. These cultural institutions in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia and Australia represent the countries from which the recordings originate.

True Echoes – funded by the Leverhulme Trust and BEIS – aims to reconnect the digitised recordings and increase their visibility and accessibility for the Oceanic communities from which they originate. The website will be a key factor in this. It will be used as a tool by fieldworkers during the participatory research phase of the project, enhancing understanding of the collections through local knowledge and cultural memory, and will remain available for individuals and communities to research and listen in their own time. It will also enable diaspora communities to access the research and recordings. Website users are encouraged to add comments on the collections, providing further information about the recordings and contributors.

Cardboard container for wax cylinder C46/1398 with inscription 'Gumagabu by Paluwa good' written in blue crayon

Above: Cardboard container for wax cylinder C46/1398 with inscription 'Gumagabu by Paluwa good' written in blue crayon.

The True Echoes website will also be a vital resource for those interested in the early history of anthropology; the cylinder collections represent some of the earliest uses of sound in British anthropological research and the earliest documentation of oral traditions from Oceanic communities. The cylinders were recorded between 1898 and 1918 and include music, stories, speeches and many different types of songs, including hunting songs, hymns, funeral dirges and lullabies.

The website’s current focus is the Malinowski Cylinder Collection [C46], five wax cylinders recorded by renowned anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea, during fieldwork between 1915 and 1918. Vicky Barnecutt, True Echoes Research Fellow, has conducted this research in partnership with Prof Don Niles, Acting Director of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies and True Echoes Co-Investigator.

Malinowski seated with a group of men holding lime pots. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI/3/18/2

Above: Malinowski seated with a group of men holding lime pots. Image courtesy of LSE Library: MALINOWSKI/3/18/2

Further information and resources will be added to the website throughout 2021 and 2022 as research is carried out on other Oceanic wax cylinder collections.

The website has been developed by Andrew Pace, who previously worked on the British Library’s Peter Kennedy Archive website, with direction and support from me.

The website sits outside of the British Library’s Sound & Moving Image catalogue and so provides an alternative platform for sharing in-depth research findings about the collections, including their historical contexts, provenance and value to originating communities today.

The website provides detailed information, where available, about performers, whose names were previously missing from the cylinder metadata. Maps highlight the variety of recording locations and journeys made by the original recordists. Contemporary photographs from related collections in other UK and international institutions further illustrate the collections, locations and contributors.

Rebekah Hayes

True Echoes Research Fellow

For further information about the True Echoes project, visit the True Echoes website or email the team at true.echoes@bl.uk.

British Library Sports Word of the Year 2020

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

In a move described as ‘unprecedented’ (a word we’re all too familiar with in 2020), the OED this year declined to nominate its Word of the Year choosing rather to provide a list of potential candidates. But, like the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards (SPOTY), I shall adopt the principle of Dinner For One – a British film, barely known in the UK, but a much-loved New Year tradition in Germany – and follow the ‘same procedure as last year’ in selecting the unofficial British Library Sports Word of The Year (SWOTY). Although pandemic-inspired vocabulary dominated sports media coverage this year (I first spotted furlough in the Guardian Sports pages in March, biosecure bubble in June and Covid-ball in August, to name but a few), I’ve restricted this selection to terms that reflect sport’s more enduring appeal. So, here are the ten nominees for SWOTY 2020, selected from a review of words and phrases gleaned from mainstream broadcast and press coverage in the last twelve months:

January (Vic Marks of England batsman Dom Sibley, Guardian Sport): 'England fans do not wish to watch any more repeats of the Nicker of Sibley.'

January (David Conn on the increasing influence of betting companies in elite sport, Guardian Sport): 'Football supporters, including young people growing into their love of the sport and its heritage, now have gamblification intervowen with it.'

January (Jamie Jackson citing Kevin Parker’s frustrations at Manchester City supporters’ perceived indifference to the Champions League, Guardian Sport): 'He’s playing into the hands of the ‘Emptyhad’ critics.'

February (Pommie Mbangwa’s commentary as England reached a score against South Africa of 111-2, Sky Sports Cricket): 'Nelson for two.'

March (Tumaini Carayol of Brighton manager Graham Potter’s post-match reaction to securing a long-awaited point, Guardian Sport): 'I hope it’s the old ketchup effect.'

May (Andy Brassell on the resumption of Bundesliga fixtures, Guardian Sport): 'The phrase Geisterspielen (sic) is about to become part of international, rather than just German, football.'

June (Robert Kitson citing Lord Myner’s review of RFU plans to introduce a salary cap, Guardian Sport): 'I’m certainly not saying they fell at the Melling Road.'

June (Martin Tyler of some footballers reaction when presented with a goal-scoring opportunity, Sky Sports): '[like a] jigsaw he goes to pieces in the box.'

Photo of jigsaw puzzle in pieces
October (Jonathan Liew of the England men's manager’s attempts to boost player confidence, Guardian Sport): 'You can see why Southgate is so keen to pump their tyres.'

December (Vic Marks of own final game of golf before second UK-wide lockdown, Guardian Sport): 'For my last shot on a golf course for at least a month I was confronted with a Dennis Wise.'

Inevitably, this year’s list comes from a reduced set of sources compared with previous years. As virtually no sport was possible for several months from March, broadcasters had little to offer beyond highlights reels and review shows, while newspapers typically reduced their coverage from multi-page pull-outs to one or two pages devoted to speculation about when sport might return and how it might need to adapt. Rather frustratingly, this year’s list therefore only includes four sports: golf, cricket, football and rugby union, although one of the entries attributed to rugby is in fact a horse racing metaphor. More frustratingly, the nominations also reflect the precedence given by sporting bodies in this ‘unprecedented’ year to (a) elite professional sport – possibly justifiable – and (b) men’s sport – extremely contentious, if depressingly predictable. In a year when sportsmen and women have united impressively in taking the knee to condemn racial injustice and inequality, the Library’s current exhibition highlights how the fight for a level playing field for women in sport, despite notable successes against the odds, remains Unfinished Business.

As ever, this year’s selection illustrates a range of linguistic phenomena and includes dialect (i.e. localised variants, e.g. pump someone’s tyres), slang (i.e. informal forms, e.g. Emptyhad and Dennis Wise) and jargon (i.e. specialised vocabulary, e.g. Nelson). Geisterspiele and ketchup effect offer a glimpse of the occasional welcome presence of languages other than English in British sporting discourse, while gamblification is a fascinating example of how we manipulate English grammar to create new words. The other three – Nicker of Sibley, fall at the Melling Road and jigsaw – are, I suspect, neologisms (i.e. unique expressions coined by the user for a one-off occasion), although fall at the Melling Road might enjoy wider currency. All ten demonstrate how sporting discourse in the press and broadcast media is a wonderful platform for exposing vernacular English to a mainstream audience.

The phrase pump someone’s tyres [= ‘to praise someone in order to boost their confidence’] might be unfamiliar to speakers of British English, but is common in Canadian sporting discourse, especially in relation to ice hockey, as confirmed by an entry at Wiktionary. Nelson [= (in cricket) ‘a score of 111’], originally an Australian dialect form according to the OED, is apparently a reference to Lord Nelson’s one eye, one arm and one leg (despite that not being an accurate reflection of his physical characteristics). As with many sporting terms it has gained wider currency and is now used throughout the cricketing world (i.e. parts of the Commonwealth) and a Nelson is considered, perhaps especially in England, an unlucky score.

As a former teacher of German, I’m always particularly excited to stumble across foreign words in English, hence the inclusion here of Geisterspiel [= ‘football match played without spectators’]. The word came to prominence in May when the German Bundesliga became the first major football league to resume competitive fixtures post-lockdown, albeit matches took place behind closed doors. Early reports of the phenomenon frequently include the original German word in italics or quotation marks, but a direct translation in the form of the calque, ghost-game, has now appeared twice in the Guardian this month alone. The fact it now appears in normal font suggests it has swiftly been absorbed into general sporting parlance, although a New Word submission to Collins suggests the Guardian’s use of a hyphen is not universal. Equally intriguing is ketchup effect [= ‘a period of minimal progress followed by a sudden wave of spectacular results’]. In Swedish, the expression ketchupeffkt is common in sporting circles to describe the conviction that a prolonged period of bad results or poor form can swiftly change to a period of sustained success, mirroring the frustration and anticipation we experience when pouring sauce from a bottle. It was even voted Swedish Word of the Day by The World News website in 2018.

Photo of ketchup bottle
Two forms, Emptyhad [= ‘Manchester City’s Etihad stadium’] and Dennis Wise [= (in golf) ‘deceptively awkward short putt’], capture the irreverent, tongue-in-cheek nature that often characterises sporting slang. Both require an intimate knowledge of recent sporting history and culture. Supporters of rival teams use the term Emptyhad to mock a perceived lack of atmosphere at Manchester City’s Etihad stadium for midweek Champions League fixtures, which are seldom as well-attended as one might anticipate, given the club’s fan base and recent dominance of English domestic football. Dennis Wise, on the other hand, is an ex-professional footballer, whose diminutive stature belied a skilful and combative talent, thus explaining the ironic nickname among golfers for a ‘tricky little five-footer’.

The neologisms, jigsaw [= (of footballer) ‘to display obvious signs of nervousness when close to goal’] and Nicker of Sibley [= humorous reference to the frequency with which England batsman Dom Sibley is dismissed caught behind the stumps], reveal a similar kind of linguistic playfulness. The image of a jigsaw puzzle ‘in pieces in the box’ is a wonderfully witty re-interpretation of the idiom ‘to go to pieces’, in the sense of to succumb to extreme nerves, in the corresponding box on a football pitch (i.e. the penalty box). In cricket, a ‘nick’ refers to a batsman making the briefest of contact with a ball, resulting in a simple catch to a wicket keeper or slip fielder. The fact one particular England batsman, Dom Sibley, became prone to ‘nicking off early’ explains the amusing allusion to the popular BBC sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley, which by strange coincidence reappeared on our screens this month. The other potential nonce-form, fall at The Melling Road [= ‘to fail at an early stage of an enterprise’] is an imaginative extension of the idiom ‘to fall at the first hurdle’. As all horse racing fans will know, the Melling Road crosses the Aintree Grand National course on the approach to the first hurdle, so to fall at the Melling Road is to fail both spectacularly early and embarrassingly incompetently.

Finally, disquiet at the increasingly close relationship between elite sport and betting companies is reflected in gamblification [= 'process by which gambling industry pervades sport']. Not yet sufficiently well established to merit an authorised dictionary entry, gamblification is included in the crowdsourced Macmillan Open Dictionary from January this year. Clearly a recent coinage, its pseudo root verb, gamblify, feels unnatural and is, I suspect, only really likely to occur in the passive – hence I’ve noted several examples of derived forms, such as gamblified and de-gamblified – but the noun, gamblification, is to date by far the most common.

Several of this year’s entries are captured in The British Library’s Newspaper and Contemporary British collections, making the Library an incomparable resource for monitoring vernacular language. As far as the winner is concerned, I’m extremely tempted by Geisterspiel, especially as it came a disappointing 8th in the Duden Wort des Jahres list (behind the rather predictable Coronapandemie), but I’m going to plump for ketchup effect. At the end of such an unprecedented year it seems to convey a refreshingly positive view of how the immediate future can improve beyond all recognition, contrary to evidence from the recent past. And ketchup is, after all, very much a seasonal colour!

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