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115 posts categorized "Archives"

15 January 2021

Grace Robertson, a pioneer of women’s documentary photography

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It was when Glenda Jackson fixed me with her frankly intimidating glare and barked, ‘Is that enough for you?’ that I knew I was in way above my head. What on earth was I doing on London’s South Bank, not only with a national icon of stage and screen but with one of the pioneers of documentary photography, Grace Robertson? What on earth did I think I was doing? Luckily Grace (who sadly died on 11 January aged 90) came to my assistance, accustomed no doubt to dealing with tricky customers, and calmly said that yes she’d got the images she needed, thank you. Glenda was pacified.

Those times in 1993 took us around the country for the National Life Story Awards, part of the International Year of Older People, to meet and photograph ‘champions’. Jackson, Richard Branson and Lord Soper were amongst them, and it was a huge learning curve for a young and relatively inexperienced oral history curator. Grace, then aged 63, agreed to take part in the project to ‘celebrate the role of older women photographers’ and I got to know her gentle and unobtrusive technique (despite her considerable height: she was six feet two inches).

Lord Donald Soper being interviewed by his granddaughter as part of the 1993 National Life Story Awards
Lord Donald Soper being interviewed by his granddaughter as part of the 1993 National Life Story Awards. Image courtesy of Grace Robertson/British Library

Grace was fearless but great fun and with her husband, photographer Thurston Hopkins, was enormously generous to me when Val Williams and I were starting up our Oral History of British Photography (OHBP) project at the British Library in 1990. At exhibition openings she’d say to me: ‘Have you met XYZ [famous photographer]’, and then whisk me off to meet my heroes. She and Thurston played an important part in OHBP: both were interviewed themselves (see the BL Sounds website at Grace Robertson and Thurston Hopkins), and Grace trained up to become an interviewer herself, capturing recordings for the collection with Mark Gerson, Penelope Anne Tweedie, Humphrey Spender and Margaret Harker.

Born in 1930, the daughter of journalist Fyfe Robertson, Grace Robertson was one of the few women photographers to work for the magazine Picture Post, which did so much to promote documentary photography’s role in documenting ‘ordinary’ lives before, during and after the Second World War. Her father gave her a Leica camera in 1949 and Grace worked as a freelance photojournalist for Picture Post (initially under the pseudonym Dick Muir) from 1951 until it closed in 1957. She was often allocated commissions about women’s lives. Her 1955 images of childbirth were truly pioneering and she later remarked that ‘I felt I was an observer of society. I never thought about my presence in it. My driving force in photographing women was to find out what made them tick.’

Photograph of women from ‘Mothers’ Day Off’, Picture Post 1954
From ‘Mothers’ Day Off’, Picture Post 1954. Image courtesy of Grace Robertson

Grace went on to work for other British and American publications including Life, retraining as a teacher in the mid-1960s, and only returning to photography in the 1980s. Latterly she lectured on women photographers and published an autobiographical monograph, entitled Grace Robertson – Photojournalist of the ‘50s. Shirley Read, another OHBP interviewer, remembers that Grace was also the Chair of ‘Signals, the Festival of Women Photographers’ in 1996, and ‘she could be formidable in that role’. In retirement she and Thurston moved to Seaford in Sussex where he died aged 101 in 2014.

Grace Robertson was interviewed by Alan Dein in 1993 for An Oral History of British Photography.

Blogpost by Dr Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History @BL_OralHistory

13 January 2021

Building a National Radio Archive - in Hastings

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The British Library's National Radio Archive pilot is collaborative venture, involving curators, technologists and three software and data partners. The day-to-day work of managing the capture of programmes, however, is mostly done by one person, our Broadcast Recordings Curator Neil McCowlen. Here he describes what it has been like keeping a pilot radio archive going, under lockdown, in Hastings.

Neil McCowlen recording radio programmes

Caption: Neil McCowlen recording radio programmes at home in Hastings

On Monday 21 March 2020 a new way of working began for most areas of the British Library, as well as many other workplaces in the UK as work shifted from office to home. This threw up many challenges. This was certainly so for the newly formed National Radio Archive at the British Library. It had started in September 2019, and in those first six months a new system had been adopted to record and archive radio programmes across 50 UK radio stations. As with all new procedures and set-ups, there had been challenges and teething difficulties as all parties began to co-operate together and a good working pattern became established. However, that all changed with Coronavirus lockdown. Now, the Library’s resources became one laptop in Hastings and remote working had to be established.

The radio stations themselves had to adapt to new working practices. The national stations continued their coverage of the main news and talking points of the day, but more importantly, the general interest programming became an important way for people to find entertainment and solace during days of isolation. For many people, being confined to their homes meant a dependence on radio for a voice to listen to as they faced a long period of isolation from friends and relatives. Keeping up with national news was important, but being aware of the local situation in their areas and nearby support and guidance became a necessity.

This is where local stations, and in particular, community stations, came to the fore. At first, many struggled with their studios having to close and volunteer presenters being confined to their homes along with the rest of the population. This proved a huge problem for the National Radio Archive too, as great community programmes were suddenly disappearing from the airwaves. The published schedules of many stations still listed shows that were now no longer being broadcast and automated playlist music now took their place. Trying to discover what was actually being broadcast became a headache, especially as only one person was now monitoring all 50 stations squashed in a corner of one room in a flat nearly a hundred miles from the St Pancras office. Social media provided a way of finding out about some of the new programmes being broadcast, but often blocks of time were recorded to see what programmes might be found in those slots, as many shows were replaced by chart music.

As things settled down, a lot of programmes were being produced at home where presenters set up equipment that allowed them to broadcast from a room at home. This led to some very interesting broadcasts. Suddenly street sounds outside windows and noises around the house were heard rather than the noise free recordings made from a studio. Some stations were able to provide equipment for some presenters, others made do with programs on their personal PCs or phones. This led to a large variety in sound quality. Many such programmes were archived by the NRA to show the range of quality across all stations.

However, the most important thing was that local information and help for the community was being broadcast. Some regular programmes returned, serving branches of the community generally not covered by national and local commercial stations. Programmes devoted to mental health, carers, those living with HIV or other specific heath matters, race, age and gender specific programming and hobbies and interests were being broadcast, giving people a chance to find ways to get them through the isolation of lockdown and discover new ideas to do in the home to boost their morale. Many of these programmes were initially discovered on social media as the schedules were still incorrect in the early months of lockdown, so it was a challenge to archive these shows, but over time patterns emerged and series became easier to follow and record.

National Radio Archive management system

Caption: National Radio Archive management system

One of the most important additions to the schedules were specific community programmes linked to COVID-19 itself and the help and advice that the health authorities within the community could provide the listeners. They also gave out helplines and gave ideas for leisure and fitness activities to help during lockdown. Stations such as Future Radio (Norwich), Resonance FM (South London), Academy FM (Folkestone), All FM (Manchester), Cornwall Hospital Broadcasting Network, Calon FM (Wrexham), Manx Radio (Isle of Man) and Radio Reverb (Brighton) broadcast such programmes, and Manx Radio also had their own government daily updates, along the same lines as Downing Street were giving out. BCB in Bradford adapted their local information show and added a further show in the afternoon to give out even more local information and stories. Siren Radio, based in the University of Lincoln, even broadcast virtual lectures for the students as term time neared its end.

These were all archived, and as the lockdown continued, stations were swapped within the NRA, so that other stations responses to the pandemic could be recorded, whilst still maintaining the maximum of 50 stations that can be recorded from at any one time on the system. Some local festivals and outdoor events had to be cancelled, but they then became virtual events and were covered by the community stations, often broadcasting parts or all of the events. 24-hour marathon broadcasts were set up to raise money, and broadcasts in different languages found within the local area became available again on several stations.

As schedules had not been updated since March on many station websites, the programme information still had to be obtained from social media, causing problems with keeping on top of the broadcasts being taken. Some replaced scheduled programmes at the last minute, due to technical problems at presenters’ homes, or they were unable to record their show due to family issues. So, even the more reliable of station schedules could not guarantee to be 100% accurate. A lot of metadata became generic and detailed programme information was no longer available on shows that were previously rich in available details. Therefore, the research to find that data became more labour-intensive.

Then there were technical issues with our equipment to contend with. There would be some days when the remote access would drop out and the laptop would need to be restarted. There could be quite a gap before a connection could be re-established. Most of the time the connection was stable, but new working practices had to be adopted. Internet speeds could become an issue, with some tasks taking longer to perform than on previous days. Meetings with colleagues were held via Zoom; technical problems were handled remotely (the NRA’s main software provider, SCISYS, is based in Germany).

The main thing is that even with a new way of working, the National Radio Archive continues to grow and has an invaluable range of broadcasts across this strange period in our lives. It mirrors the nation’s reaction to events in phone-ins, interviews and the programmes produced to help during lockdown. Radio has risen to the challenge of being a valuable friend in a trying period for many and has shown ingenuity and dedication in producing helpful and entertaining material. We are proud to say that those programmes and the story of this time in Britain’s history has been captured fully by the Radio Archive and will provide researchers with a rich vein of information in the future. As it now passes 140,000 recordings, the National Radio Archive continues to gather the nation’s words and give a fully rounded picture of not just Coronavirus, but all world and national events as they happen.

Neil McCowlen

21 December 2020

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

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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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Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

18 December 2020

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

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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

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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

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

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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

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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.

14 December 2020

True Echoes project: collaboration – communication – continuation

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A selection of the wax cylinders recorded in Papua New Guinea in 1898 and 1904

Above: A selection of the wax cylinders recorded in Papua New Guinea in 1898 and 1904.

This month marks the mid–point in the True Echoes research project, launched in July 2019. True Echoes is centred on the British Library’s Oceanic wax cylinder collections, recorded by British anthropologists in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. These collections represent the earliest recordings of Oceanic oral traditions. In recognition of their cultural heritage significance, they are included on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

True Echoes - funded by the Leverhulme Trust and BEIS - aims to increase the visibility and accessibility of these collections for people in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia and the Torres Strait Islands, Australia, reconnecting these rare and vivid recordings with the communities from which they originate.

I am working as Principal Investigator, and my team includes Research Fellows Vicky Barnecutt and Rebekah Hayes. We work in partnership with Oceanic cultural institutions, which represent the countries from which the recordings originate. These partners include:

  • Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies [IPNGS]
  • Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures – Australia [PARADISEC]
  • Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta
  • Solomon Islands National Museum and Archives
  • Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caledonia
  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies [AIATSIS]

The impact of Covid-19 has meant travel restrictions both internationally and within the Oceanic countries. However, the project has responded with determination and due to positive collaboration and communication with our UK and international partners and the academic community, we are now poised for the next stage of the project in 2021.

Collaboration – Travel restrictions allowed us to focus on historical research and our initial response was to target digitised content available through libraries and museums. During the first UK lockdown, there was some concern over access to sources held in libraries and museums, which had not been digitised. Concern soon faded as we were met with astonishing benevolence and the sharing of research from academics who have worked in these areas, including Heather Donoghue (UEA), Michael Young (ANU), Gunter Senft (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics), linus digim’Rina (UPNG), Tim Thomas (Otago), Martha MacIntyre (Melbourne), Jude Philp (Sydney/Macleay Museum), and Kirk Huffman (independent researcher).

Additional support from our partners, including Anita Herle and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge (MAA) and AIATSIS, as well as SOAS Library through their extended access to materials through digitisation, has resulted in a wealth of resources which were not previously available pre-Covid.

The result is a significant body of historical research developed by True Echoes Research Fellow Vicky Barnecutt and Don Niles, Acting Director of IPNGS and True Echoes co-investigator. These results are to be published via the upcoming True Echoes website.         

Communication - Contingency planning soon turned to the development of the True Echoes website as a means of addressing communication issues. Originally planned for release at the end of the project in 2022, the website allows us to share the outputs of historical research, metadata for the digitised cylinder recordings and photographs mapped from related UK collections. The website has been primarily designed as a research platform for use by True Echoes researchers and the first version will be launched this week to enable researchers in Papua New Guinea to prepare for fieldwork in early 2021.

Continuation - The True Echoes project is now poised to start the participatory research phase where local researchers will work with Oceanic heritage communities to learn more about the historic recordings and their contemporary meanings. This will also include the dissemination of research findings and the documentation of current practices through interviews and new audio-visual recordings. Reports from the field via our international partners will start in 2021 and we look forward to sharing these soon.

More information about the international partners is included here.

IPNGS is a national cultural institution founded in 1974, one year before Independence. They research, document, archive, and promote Papua New Guinea cultures with a focus on music/dance, ethnology, and literature. The Music Archive aims to reflect all music/dance-related research done in Papua New Guinea. It includes around 12,000 hours of recordings, as well as films, photos, and printed works.

Image of the IPNGS building

Above: Image of the IPNGS building

PARADISEC is a digital archive of records of some of the many small cultures and languages of the world. They work to preserve materials that would otherwise be lost. PARADISEC accessions, catalogues and digitises materials, and preserves digital copies. In this way PARADISEC can make recordings available to the people and communities recorded, and to their descendants. PARADISEC was founded in 2003 and their collection now represents over 1,200 languages. It is a consortium of the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University. Amanda Harris, Director of the PARADISEC Sydney Unit, is also a Co-Investigator on the project. Visit PARADISEC’s website for more information about their work.

The Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta – led by Director Richard Shing – supports the preservation, protection and promotion of Vanuatu’s cultural heritage. VKS plays a major role in the documentation of traditional knowledge and artefacts, surveys of cultural and historical sites, and the discovery of significant archaeological sites. Their National Film, Sound and Photo archive is responsible for important cultural collections of film, photo and audio recordings. Learn more about the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta via their website.

The Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta building

Above: The Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta building

The Solomon Islands National Museum – established in 1969 and led by Director Tony Heorake – preserves, protects and promotes local customs and traditions. Working with local communities, the museum aims to research and manage cultural and natural heritage, encourage economic development through cultural enterprise, and promote peace through respect of culture. The museum has supported many research projects, including the National Site Survey Project. These programmes enhance the development of the museum and Solomon Islands, and encourage a better understanding of the people, culture and environment. Learn more about the Solomon Islands National Museum on their website.

The Solomon Islands National Museum

Above: The Solomon Islands National Museum

The Tjibaou Cultural Centre – led by Emmanuel Tjibaou – researches, collects, enhances and promotes New Caledonia's indigenous cultural heritage. This includes linguistic and archaeological heritage, as well as contemporary forms of cultural expression, such as broadcasting and art. The Centre also develops indigenous artistic creation, and facilitates regional and international exchanges. The Centre - inaugurated in 1998 - includes exhibition spaces, an art centre, and a specialised multimedia library. Visit the Tjibaou Cultural Centre’s website for more information.

AIATSIS is a research, collections and publishing organisation, which promotes knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, traditions, languages and stories, past and present. AIATSIS has a growing collection of over one million items, including films, photographs, audio recordings, art and artefacts, as well as printed and other resource materials. AIATSIS, based in Canberra, also conducts community-based research in a variety of sectors, including languages, health, native title, and education. AIATSIS, originally established by an Act of the Parliament of Australia in 1964 as AIAS, was reconstituted in 1989 as AIATSIS. True Echoes is working closely with Lara McLellan, Audiovisual Collection Manager, and Grace Koch, Visiting Research Scholar. Learn more about AIATSIS on their website.

The AIATSIS building, Maraga

Above: The AIATSIS building, Maraga

As well as MAA, Cambridge, True Echoes is also working with the British Museum. This will help us to reconnect the cylinder collections with related materials dispersed across different UK cultural heritage institutions.

The research team will learn more about the collections as well as the development of audio within the field of anthropology. They will also learn about the impact of reconnecting Oceanic communities with their documented cultural traditions.

The True Echoes project will highlight the different cylinder collections over the next few months to share more about these fascinating recordings and the team’s research so far. In the meantime, please get in touch with us via our email address true.echoes@bl.uk for more information.

Isobel Clouter

True Echoes Principal Investigator

Curator, World and Traditional Music