Concert posters and newspaper clippings, rock 'n' roll records and archival photographs, Cajun tunes and handmade instruments: What sort of strange and wonderful university library would even hold such ephemera?
For the last 25 years, the Southern Folklife Collection, housed in UNC-Chapel Hill's stately Wilson Library, has become the ever-accumulating home to a variety of collections of music, writing, artifacts and other folk art. These aren't the highfaluting papers of academia, even if the aggregated resources have inspired volumes of them during the last quarter-century. Rather, the Southern Folklife Collection focuses on the average, well, folks who shape and create everyday culture.
The interest in the SFC stretches far beyond the campus and its academics, too. An archive open to outsiders, the SFC has supported films, books and box sets—even musicians from acts like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Wilco, digging in to learn firsthand about older styles and songs. The collection's four employees maintain a blog where they showcase and explain groups of strange and fascinating pieces from the vast assemblage—rare recordings from the first Eno festivals, seldom-seen photos of influential musicians, candid shots of ordinary people learning complicated dance steps. The Southern Folklife Collection is an academic institution dedicated to outreach.
Diving into the stacks, you'll find audio from local rock bands including Pipe and The Kingsbury Manx, early cuts from Dolly Parton, photographs and videos culled from across the South, even prints of posters made for local concerts by local artists. In 2012, the Collection acquired the materials of another 25-year-old North Carolina institution, Merge Records. Other notable collections include those of musicians Alice Gerrard, David Holt and Dom Flemons, News & Observer music critic David Menconi and folklorist Bill Ferris. About 250,000 pieces of the 300,000-item collection are audio recordings, curator Steve Weiss estimates, with another 3,000 videos.
In 1989, UNC acquired the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Collection from the University of California-Los Angeles after financial woes forced the school to sell some assets. Though Australian, Edwards was a music collector with a particular affinity for American country and folk music. When he was killed in a car wreck, his vast record collection went to a friend, who donated it to UCLA with the stipulation that the records could be used only for research. UNC combined the collection with its existing folklore archives, first assembled by Dan Patterson in the late '60s.
As for the next 25 years, Weiss says he'd like to see the SFC further its cataloging and preservation efforts—no easy feat, as the collection's mass of raw data continues to swell. Like the archives themselves, the overarching mission of the SFC continues to expand, too. One focus is preserving relics that might not fall under most people's definition of importance. There are plenty of poignant interviews, for instance, with average North Carolinians talking about their day-to-day lives. Taken together, they offer a rich picture of the complex cultural factors in the South. For example, the SFC's acquisition of area concert posters shows the rise of a thriving indie rock scene in a small Southern town.
"A lot of posters are created in limited numbers, and for the most part, they end up being plastered around the Triangle. After that, after a week of being out, they're taken down and sort of disappear," Weiss says. "In a way it's preserving a way of what happened in our community that can easily be gone."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stuff of the South."