After becoming Folklore Village’s executive director two summers ago, Terri Van Orman made a discovery at the site: Record albums.
Boxes of them. Stashed in a garage, buried in closets, set behind the furnace in the furnace room and left.
Though dusty, sometimes moldy, those boxes of records, Van Orman knew, were like treasure chests for the folk life center. Pressed into the vinyl recordings were generations of international folk songs and dance music — once collected, played and beloved by the late founder of Folklore Village, Jane Farwell.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Farwell’s birth. Known as one of the founders of the modern folk dance movement, Farwell established America’s first folk dance camps and training for recreation leaders in the mid-20th century. She founded Folklore Village, which offers year-round cultural and educational programming and a “village” of historic buildings near Dodgeville, in 1966.
Everywhere she went around the world, teaching folk dance or studying it, Farwell picked up records. 45s. 78s. And the more modern LPs, slipped into cardboard jackets covered with the fine print of liner notes.
Those records — 2,968 in all — are now being cleaned and archived thanks to a $4,240 grant from the Grammy Foundation.
The foundation, whose mission is to cultivate the understanding, appreciation and advancement of the contribution of recorded music to American culture, also awarded $5,102 to the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research at UW-Madison. The WCFTR used the funds to digitize and preserve rare recordings of music by the composer/lyricist Marc Blitzstein.
Stored in sturdy cardboard boxes designed to hold liquor bottles, the recordings at Folklore Village date back not only to the era of turntables and vinyl, but to a time in folk dance when recorded music was preferred to a live band.
“The beauty of it for these dance instructors was — the rhythm is always the same, the length is always the same, so they can choreograph the way they want and know the music will be there to support it no matter what,” Van Orman said.
Today, folk dancers are more accustomed to live music, the kind found at events like Folklore Village’s regular hoe-down dances, its Swedish Music and Dance Weekend, or its annual Festival of Christmas and Midwinter Traditions, which runs Dec. 28 through Jan. 1. (Dance, along with music and food, also will be highlighted this Saturday when the Friends of Folklore Village close out their centennial celebration of Farwell’s birth with a family-friendly evening called “ExtravaDANCEa.”)
Using the Grammy Foundation money, Van Orman bought a record cleaning machine and hired Christopher Bishop and David Natvig to help archive Farwell’s collection. The two started with LPs, ranging from an Oktoberfest recording issued by the La Crosse Chamber of Commerce to “Folk Songs and Dances of Iran.”
Each vinyl record is washed with a solution of distilled water, isopropyl alcohol and a tiny drop of laundry detergent. The record sleeve is replaced with one made from acid-free archival paper. Information from the album jacket is entered into a database.
“Sometimes there’s a lot of information. Sometimes there’s hardly any,” said Natvig, who is working on his Ph.D. in Scandinavian studies at UW-Madison and spent last summer helping with the Folklore Village project.
He and Bishop, who has a Ph.D. specializing in folklore, learned through folklorist and recently retired UW-Madison professor Jim Leary that Folklore Village needed help.
Natvig and Bishop can read a broad range of Scandinavian and central European languages, which is helpful when cataloging many of the folk records.
“But if you get into some Hungarian or Finnish, we just do the best we can,” Natvig said.
Occasionally they’ll put a record on the turntable, often to distinguish its language of origin.
Natvig pulls out an album that sparked his interest, titled “Immigrants: The American Dream Told By the Men and Women Who Lived it.”
“How valuable would it be to hear these people’s stories. Just to know that it’s here — for someone doing research on immigration in the United States,” he said.
The project is not to find records with great monetary value, but recordings with cultural value, Van Orman said.
“This is a treasure trove (where) nobody even knew whether we had glass or rubies,” she said. “Nobody had any idea what was even in here.”
Close to 700 LPs have been cataloged so far. Van Orman hopes to complete the archiving project by March, and will be putting the record collection databases online at folklorevillage.com in stages.
If any songs in the Folklore Village collection can already be found online, the database will link to those Internet sources.
Interest in international folk dancing has waxed and waned throughout the generations, but often has been linked to international understanding, Van Orman said. Along with Farwell’s record collection, Folklore Village owns hundreds of folk dance costumes and has even put some of Farwell’s well-worn dance shoes on display.
At one time, Folklore Village even had its own record label. A handful of recordings by the loosely organized “Folklore Village Orchestra” were produced from 1978 to 1985.
“A lot of it had to do with world peace” and the belief that “if you can love another culture’s music, if you can dance another culture’s dance, if you can eat their food and wear their clothes, you can learn to love them,” Van Orman said.
Folklore Village will house its vinyl collection in its downstairs library.
“Scholars could come here” to hear the newly cleaned records, she said. “People who just grew up here and loved the music and came here dancing every weekend could come here. They could find those old favorite songs and hear them again.”