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Folk Music


The West Virginia and Regional History Center possesses the finest collection of early field recordings of folk music in existence. The earliest recordings date back to the 1930s and 1940s when field sound recording was in its infancy. Since many of the artists were then advanced in age, these recordings document traditions of performance technique and repertoire that date back to the nineteenth century. Included in the collection are examples of both accompanied and unaccompanied vocal music, as well as instrumental music for various combinations of fiddle, guitar, banjo, dulcimer, and other instruments. Musical genres include ballads, songs, dance music, and hymns, among others.

A selection of the folk music collection is available online in The Chappell Collection: Music from the Coalfields Digital Collection.

Searching the Archives

Field Recordings Collections

  • Most of the folk music field recordings in the WVRHC are organized into "archives" named after collectors who recorded the music
  • Each archive may contain many "collections," which are generally named after performers or recording events
  • Each collection is assigned a number
  • Many collections are inventoried to the item-level (song-level)

Alphabetical list of performers
Includes information about ages, occupations, performance media, etc.

Performers listed by collection number
Includes information about ages, occupations, performance media, etc.

Collection-level inventory of folk music archives (acquired prior to 1980)
Includes complete information about place and date of recording, sound quality, etc.
Please contact the Center to access this inventory.

Item-Level Description

To access item-level descriptions of collections 1-185, please consult:

Cuthbert, John.  West Virginia Folk Music: A Descriptive Guide to Field Recordings in the West Virginia and Regional History Collection. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 1982.

With the book's extensive index, one can research these collections by song title (including alternate titles), key topics of songs (such as songs about coal miners, death, marriage, outlaws and prisoners, railroads, etc.), genre, etc.

Using the Collection

The sound recordings in this collection are available for use in the WVRHC during all full-service hours. The reference staff will assist researchers with their requests and provide listening equipment and headphones.

Many of the materials in this collection have already been digitized. To request to use these materials remotely, please complete the WVRHC Digital Collections Request Form. All applicable reproduction and use fees can be found on the WVRHC's Reproduction & Use Fees webpage.

Selected Archives of Note

The Louis Watson Chappell Archive

Collection Nos. 1-88
Inclusive Dates: 9/1/1937 - 9/10/1947

Louis Watson Chappell (1890-1981) was born in Belvidere, NC, educated in English Language and Literature (B.A. & M.A.), and appointed to the WVU faculty in 1922. He began his study of traditional music about a decade earlier hunting ballads in the North Carolina-Virginia tidewater region. The 1933 publication of his "John Henry: A Folk-Lore Study" settled the controversy surrounding the origins of the "John Henry" ballad.

In 1937, Chappell purchased a disc recording machine, and over the next eleven years amassed an archive of West Virginia folk music of more than 2000 items, performed by over 90 different people. Of particular interest are the twenty-five discs of the legendary fiddler Edwin "Edden" Hammons, who performed for Chappell in August, 1947.

The Cortez D. Reece Archive

Collection Nos. 89-123
Inclusive Dates: ca. 1949 - ca. 1953

Cortez Donald Reece (1908-1974) served as a professor of music at Bluefield State College for over thirty years before retiring in 1971. During that time he established himself as a leading authority on regional Afro-American folk music.

The Reece Archive consists of duplicate copies of disc and tape recordings which Dr. Reece made during the course of doctoral studies from 1949 to 1953. Though the archive and collections within it are relatively small, nearly all forms of folksong found in southern West Virginia are represented. Reece's dissertation provides an excellent source of information pertaining to both informants and songs.

The Kenneth L. Carvell Archive

Collection Nos. 124-159
Inclusive Dates: ca. 1957 - ca. 1961

Kenneth L. Carvell was born in Andover, Massachusetts in 1925. A professor of Forestry at West Virginia University, he holds degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Duke Universities. Unlike other collectors represented in our collections, Dr. Carvell's recording activities were the result of personal rather than professional interest.

The Carvell Archives consists primarily of recordings of gospel music performed by the choirs and congregations of rural churches in Monongalia County, WV, at various musical events held between 1957 and 1961. Most prevalent are recordings of the Monongalia Tri-District Sings, or "Third Sunday Sings" as they were popularly called, which were routinely convened on the third Sunday of each month extending from September to June. The archive also contains revival music, as well as informal music-making in the homes of friends and acquaintances of the collector.

The Thomas S. Brown Archive

Collection Nos. 160-305
Inclusive Dates: 1970-1982

Thomas Spencer Brown (1930- ) received a PhD in music from Northwestern University in 1968, and taught instrumental and vocal music in schools located in Kansas, Nebraska, and Louisiana. In 1967, Brown was awarded an assistant professorship in Music Education at West Virginia University.

Attending folk festivals in the early 1970s, when there was a revival of interest in folk culture, Brown became acquainted with "serious students of folk art as well as the folk artists themselves". His interest piqued and, encouraged by the Dean of Libraries, Brown set out to make field recordings of traditional music in West Virginia to add to the folk music archives of the West Virginia and Regional History Center. 

The Patrick Ward Gainer Archive

A&M 3003
Inclusive Dates: ca. 1940s -1970s

Patrick Ward Gainer (1904-1981) was likely the most widely known folklorist active in West Virginia during the twentieth century. Raised in rural Gilmer County, he grew up in a family and community with rich oral traditions. After attending Glenville State Normal School, he entered WVU in the early 1920s when the university was a hub of folksong study. His teachers included John Harrington Cox and Louis Watson Chappell. Receiving both baccalaureate and master's degrees in English at WVU, he went on to receive a PhD at St. Louis University. He taught at St. Louis until entering the service during World War II. At the war's end, he accepted a position at WVU where he remained until retiring in 1972.

An indefatigable and outspoken advocate of West Virginia folk culture, Gainer actively collected folksongs and other folklore through his life in both manuscript form and via sound recordings. The Patrick Ward Gainer Archive includes a wide variety of materials performed both by Gainer's original informants and by Gainer himself, who was a famed performer in his own right.