The Library of Virginia
New Technology

Early Field Recordings

Early Commercial Recording Sessions

Over the Airwaves

Creating Traditional Culture

The Interplay of Musical Styles

"Old Times Tunes" in Southwest Virginia

The Family Band

Mill to Microphone

Piedmont Blues

Tidewater Tradition



Before the advent of sound recordings late in the nineteenth century, traditional music was documented in manuscript or printed forms. Music publishers printed piano arrangements of traditional American and British tunes to play in drawing rooms and parlors in middle-class homes. Published tune books documented the religious music sung in congregations across Virginia and the South. Publishers also recorded the songs of America's first indigenous musical theater-minstrelsy-which was itself partially based on the "collecting" of African American music in the South and Virginia.


The first systematic collecting of traditional music forms in Virginia by researchers began late in the nineteenth century. The most important of these collecting efforts focused on Anglo-American balladry and African American folksongs, especially the spirituals of the slaves. One of the first black spirituals to be published-"Let My People Go," sometimes referred to as "Go Down Moses"-was collected from escaped slaves who gathered at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, during the Union army's occupation in 1861. African American schools founded after emancipation such as Fisk University and Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) developed singing groups to raise funds through northern and European tours. Both sought to counter the distorted images of African Americans found in minstrel shows. Black folklorists and composers researched slave songs as a vital cultural and artistic expression of African American life.

Just Like John

Attorney Charles Montriou Wallace Jr. began collecting songs, mostly from Virginia, sung by African Americans in the 1870s. 
Library of Virginia

The Hampton Singers Two of the earliest collecting groups in Virginia were the Hampton Folk-Lore Society (founded 1893) and the Virginia Folk-Lore Society (founded in 1913). Alice Mabel Bacon, a teacher at Hampton Institute, established the Hampton Folk-Lore Society, and most of the society's members and collectors were students, graduates, and teachers at the institution, whom Bacon trained as folklorists. The work of the society became a popular feature of the institute's publication, the Southern Workman.

The Hampton Singers sang spirituals to appreciative audiences and raised money for the newly formed Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. ca. 1872
The Library of Virginia

One of the earliest state folklore societies in the United States, the Virginia Folk-Lore Society focused its early collecting on ballads as defined by Francis James Child in his five-volume work, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898). The society's archivist, Arthur Kyle Davis Jr., edited and published fifty-one ballads, songs that told a story, gathered under the auspices of the society in Traditional Ballads of Virginia. He also included versions of songs collected by Englishman Cecil J. Sharp, who traveled through Appalachia in 1917 and later published a collection with pioneer ballad-hunter Olive Dame Campbell. Folklorists regarded the Appalachian region as a prime area for collecting ballads in America, because they assumed that the isolation of the mountains had preserved the culture and songs of the British emigrants.

The Virginia Folk-Lore Society


The Virginia Folk-Lore Society's early bulletins emphasized the group's collecting of Anglo-American ballads. 
Library of Virginia.