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Archive Challenge: Toolkit from the American Folklife Center

This toolkit is primarily designed to assist organizations with hosting the Archive Challenge -- a program created by staff at the American Folklife Center to bring archival collections to life through contemporary musical performances.


So You Want to Produce an Archive Challenge at Your Institution?

Portland, Maine and Nashville, Tennessee singer and songwriter Mehuman performs the song "Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air" at the 2023 Folk Alliance International Archive Challenge Showcase in Kansas City, Missouri. She learned the song from a 1949 Alan Lomax recording of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Since 2015, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress has encouraged singers, musicians, and other artists to explore our archive. Through our Archive Challenge events, artists find a song or piece of music they love, put their own stamp on it through arrangement or interpretation, learn it, and perform it. We began applying the model at the Folk Alliance International conference, but the Challenge can work with a music venue, a concert series, a music festival, a university, an arts center, a podcast, a video blog, or any organization with the resources and knowhow to bring music to the stage, the airwaves, or the internet.

If you're reading this, it might mean that you’re thinking about bringing the Archive Challenge model to your archive or institution!

To make this work, all you need is:

  • an archive with audio, manuscript, or moving image collections of traditional music
  • artists who are interested in participating
  • one or more specialists who can guide artists through your collections and make recommendations
  • your own concert venue or online platform, or the ability to partner with a performing arts producer who can present the resulting performances live or online

To say more about this last point, the Archive Challenge model developed by the American Folklife Center has been implemented in several ways. Many of the specific Archive Challenge initiatives we sponsor end in a live showcase, at which musicians perform their pieces on stage in front of an audience. So, while we’re working with artists to identify songs they would like to interpret, we’re also planning for a live event at which the artists will play those songs. Since it's the most complicated type of Archive Challenge to implement, we're gearing this toolkit to a challenge that ends in a live onstage performance.

Most archives don’t have a fully integrated concert venue, or the necessary staff and equipment to run a concert. So you may have to figure out how to get your showcase onstage. This may involve collaboration with other institutions, or other parts of your institution.

Luckily for us, the American Folklife Center DOES have full-time staff dedicated to programming a concert series, and a venue built in to the Library of Congress. So the easiest way we found to put on a showcase was to program it as part of our regular concert series and turn it over to our concert production team. If your archive (or the larger institution where it resides) already programs a concert series, your natural first step might be to talk to your own production team.

However, it may be that you don’t have this option. The American Folklife Center has also collaborated with outside organizations to put its showcases on stage. Our most frequent collaboration is with Folk Alliance International, a music industry conference focused on roots-based music. The Folk Alliance meeting always includes showcase slots where individual artists and bands present their music, so the organization has the staff, expertise, and equipment on hand to produce our showcase too. There are many such conferences of music and performing arts presenters with whom you might be able to collaborate.

The Center has also collaborated with folk and world music festivals. Once again, they are already set up with the staff, expertise, and equipment to run a showcase, and they also have a built-in audience for it. They might welcome collaboration with an archive and they might be able to suggest artists who are already booked to play the festival, and who are interested in the archive challenge.

What's in this Toolkit

To help you stage a successful performance event, we’ve put together this Archive Challenge Toolkit, which contains:

At the bottom of each page you'll find pictures of performers which link to videos of their Archive Challenge performances over the years. Many of the photos within the guide pages also link to videos. In addition to being fun, they should give you a good sense of the types of events the Archive Challenge model can support.

So, welcome to the Archive Challenge Toolkit! Please look around. We hope you’ll soon be running your own Archive Challenge!

Selected Images from the Archive Challenge--Click the Image to Watch the Video!

The Barefoot Movement Performs "Early in the Morning"

This 2017 Archive Challenge video from the Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City, Missouri features Nashville-based bluegrass band The Barefoot Movement performing "Early in the Morning" from Alan Lomax's 1947 field recording of song leader Walter "Tangle Eye" Jackson and fellow prisoners Willy "Hard Hat" Lacey, "Little Red," and Benny Will Richardson at Parchman Farm in Parchman, Mississippi. Alan Lomax Collection, AFC 2004/004.

Hubby Jenkins Takes the Archive Challenge

Hubby Jenkins took the Archive Challenge during his Homegrown at Home concert in 2021. Watch the concert and an interview with Hubby at the link!

Andy Cohen Plays "Samson and Delilah"

This 2018 Archive Challenge video from the Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City, Missouri features blues musician and multi-instrumentalist Andy Cohen performing "Samson and Delilah" from Reverend Gary Davis's August, 1965 concert in Central Park, New York City, hosted by Alan Lomax. Alan Lomax Collection, AFC 2004/004.