Skip to Main Content
Research Guides

Bob Nelson Collection of Folk Music: A History of the Collection

A guide to the artists and recordings represented in the Bob Nelson Collection of Folk Music.

by Bob Nelson

I was 13 when I met my first “folksinger.” His name was Bill Higley and he knew perhaps 10 chords on the guitar and had a small repertoire of about 50 songs. From that first exposure to this wonderful music I was hooked for life. For the next 10 years, I learned hundreds of songs, studied voice and became competent on the guitar. I also started recording the singers I met. With few exceptions, they were all great teachers who willingly shared their music and experiences with me.

Throughout my life I performed on stage often, taught guitar and performance techniques, and I built many lifelong friendships with other folk musicians. I also began recording many of these sessions. I well remember that I first recorded on a Bell and Howe (Howell ?) wire recorder, in 1950. By 1954, I had purchased a 60 pound Webcor (sp?) tape recorder, which I lugged everywhere. By 1963 I had amassed a small but growing collection of records, music books and most importantly, reel to reel tape recordings. For the next 46 years, I kept recording various hoots (hootenannies), concerts, jam sessions, and teaching sessions. Somehow, after fifty years of living and moving, I managed to hang on to all these tapes.

I retired from my life’s work as a carpenter in 2005. I knew then it was time to get serious about about archiving and preserving this material. After several weeks of uncovering various boxes of R/R tapes and cassette tapes, I began to appreciate the volume of this collection. As word spread that I was finally going to archive this material, other collectors started contacting me, offering me their own collections. All told, I started with 700 tapes.

I learned quickly to pick and choose carefully. I accepted only those recordings that I felt had special value. By now, the collection had grown to about 300 R/R tapes, and well over 400 cassette recordings.
By 2010, I was well on my way with the organizing and describing of the material. I started going through tape recorders … I burned up 5 machines until I was fortunate enough to acquire a custom built ReVox machine designed for my specific purposes.

To the average person walking down the street, a folk song is just a folk song. I’ve always appreciated Pete Seeger’s definition of a folk song as a “song sung by folks.” And yet when you immerse yourself in the material, you soon learn that not all folk songs are created equal. The field is immense. Just a quick glance tells you that the field of folk songs includes such subjects as: blues, Negro spirituals, ballads, love songs, murder songs, hanging songs, pirate songs, sea chanties, work songs, lumbering songs, songs of the sea, songs of unrequited love, songs of requited love, on and on.

Throughout my musical life, I’ve always been drawn to the ballads, the story telling songs. There’s always been something quite wonderful about these musical story tellings. Often the itinerate song writers have a special way of telling the tale that seems to capture the local flavor and sentiment of the event that didn’t necessarily make the history books. There are many historical events that remained known today only because of these folk songs, such as the “Mountain Meadows Massacre.” The Mormon Church officially banned the telling of this story of an 1857 event until the “underground“ singing of the song forced an official acknowledgment and apology in 1958.

You’ve only to hear the “Ballad of Harry Orchard” to learn that Harry was truly repentant for murdering Idaho Governor Stuenburg in 1911. And to hear the true Missouri version of “Jesse James” is to learn that even today the people still mourn his loss and wish for his return.

The process of archiving can be intense. After the organizing and cataloging comes the hard work of cleaning, listening to all the songs and stories on each recording, mending and splicing these sometimes fractured tapes. Then comes the digitizing process. Following that, one must document the event: where and when was the recording made, by whom, who was there, what is the correct spelling of the singer’s names, what is the song, does it correlate with other known versions … on and on.

In building my collection I’ve been guided by several thoughts: is this song really relevant and why; is the recording adequate to the task of posterity; is the recording credible; are their legal (copy write) issues. Another question I often ask myself is – am I letting affection and nostalgia cloud my objectivity?

After investing hundreds of hours of work, the final shape of the project has become clearer. These things sometimes define themselves. From my first early efforts, I knew that my primary goal must be to provide open access and free distribution. This is just a natural evolution of the nature of this folk music, and the folk singers themselves. I learned from them and they learned from me. It was an equal and thrilling give and take. Now, in the year of 2011, the technology has advanced to the point wherein these songs can be successfully archived and made available to the future folksingers, writers, historians, songwriters and anyone else who is interested in where we came from. I’ve always felt that if you know where you’ve already been, you have a good chance of knowing where you’re going next.

The completed accumulation of recordings come from four sources: Bob Nelson; Patti DiLudovico, Walt Robertson and Ed Bremer. The Bob Nelson accumulation numbers over 100 R/R recordings. They span the period of 1955 to the mid 1970’s. These recordings were mostly made in the Puget Sound area of Washington State, though some come from 1959 in the San Francisco Bay area of California. Patti DiLudovico’s recordings span the period of 1953 to 1983. This collection starts in Wichita, Kansas, and follows Patti’s travels out to Seattle and eventually into California. The Walt Robertson collection came from a three year period in the early 1960’s, when he was managing “The Ark”, in Vancouver, Canada. Ed Bremer’s tapes number just 12 and are quite unique. They all date from 1986, when the board members of “Sing Out Magazine” were in San Diego for their annual business meeting. These board members were the “shakers and movers” of the folk music field at that time.  During those two weeks, they performed on the local public radio station. Ed Bremer was the radio engineer for these broadcasts. 

My goal in offering you these recordings is to document what we sang, when we sang it, where we sang it, and a hint as to why we sang it. Enjoy.

Bob Nelson, September 2012