The J. Scott Odell folk music collection (1945-2016, inclusive) contains AV recordings, photographs, correspondence, writings, and other materials relating to Odell's career at the Smithsonian as a musical instrument conservator and researcher of American music traditions. The collection largely consists of materials relating to Odell's research trips (often combined with personal visits) throughout the Eastern United States. Research strengths of the collection include the history of the Appalachian dulcimer and banjo, the Smithsonian Folkways project "Black Banjo Songsters," musician and poet Burt Porter, and the Bread and Puppet Theater.
The J. Scott Odell Folk Music Collection, which includes materials dating from 1945-2016, documents the research, professional work, and personal relations of J. Scott Odell (b. 1935). Odell worked at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (NMAH) as a musical instrument conservator and traveled throughout the Eastern United States documenting a variety of musical instruments and traditions. The collection reflects his research trips and other travels; the development of exhibits and performance of music and dance at the Smithsonian; and the relationships Odell developed with the musicians, craftspeople, informants, and other people he worked with throughout his career.
Research strengths of this collection include notes, photographs, and recordings from Odell's fieldwork; extensive documentation of Odell's work on the Smithsonian Folkways project Black Banjo Songsters, in collaboration with folklorist Cecelia Conway; and materials pertaining to the Bread and Puppet Theater (based in Glover, Vermont). Significant places documented include southwest Virginia (Galax), nearby North Carolina (Shelton-Laurel), the surrounding tri-state area, and Vermont (Glover). Significant individuals represented in the collection include Odell, Burt Porter, Ralph Rinzler, and other well-known musicians. The most prominent instrument information in the collection relates to the banjo and the Appalachian dulcimer, although the American fiddle tradition and other instruments are also represented. Materials include photographs (negatives and prints), field notes, trip reports, correspondence, slides, writings, and AV materials. This collection may also be of interest to researchers of AV history and evolution. The wide variety of formats found in the collection maps the development of popular recording media. The collection includes open-reel tapes, Hi-8 tapes, DATs, mini-DV tapes, Betacam and Betacam SP tapes, VHS and SVHS tapes, cassettes, optical discs, mini-discs, and Zip discs.
This collection was initially established in 2008, when it was transferred from Archives Center at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (NMAH) to the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives & Collections (RRFAC), Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH). (NMAH Archives Center had received the collection from the Division of Musical History.) Since 2008, the collection has been significantly expanded, more than doubling in size between 2008 and 2016. (These additional materials can be found in Series 8, Accruals.) With these deposits, the scope of the collection expanded beyond Odell's Appalachian dulcimer research and instrument conservator duties to include his banjo research, travels, relationships with musicians (particularly Burt Porter), and involvement with the Bread and Puppet Theater.
The collection is arranged in eight series as follows: (1) Correspondence, 1963-1978; (2) Folk Instruments Research; (3) Collected Publications and Ephemera; (4) Collecting Trips; (5) Publications; (6) Sound Recordings; (7) Oversize Materials; and (8) Accruals. Within each series and subseries, folders are arranged thematically, alphabetically, and/or chronologically.
Series 1-7 reflect the order of the original transfer from the Archives Center, National Museum of American History. Series 8 (Accruals) encompasses several deposits made by Scott Odell of additional materials between 2011 and 2017. Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives staff, in collaboration with Odell, imposed order upon Series 8.
Researchers should note that, when performing research in Series 8 (Accruals), they might need to consult multiple boxes, even when working within a single subseries where the intellectual arrangement in the finding aid does not always align with the physical arrangement of the materials. This separation between the intellectual and physical arrangement is due in part to the order in which RRFAC received each deposit, the format of the materials (i.e., papers vs. photographs vs. AV items), and earlier digitization efforts.
Jay Scott Odell (b. 1935) was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, to Adalberta Lavoie Odell and Jay Geddes Odell. The family moved frequently throughout his childhood, resulting in Odell having lived at fourteen different addresses and attending seven different schools by the time he graduated high school in 1953. When the family settled in Mamaroneck, New York, in 1950, Odell met poet Peter Kane Dufault, and musician and poet Burt Porter, two figures who would go on to strongly influence his personal and professional development. It was on the advice of Dufault, for example, that Odell apprenticed with harpsichord-maker William Dowd after college.
Odell attended Middlebury College where he met his future wife, Dorothy "Dottie" Hiebert. After graduating in 1957, Hiebert moved to France and Odell took a position on the boat of Dutch writer Jan DeHartog before joining Hiebert to travel Europe. By 1959, they had returned to the United States (Boston, Massachusetts) and married. It was at this point in their lives that they became active in the peace movement and the early Folk Revival. Odell's relationship with Burt Porter continued, and he developed contacts with other musicians including Peter and Polly Gott, Tom "Tom Banjo" Azarian, Mike Seeger, and Tracy Schwartz. The Odells also became involved with the Bread and Puppet Theater group, founded by Peter and Elka Schumann, which established its primary location in Glover, Vermont, near Porter's property.
Odell is particularly notable for his work in musical instrument conservation at the Smithsonian Institution and his involvement in the development of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. In 1963, following his harpsichord apprenticeship with William Dowd, Odell was hired by the Smithsonian as a musical instrument conservator. Under Cynthia Hoover and C. Malcolm Watkins, he established a restoration workshop for musical instruments at the National Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History. Over the course of his career, Odell served not only as a conservator but also as head of a technical laboratory and, eventually, as the first director of conservation at the National Museum of American History.
Odell was a key figure in the shifting philosophy of the musical instrument department regarding its collections and acquisition practices. With Hoover, Odell helped establish and facilitate a concert series with the mission of "[taking] the instruments out of their cases and [letting] them sing" – a major innovation in museum programming. Odell's commitment to bringing music history and traditions to life manifested in the expansion of the Smithsonian concert series, his relationship with Ralph Rinzler, and his early involvement with the Festival of American Folklife, now the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Although his professional training was in working with historical keyboard instruments, Odell's lifelong interest in traditional and regional music had a significant impact on his career. Between 1964 and 1977, when Odell was head of the laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution's Division of Musical Instruments, he undertook a series of collecting trips throughout the Eastern United States to expand the Division's collection of traditional American instruments.
In 1964, Odell and Porter attended the Annual Galax Old Time Fiddlers Convention. Following this initial trip, Hoover and Watkins supported Odell's efforts to, in addition to acquiring objects for the collection, research and record the cultural contexts of those instruments. Over the course of these trips, Odell built personal relationships with many of the musicians and craftspeople with whom he worked, including the Melton-Russell family, Tommy Jarrell, and Fred Cockerham.
Odell retired in 1993, but continued contract work at the Smithsonian. Working for the National Museum of American History, he assisted with the care and description of the Museum's banjo collection, as well as the acquisition of the Grimes and Jeffries dulcimer collection. He has also maintained associations with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. In 1998, Odell co-produced a record through Smithsonian Folkways with folklorist Cecelia Conway titled "Black Banjo Songsters," which focused on the African American banjo tradition and featured many of the artists with whom Odell had built relationships.
Related Materials note:
Materials relating to Odell's career at the Smithsonian can also be found in the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA), particularly in the records of the NMAH Musical History Division.
Materials relating to the Bread and Puppet Theater can also be found in the archives of the Bread and Puppet Theater (via the Internet Archive); the University of Vermont; and the University of California, Davis.
Access by appointment only. Contact the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at 202-633-7322 for additional information.
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