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Found Family in the Archives

Posted on March 23, 2017 by in The OFI Blog

The following is an excerpt from the 2016 Center of Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH) Annual Report written by CFCH Archives intern Ben McManus.  You can read the entire 2016 CFCH Annual Report here.

The Smithsonian’s vast collection of materials has always been a huge interest and inspiration to me. As a musician, collecting and learning from Smithsonian Folkways has been a key part in my musical education, in understanding the history of genres and the cultures they come from. Professionally, the Center has offered incredible, eye-opening insight to the world in which I want to pursue my career.

Coming from Wales in the UK, my six-month internship was focused on the preservation and digitization of reel-to-reel tapes in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives. This was a genuinely fascinating job, serving as a continuation of my background in audio engineering while broadening my experiences with library and archival work.

I was exposed to recordings old and new—some made as early as the 1940s—with a huge range of content: bird calls in the Amazon, sounds of trees, musicians of all kinds, poets of the 1960s, and fifty years of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

G. H. Chirgwin as The Black Eyed Musical Kaffir

One tape in particular caught my eye and opened up a puzzle of the past that I am now piecing back together. It contained dub recordings of English music hall performances from the early twentieth century. On the back of the box was a list of the performers’ names, including one “G.H. Chirgwin.” I recognized the surname as my grandmother’s maiden name, but didn’t think much of it initially. But after some research, I learned that George Chirgwin was my great-great-uncle!

My grandmother has passed, so there is little information about her great-uncle among relatives, but my mother recalls her mentioning a performer in the family tree. As I learned, he was a proficient music hall performer with a unique stage presence: he would paint his face in the style of an American minstrel but then play English songs on violin and banjo.

A few months later, I attended the yearly Banjo Gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, with assistant archivist Greg Adams. In addition to great talks about the history of the instrument, there were old banjos on display and lots of memorabilia. Here I happened upon an old card with a picture of George on the front. To think I may have never found out about him if I hadn’t traveled to the other side of the world for this internship!

In 2017 I will attend Aberystwyth University in Wales to do a master’s degree in library and information science, a decision inspired by my experience at the Rinzler Archives. In this field, I hope to continue making amazing discoveries and connections to the past, for my family and for the public.