I wrote earlier about efforts that have gone into preserving what are known as ephemeral films: productions geared for educational, advertising or other uses separate from theatrical releases. One of the largest online sources for these films is the Internet Archive, which has thousands of titles, many of which have long lived in obscurity. Now accessible in digital form, these films are open to discovery.
A colleague pointed me to a U.S. government film in the IA FedFlix collection, The American Scene Series, Number 11: The Library of Congress. It was made by the Office of War Information, Overseas Branch, around 1945. Over the course of 20 minutes it presents a remarkable portrait of the Library at that time. The film mentions the Library’s work to conduct field recordings of “unknown primitive singers” and has brief clips of two recording sessions.
One is of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, very well-known artists in the “acoustic, folk-oriented Piedmont blues style… ready-made for the folk festivals and college campuses of the 1960s.” The duo perform one of their signature songs, “Red River Blues” for about two minutes. The setting appears to be in a farmyard and shows two earnest recording technicians at work. It is an amazing scene, as the embedded video attests.
The second clip is also remarkable: Woody Guthrie singing “Ranger’s Command,” again in a rural setting with recording gear in evidence. The Guthrie clip is already on YouTube, but is no less compelling than the first.
I think I may spend more time trolling through these old films for such unexpected treasures. But only the digitized versions!