The James Madison Carpenter Collection is an extensive multi-media collection documenting British and American folklore. It contains mostly traditional songs, especially sea shanties and ballads, and folk (mummers) plays. It also includes examples of folk dance tunes, folktales, descriptions of traditional customs and dance, children's games, and dialect. Most of the items were collected during 1929–35 in England and Scotland. Other items were collected in a preliminary visit to Britain and Ireland in 1928, and from parts of the United States during 1927–28 and 1935–c.1943, including some items collected by Carpenter's students.

The collection is important for a number of reasons. It is one of the few folk song collections made in Britain during the inter-war period and the first to make extensive use of sound recording. It also contains many sea shanties recorded from the last generation of British and American (including African American) sailors who had used these worksongs at sea. There are rare and unique items of traditional song and drama in the collection, and some exceptionally prolific but previously unrecorded performers.

The collection consists of 

  • Papers – transcriptions of the words and music of songs and ballads, the words of folk plays, dance notations, custom descriptions, transcriptions of stories and dialect examples, children's games, essays, teaching materials, letters, lists, newspaper cuttings, and notes.
  • Cylinder Recordings – mostly field recordings of traditional songs, together with a smaller number of examples of mummers plays, traditional music, folktales and dialect.
  • Disc Recordings – Carpenter's back-up copies of the cylinders.
  • Photographs – including pictures of mummers play performers in costume, singers, and historic buildings, especially Scottish castles.
  • Drawings – pen and ink drawings of mummers play characters commissioned by Carpenter from George Baker, a rural labourer and amateur artist in Gloucestershire.

Further materials pertaining to Carpenter's life and work also form part of the collection which is now held at the Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C. (AFC1972/001).

Further information on the collection is available via the Library of Congress Finding Aid and the Carpenter Project's Online Catalogue.

We are delighted to be working in partnership with the English Folk Dance and Song Society during 2017–18 to integrate the digitised collection into the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library Digital Archive and to foster creative and innovative, engagements with it. Follow this project via the Carpenter Collection Goes Online Blog.