Hewlett Foundation Sees Value in Rare Folk Music

Have you ever heard of musicians by the name of Jim Boyd, J.M. Hunt, or Ethel Best? Thanks to a $75,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, you might someday.

The music professors at Holy Names University in Oakland have been transcribing hundreds of rare and forgotten folk songs by artists like these on a website. Many of these recordings originate from the American Deep South in the 1930s and others from unknown places and times. Hewlett's recent grant will allow the music professors at the Kodály Center to double their music database to include over 700 songs (Read William and Flora Hewlett Foundation: Bay Area Grants).

The next step is categorizing each song by origin, state, region, melodic range, tonal center, rhythmic element, etc. The sheet music for each song is posted and electronically playable, and arts programmer and former San Francisco Symphony executive Larry Larson makes sure that the songs are searchable in the database. This may sound like a tedious task, and it is, but there is no other folk song databases in the world like it.

The Kodály Center is named after Hungarian composer and educator, Zoltán Kodály, who believed folk songs should be sung, observed, and studied to learn from the past. Before his death in 1967, he explained, “Just as proverbs condense centuries of popular wisdom and observation, so, in traditional songs, the emotions of centuries are immortalized.”

Even though music is not one of Hewlett's grantmaking focus areas, the foundation apparently sees some value in this type of local musical endeavor. Hewlett's $75,000 grant will allow the center to expand and improve access to smartphones and tablets in the year ahead. For now, you can download a music reader (available on Kodály's website) and listen to a sampling of rare tunes online.