Personal archives

demos the reetoreel machine
My article about the tape collection of my late friend Peter MacLean‘s will be published early in 2017 in a new Open Access journal, The International Journal of Traditional Arts (Open Access Online Journal).  I’m thrilled to be accepted into the inaugural issue of what looks like a vibrant, quality journal that will be available to everyone.

Peter’s  collection certainly is special, but all of my musical friends in Cape Breton have their own pile of audio treasures and lately I’ve been musing on their significance. I, too, have a personal archive of Gaelic singing, with over seventy tapes amassed since 1995 when I began to first began to visit Cape Breton.  These came to me in various ways: sometimes I sought out specific recordings of a song I wanted to learn, either from archives or from the equally voluminous tape collection of my fellow Gaelic enthusiasts; other times tapes came to me from friends eager to share the archival recordings that were once so hard to come by. In 1998 I began to record my own tapes at milling frolics and Gaelic song workshops, and then, as I got to know Gaelic singers, I began to visit them at home and ask them to sing specific songs for me, or songs of their choosing. In 2003, the year in which I lived in Cape Breton for seven months, I recorded with the most intensity, filming video interviews and performances for a future documentary. Like Peter’s collection, these tapes now provide me with a sort of virtual Gaelic community during the months between visits to Cape Breton, and support my memory of millings, ceilidhs and visits.

In his essay, “Unpacking my Library”, Walter Benjamin writes of the “spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories”.[1] He is referring to private book collections, but his observations on their embedded meaning resonates with my experience of the collections shown to me by my friends in Cape Breton. These collections include printed volumes and recordings but also scrapbooks and notebooks, photographs, and other souvenirs. There are several public archives in the province, which are increasingly important as the number of Gaelic native speakers declines.[2] The collections I have seen in private homes, however, are perhaps even more vital. In this essay, Benjamin suggests why this might be so. He writes,

One thing should be noted: the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner. Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due only in the latter.[3]

As Benjamin indicates, collected objects are most meaningful when viewed as part of a social process; his books are meaningful not just for their content, but also because of the act of their collection. Why did they choose to keep these tapes? Which ones are most beloved, most played, and which are shoved to the back of the shelf?

[1] Walter Benjamin: “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting”, in Illuminations, ed., Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 60.[2] This is discussed in greater detail in my dissertation, Chapter 4, Song and the Archive.  [3] Benjamin, 67.






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