Everett folk singer’s archive gets a home at the UW

Bob Nelson found his fishing poles. He cleaned his woodshop and sharpened his tools.

At 75, the retired Everett carpenter and well-known local folk singer is enjoying pastimes he has long neglected. He’s free to do that. His important work is done.

“I had some doubts it was really going to happen,” Nelson said Friday in his tidy home studio. It’s where he created a Northwest folk music collection that will live on for generations. I had visited his studio before.

Nelson first invited me in 2009 to hear about his labor of love, saving for posterity songs from the Seattle folk scene of the 1950s and ’60s. “My goal is to preserve this material so that 50 or 100 years from now, some future researcher will have these songs available,” Nelson said back then. “Otherwise, they will die with me.”

Those songs, voiced by Northwest artists and so evocative of their time — “Roll On Columbia,” “John Henry,” “Ten Thousand Miles,” “Rock Island Line” and dozens more — will not die. Nelson saved them.

Earlier this month, the digital archive Nelson worked on for years was launched on the University of Washington’s University Libraries website. Titled “Bob Nelson Collection of Folk Music,” it is a treasure.

On the site are 141 music tracks, more than seven hours of vintage folk music, recorded in living rooms and kitchens, at hootenannies and jam sessions, coffee houses and college shows. Artists include the late Walt Robertson, who in 1953 founded the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society along with Don Firth and others.

Nelson said Robertson, who had a 1950s show on KING-TV called “The Wanderer,” is perhaps the collection’s best known artist. Robertson, who died in 1994, performed with Pete Seeger and other folk music greats, and managed a folk club in Vancouver, B.C., called The Ark.

Nelson’s music is in the archive, as are songs sung by Sonny Terry, J.C. Burris, John Ashford, Linda Allen, Bob Gibson, Jesse Fuller, Ivar Haglund and many more.

Each artist has a page on the site, with a short biography written by Nelson. Those biographies are personal and wonderful. Of Bill Higley, who taught Nelson to sing at age 14, Nelson wrote:

“I met Bill in 1950 when he moved from Anchorage to Seattle with his new bride Verna. He soon took me under his wing and began teaching me how to play guitar and sing songs. In 1951, he became a disc jockey on KVI radio in Seattle. I used to go with him to the station on weekends, at four in the morning, where he did a live show. It was there that he fostered my interest in radio and folk music. … Bill had a simple, clear voice. His diction was impeccable, which reflected his many years of radio broadcasting. … He was one of a kind.”

On Friday, Nelson explained how he converted hundreds of reel-to-reel tape recordings into digital CDs. His studio has two computers, one linked to the UW, along with his reel-to-reel tape recorder and a machine that converts the analog tape format into digital CDs.

“Every couple of months I’d take CDs down to UW,” he said.

The original recordings where made a half-century ago. Nelson would haul a 60-pound Webcor reel-to-reel recorder with him to folk performances, and later use the recordings as he practiced his own music.

Working with him at the university were John Vallier, the UW Libraries head of distributed media services, and UW graduate student Lauren Work, who helped create the website while working on a master’s degree in archiving, Nelson said.

Hear the music

Click here to listen to Bob Nelson’s collection of folk music or sample a couple songs below.

What’s now online is roughly 10 percent of Nelson’s entire collection. “It’s a work in progress,” he said.

Nelson talked with other universities about the archive, but is pleased it’s part of the UW collection. Much of the music he preserved was recorded in Seattle’s University District.

He has been in talks with the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and said the actual tapes may eventually be housed there.

“I started with 700 tapes. This was a promise I made to myself all my life,” Nelson said of the preservation project. Whenever he moved, he would haul heavy boxes of tapes to his next home.

Now the music has a permanent home online, for new audiences to hear.

On Nov. 4, Nelson will perform a free concert at the Everett Public Library. He claims that the 2 p.m. show, part of the library’s fall history series, will be his last public performance.

He’s not finished with music, though. With the archive now online, he plans to produce short radio shows based on the history found in folk songs.

And after years devoted to his musical cause, he has time on his hands.

“I have two fishing licenses. And I’m finally starting to get my house maintenance done,” Nelson said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Northwest folk music

Everett folk singer Bob Nelson has created an online archive of vintage Northwest folk music. It’s part of the University of Washington Libraries digital collections. Learn about and hear the music at http://tinyurl.com/BobNelsonCollection.

Nelson will perform folk songs at a free concert 2-3:30 p.m. Nov. 4 in the Everett Public Library Auditorium, 2702 Hoyt Ave.

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