Local partnerships establish folk music institute to serve global communities

Lecturer of music Jim Kimball is personally attuned with the history of folk music in western New York. He can recount the subtle shifts in regional square dancing traditions spanning over a century or describe the biography of a prolific local fiddler down to each performance. Kimball documented his research over the past 40 years by assembling a collection of thousands of folk music artifacts, most of which were stored in his attic until recently. Along with a group of faculty, students and community members, Kimball is currently in the process of moving the collection to a new home at the McClellan House on Main Street. The move is one of the first steps in establishing the Kimball World Music Institute, a project that interweaves efforts from the college and community to preserve and expand his life’s work.

According to adjunct professor of English Glenn McClure, the move and initial assessment of Kimball’s musical ephemera––which includes recordings of interviews with influential musicians, handwritten tune books, instruments and films of regional dances––was funded by a $5,000 grant from the GRAMMY Foundation.

Thanks to a bond he formed while researching with Kimball as an undergraduate student, McClure is at the forefront of the project, partnering with local arts council Livingston Arts and folklorist Karen Canning to apply for the grant. The Institute is currently on track to open on the upper floors of the Campus Auxiliary Services-owned McClellan House in the next two years after receiving support from CAS Executive Director Mark Scott and Facilities Manager Stephen Rondo.

According to McClure, the Institute will have two central parts. One side will focus on the digitization and preservation of Kimball’s massive collection––some of which date back to the Civil War and colonial era––for study by scholars and students.

The other side will be more “extroverted” with an emphasis on growing the collection globally and executing interdepartmental on-campus programs like concerts and workshops that may start as soon as this semester. The Institute will encourage students who are studying abroad to collect samples of world music in their travels in order to contribute to the Institute’s wider collection. McClure added a world music entry to the collection this summer when he organized and recorded a concert with support from the Study Abroad office in El Sauce, Nicaragua featuring popular local and national musicians.

“It’s one of the rare times where you can combine the development of local partnerships with the development of global partnerships and have it mean the same thing,” McClure said.

Kimball originally established the collection with global music in mind, accumulating many of its early entries while he studied in Poland in the early 1970s. He immersed himself in folk music traditions unique to communities in western New York upon returning to the United States and beginning his job at Geneseo in 1976.

Kimball traces the spread of musical techniques and compositions by word of mouth and tracks the legacies of musicians through the decades, preserving music and dance-related objects and traditions that may have been lost without his research. He started Geneseo String Band in his first semester on campus to perform and celebrate the folk music he was discovering.

“That’s interesting to me: what is special about where we are,” Kimball said. “I could be anywhere. I could be in Pennsylvania or the Adirondacks or Ontario County and I might find what is distinctive there. That’s part of typical folklore. It’s not standardized. It’s not the same from one end of the country to another.”

McClure added that from the President’s office to individual departments, both the college and community have banded together to show support for Kimball’s legacy and his dedication to serving Livingston County.

“Jim’s life and career is not only celebrated through being a great collector and writer and scholar and teacher––this notion of service has always been embedded in what he does,” McClure said.