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Surprises in the Jerome Robbins Audio Collection
Archival collections can harbor surprises — which makes the job of processing them fun! The personal archives of artists not only document their careers and personal lives, but often contain material reflecting their interests and their times.
Jerome Robbins, a choreographer of prolific and complex genius whose work spanned ballet and musical theater, was a long-time supporter of the New York Public Library’s Dance Division. On his death in 1998, Robbins willed his archive to the Dance Division, which was re-named in his honor. The Jerome Robbins Collection includes correspondence and other papers, artwork, film, video, and audio recordings.
In March, 2011, I began work on preserving and cataloging more than 200 of these sound recordings with the help of Oral History Archive assistant Cassie Mey, and generous financial support from the Jerome Robbins Foundation. This audio collection includes working tapes relating to Robbins’s theater works, audio notebooks, and music and other recordings from his personal collection. The surprise was a number of items relating to current events of the 1950s and ‘60s, which demonstrate how Jerome Robbins was stimulated and influenced by the social and cultural ferment of these years.
In particular, Robbins was keenly interested in the civil rights movement. One treasure discovered in the audio collection is “Project 65: Mississippi Summer,” a two-hour radio documentary produced in 1965 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, exploring the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. This detailed, probing documentary allows activists and locals, blacks and whites, mayors and tenant farmers and schoolchildren to speak for themselves, creating a visceral yet thoughtful, multi-faceted portrait of the cultural and moral clash surrounding the struggle for African-American civil rights. Fannie Lou Hamer describes being beaten in a Winona, Mississippi jail; a young volunteer from Wisconsin canvases for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; the president of the pro-segregation White Citizens’ Councils defends their purpose; farmer Hartman Turnbow describes his attempt to register to vote and the subsequent firebombing of his home. Produced less than a year after the events of the Freedom Summer, the documentary provides a rare contemporaneous look at the civil rights movement, long before its victory was assured.
Also in the Jerome Robbins Audio Collection is an archival recording of a 1964 gathering of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Greenwood, Mississippi, at which Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier (who are heard on the tape delivering speeches) appeared to present funds raised for SNCC; and radio news reporting about race riots in Detroit, Milwaukee, and other cities in July, 1967.
Another gem to emerge from the collection is a complete audio recording of the television program Night Beat, on which John Wingate interviews Jack Kerouac and Earle Hyman. Hyman discusses his struggles and triumphs as an African-American actor and his love of theater. Kerouac, on the occasion of the publication of The Subterraneans, defines Beat vocabulary for his host and discusses the controversy surrounding the “Beat Generation,” his writing process, his cats, his painting, and his study of Buddhism.
These extremely rare sound recordings are now available for research use on-site at the Library for the Performing Arts, along with a two-hour lecture-performance by Stephen Sondheim at the 92nd Street Y in 1971, a radio interview with Lee Harvey Oswald, a recording of Arthur Miller’s biblical musical Up From Paradise, archival recordings of traditional Japanese music, and other audio materials reflecting Jerome Robbins’s wide-ranging, ever-searching intellect.