By Stacya Shepard Silverman
Growing up, my father worked night and day on a massive project which he called The Encyclopedia of Folk Music. Dad’s desk was in the middle of whatever small place we rented, if indeed rent was ever paid. His desk was the center of our household universe, piled high with papers, a Corona typewriter, stacks of reference books and sheet music, his ashtray over-flowing with cigar butts.
As a kid, I believed The Encyclopedia was going to make Dad famous, and he told me we’d have loads of money when it was published. He said he was listing thousands of folk songs in detailed entries. There would be nothing like it, or so I was told; the most complete collection of folk songs in existence, and he was the person to put it all together, having been a singer and songwriter back in the day, long before I was born in 1965.
Because my father couldn’t read music, a musician named Joe Tansman spent countless hours creating sheet music for Dad, he was at our house so often he became family. Unfortunately, Joe was never given attribution for his work, as far as I can tell.
Several years into the project, things went haywire. My mother said Dad sold The Encyclopedia to Billboard Magazine, but he couldn’t bring himself to give them the work. He kept the advance, using the money to rush us out of town.
When I was twelve, a man called the house calling my father a crook, and said he’d invested his life savings and wanted to be paid. That same year, more bad news: Dad said somehow his index for The Encyclopedia had been mysteriously burned and he’d have to start again, although there was no fire in or around our house. There was always a wacky reason why The Encyclopedia wouldn’t be published anytime soon.
Fast forward: I’m an adult trying to piece it together. My father died in 2009, and his encyclopedia isn’t with the rest of his papers. I began looking into things I was told, songs he said he wrote and his many pseudonyms. Recently I tracked down an older copy of The Encyclopedia a couple had invested in back in 1970. I knew by this time the work would never be published. I loved my dad and we were close, but I became obsessed with fact checking him, which started while he was still alive, and continues to this day.
Last summer, I pitched this complex story to NPR’s “Hidden Brain” podcast, and an episode was created based on decades of my research. They interviewed my contacts including a half-sister I met in 2011 (one of many children my father had abandoned). While “Hidden Brain” was in production, I purchased the 1970s copy of The Encyclopedia which became part of the story the show crafted.
Being featured on a popular podcast gave me a lucky break, I was contacted by Internet Archive. David Fox, Development Director, and Jeff Kaplan, Collections Manager had heard the show, and Jeff reached out to me, wondering if I’d be interested in having the work scanned. Brewster Kahle, the founder, approved the pro bono scanning of the work.
On my 54th birthday, 10 years after my father’s death, I took my copy of The Encyclopedia to Internet Archives and gave it to Jeff and Brewster. It’s hard to put into words the closure this gave me, knowing that at least after all the twists, turns and broken promises, Dad’s early copy will be online for people to use at no cost. I was told by Jeff Kaplan that he’d already found an obscure song in The Encyclopedia and performed it with his duo. I wish I could have been there to hear it!
There’s the last version of The Encyclopedia, which has mysteriously vanished. The boxes full of my father’s work were supposed to go to The Buck Owens Museum, but may have ended up in some unknown person’s storage. I’ve yet to track it down. That missing copy has more entries, and would take months to scan. But for now, I’m going to pause to enjoy the memory of my best birthday ever. Thank you to Internet Archive and all the wonderful people who made this happen.