Making music amid the stacks

By day their notes are on paper and computers. After hours, their notes are on musical instruments and issuing forth from their vocal cords.

In addition to keeping the folk treasures of the Library of Congress in order, many of its librarians double as professional musicians, including a number of local folk artists who have worked with the most distinguished in the field.

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The librarians who moonlight as folk performers (or are they folk singers who double as librarians?) include Jennifer Cutting, who now works three days a week as an ethnomusicologist and folklife specialist at the archive. She spends the rest of her working hours creating electric folk sounds out of her Takoma Park studio.

“Having a job at the nation’s largest folk archive gives me a very big candy store,” said Cutting, who has worked there since 1987.

Melodies flow through Cutting’s genes. Her great-grandfather composed music, her grandfather conducted the NBC symphony and her mother played classical guitar.

Mondays through Wednesdays, Cutting helps people research music.

“I get a mix of academics, people who love folk music and performers,” she said.

Cutting remembered when Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder perused the archives one day.

“He was looking to incorporate more root influences in his music,” she recalled.

And another day, folk singer-songwriter Judy Collins “called from a recording studio and wanted some alternative versions” to a song she was recording, Cutting said. “We found several variants and we faxed them to her, and she went into her session.”

But Cutting needed to do more than help others with their musical endeavors. Emerging victorious from cancer spurred her to realize her creative dreams.

“After my bout with cancer, somehow the veil was ripped away and I understood that I needed to embrace my artistic side if I was going to have a fulfilling life,” she explained.

The three-day-a-week gig at the library means “I can run rehearsals Thursdays or use Thursdays for my songwriting, arranging, booking, publicity,” she said. “I am the first woman in my family to fully realize my artistic potential.”

She currently heads the Celtic music Ocean Orchestra and its smaller component, the Ocean Quartette, and has earned 16 Washington Area Music Awards (Wammies) from the Washington Area Music Association. She has also produced music for others, but plans for her own album remain on hold due to a lack of arts funding, Cutting said.

Another librarian has sung in one of Cutting’s bands. Lisa Moscatiello works by day answering queries from congressional staffers at the Congressional Research Service (CRS). The alto has also recorded four CDs and has won or shared in 23 Wammies going back to 1997.

“I’m definitely not a librarian, because I don’t have a library degree,” said Moscatiello, who studied history at Yale. “I used to make a living making music [but] I was starting to get burned out on music.”

As a respite from music, she went back to CRS, where she had worked right out of college. She still performs a few shows a month, with Ocean Orchestra, others and solo. But she no longer routinely scours the Internet at 5 a.m. looking for places to play.

“I like not having to lie awake at night worrying about where my next meal is coming from,” Moscatiello explained. “You are always pounding the pavement, which I didn’t mind, but after a while, it is very hard. If I didn’t have the opportunity to come back to CRS … to make money, I would not make it.”

Cutting acknowledged a debt to the former head of her division, Joe Hickerson, who worked at the library’s Archive of Folk Song (now called the Archive of Folk Culture) for 35 years until his retirement in 1998. He headed the office for 25 years and still frequents it for research.

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Hickerson “set the example for me on how you could be a career Library of Congress ethnomusicologist and extend that love of folk music into a rewarding performing career,” Cutting said.

Hickerson, 74, continues a singing career that preceded and succeeds his library career — he’s into his 50th year of folk singing. He toured North Carolina in June, and he has recorded three solo albums and appeared on several others.

“People assume my repertoire is vast because I worked here,” Hickerson said at the archive. “I like to disabuse people of that because it gives the impression I was using the taxpayers’ money for my own benefit.”

Actually, he spent his days doing everything from supervising hundreds of interns to answering letters, researching, cataloging and assisting the countless patrons who came to use the archive’s print and audio resources. His visitors included Harry Belafonte and the late folk singer Odetta.

The late Grammy award winner John Hartford (composer of “Gentle on My Mind”) one day was perusing 1830s fiddle-tune sheet music when the fire alarm forced an evacuation, Hickerson recalled. And Bob Shane and the late Nick Reynolds, two original members of the Kingston Trio, stopped by one day in the 1990s to see what the library had on them. “I got printouts of all the Kingston Trio stuff,” Hickerson said. “They are well-represented in the archive.”

The Kingston Trio’s visit was also a reunion of sorts, as Hickerson co-composed one of the trio’s hits, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

Pete Seeger, an acquaintance of Hickerson, had written the first three verses (flowers to girls to husbands), inspired by an Irish melody and lyrics from a historical Russian novel, And Quiet Flows the Don. “I wrote the fourth and fifth verses about soldiers and graveyards,” connecting back to flowers, Hickerson said.

Hickerson, then a summer camp music counselor, explained, “I knew kids would like to sing it, but it was over in three verses. It was too short to sing.”

He still receives royalties for the song, which became a hit several times, a standard at summer camps and an anti-war anthem.