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Robert and Molly Freedman Jewish Sound Archive

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  • Robert and Molly Freedman
  • Orthodox figures playing Klezmer music and dancing

The Robert and Molly Freedman Jewish Sound Archive at Penn is among the most important resources in the world for the study of Jewish culture, folklore, history, linguistics, and literature through the medium of sound. The Freedmans built the collection as a labor of love over the course of more than six decades and in 1998 donated it to the Penn Libraries. They continue to develop the collection and serve as ambassadors of its contents fielding questions from around the world.

The Archive contains musical recordings from around the globe in over a dozen different languages. It is particularly strong in its holdings of Yiddish folk and art songs, as well as liturgical, theatrical, vaudeville, and klezmer music. As a sound archive, the collection also includes field recordings, personal sound recordings, and readings of Yiddish literature by some of the great writers and actors of the twentieth century.

Among the most important features of the archive is a database of over 40,000 individual songs which are keyword searchable through the Penn Libraries' website. Constructed over four decades, this online discovery tool makes the Freedman Jewish Sound Archive an invaluable research destination for scholars, students, performers, composers, and the general public and has been acknowledged in many films, plays, audio albums, musical programs, and books. Faculty at Penn regularly bring their students to learn about the Freedman archive and show them how to research how a folk song may be transformed into a theater piece and then into an anthem of survival in ghettos and concentration camps.  The database is an unrivaled tool for finding a particular musician's recordings or locating biblical or political references in songs.

There are currently 5,923 albums in the Freedman collection. The recordings include 78, 45 and 33 rpm vinyl recordings; reel to reel and cassette tapes; video cassettes, primarily form the former Soviet Union, Israel and the U.S., one video cassette from Poland, as well as compact discs and DVDs. There are no early cylinder recordings in the collection.  The vast majority of the recordings are commercially released and under copyright but there are a few field recordings, friends of the Freedmans taping songs, a documentary by Robert Freedman’s mother describing her journey to America, a tape of Camp Boiberik songs, and tapes of Molly Freedman’s mother singing songs. New sound recordings in all formats are actively collected.

In addition to the sound collection, “ancillary files” include printed books, sheet music, and ephemera.   There are currently 500 volumes in the print collection and 1,510 pieces of sheet music including all of the compositions (all classical) of Helen Medeweff Greenberg which she gave to the Archive before she died.. There are also myriad dance folios, and other publications for instrumentalists (none of which have been catalogued).  The ephemera file consists of items not likely to be noticed or preserved, mostly from periodicals and the internet, crossed referenced to a song, album, personality, etc. in the database. There are some 2,000 items catalogued in ephemera. Many are letters from readers of the  Yiddish American newspaper the Forverts of the column titled  “Leyners Demonen Lider” (Readers Remember Songs). They show how the column functions as a kind of public reference service in which readers would request a song be identified, or a variant of a song, the text of a song or share any other relevant observation, hoping to gain the attention of the columnists, Yiddish song experts, researchers, and educators who would favor them with a response.

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