James Madison Carpenter (1888-1984) was an American folklore scholar who visited Britain during the period 1929 to 1935 as a Harvard scholar to collect a wide range of folklore and song material. He was born in Booneville, Mississippi, and graduated with first and master’s degrees from the University of Mississippi in 1913 and 1914 respectively. He continued his post-graduate studies at Harvard, strongly influenced by the ballad scholar G.L. Kittredge. Carpenter completed his doctoral thesis Forecastle Songs and Chanties in 1929. He had briefly visited Britain in 1928 to collect shanties and returned in 1929 thanks to a Sheldon Fellowship. During his time in Britain, he did not make any contact with British folklorists, and his work remained relatively unknown here until the late twentieth century. Upon his return to the USA, he lectured and taught in universities, including Duke University, North Carolina, becoming increasingly frustrated at his inability to get his British collection published. He retired to Boonsville and in 1972 Alan Jabbour purchased his collection for the Library of Congress.

Scope of the collection

Carpenter’s collecting in Britain was wide ranging, although the bulk of the collection focussed on ballads, especially in Scotland. In addition, he collected maritime songs, English folk songs especially in the south Midlands, carols, wassail songs, dance tunes and mummers’ plays. He used a Dictaphone machine as well as pen and paper in his collecting. In 1932, he was based in Oxford and there collected his first mummers’ play. Through 1933, he collected plays in Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire. He wrote that he travelled from town to town, collecting a play in each location. He transcribed song and dance tunes on his return to the USA.

Where the collection is located

The Carpenter Collection is still held by the Library of Congress.

The British materials in the Carpenter Collection have now been digitised and are available online on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website.

Catalogue details

The online digitised images can be browsed or searched. See below for a catalogue.

Further information

The Folk Music Journal, 7, 4 (1998) issue was dedicated to the James Madison Carpenter Collection, with a paper ‘James Madison Carpenter and the Mummers’ Play’ by Steve Roud and Paul Smith. In 2001, a team of UK and US scholars initiated the James Madison Carpenter Collection Project, hosted by The Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen. The project has produced an online catalogue of the collection: Since 2004, the project team has been preparing a multi-volume and genre-based scholarly edition of the collection. The volume that will cover the mummers’ plays was completed by the late Eddie Cass and it awaits publication.