Steve Green

Cowboy Cassettes

An Archival Roundup in Elko, Nevada

Other cartons and boxes were found to contain extensive documentation mixed with recordings in totally random fashion. Each item was carefully examined for clues regarding dates (postmarks were handy) and care taken to keep paper materials linked to the recordings before separating.
From dusty chaos in the basement to labeled orderliness in the archives, the tapes have assumed a new significance and have been transformed into a usable resource.

EPILOGUE: In October 2014, these cassettes and roughly 5,000 others at the WFC are in the process of being digitized. Since there are no signed releases for the submission tapes described above, they remain in legal limbo and probably won't be available via the internet. Still, they are a culturally rich resource to be used on-site for appreciating and studying the grassroots cowboy poetry renaissance of the late 20th century.

For more information about the Western Folklife Center and its programs, including the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, please visit our website at

Since 1999, I have been the archivist at the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada. In the fall of 2001, while consolidating organizational records, I came across several cartons of cassette tapes and related paper files gathering dust in a basement storeroom.
The materials had been received between 1985-1994 as work samples submitted by applicants to the Western Folklife Center's annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering (the event celebrated its 30th anniversary in January, 2014).
In addition to sound and video recordings, the submissions included photographs, correspondence, publicity materials, and handwritten songs and poems.
The tapes (mostly standard cassettes) contained cowboy poetry and music sent by people all over the United States, much of it self-recorded using inexpensive equipment.
The tapes had been separated from paper documentation that identified senders and provided context for understanding the submissions.
The photo below was part of a submission package sent by "Yodeling Lady Lolita" with her guitar-rigged motorcycle.
Tapes were clustered in packets by state and held together with rubber bands that were disintegrating.
Some insect damage was visible and paper envelopes were becoming brittle.
Correspondence from applicants offered insights about their motivations, aspirations and personalities, and provided critical information about the recordings themselves.
Most cassettes were still housed in their original mailing containers, while others had no containers at all.
Dust and dirt had permeated the cartons and had to be brushed off before opening the packets.
Shipping materials sometimes revealed other creative dimensions on the part of cowboy and cowgirl poets, for instance envelopes decorated with hand-drawn illustrations.
I sorted the cassette packets into piles by state. Years were not immediately apparent but labeling characteristics gave clues about what years the submissions had been received. There were many duplicates and some effort was required to determine which tapes were copies and which were originals. Sometimes handwriting and label styles helped.
Some documentation was relatively accessible. For instance, there were stashes of labeled folders. Matching the cassette tapes to the folders was still time consuming.
Work proceeded based on state groupings.
Slowly, the piles of cassettes began to take on a semblance of order, and improved labeling facilitated sorting and checking. All work up this point was based on visual inspection only.
Using a database program (Filemaker Pro) I was able to generate checklists allowing an overview of tapes and folders by artist, location, or on year-by-year basis.
Paper documentation relating to the tapes is now housed in document cases and acid-free folders, allowing research access to submission materials in ways not possible previously.
The cassettes are now organized, numbered, labeled and safely stored in media cabinets in the Western Folklife Center Archives, facilitating future use by staff and researchers.
Permanent numbers have been assigned to the cassettes and spine labeling clearly identifies the artists. Tapes are tracked in a shelf list database.
Many cassettes were labeled only on the outer plastic case, thus the actual cassette shells had to be labeled and J-card inserts created to avoid accidental mix-ups. I replaced many cracked or broken cases, and where J-card inserts were missing, I prepared new ones, allowing tapes to be identified by viewing the spine.