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Memoirs of a Music Collector 

Renowned folklorist reflects on Ohio’s traditional tunes in new book published by Ohio University Press

September 29, 2010

When Julie Elman was a student at Ohio University in 1987, studying photography for an MFA, she encountered a woman whose talent and spirit would inspire her for the next 23 years.

Faced with an assignment to create a magazine from scratch, Elman focused on her newfound interest in the mountain dulcimer. Anne Grimes of Granville, Ohio, a nationally respected folklorist and musician, graciously accepted Elman’s request to be interviewed and photographed.

Grimes, in her 70s, also was known for her large dulcimer collection—rare and vintage instruments so impressive that they eventually would be donated to the Smithsonian Institution.  In the 1950s, she had collected songs and ballads from singers in Ohio, and the tape-recorded material had been duplicated by the Library of Congress. She had recorded a Folkways album in 1957, performed at the National Folk Festival, and regularly gave lecture-concerts about the lessons the songs taught about Ohio history.

Anne Grimes
Anne Grimes. Photo credit: Julie Elman

Elman spent one day with her, photographing her with her dulcimers. “She was so graceful and so beautiful,” Elman recalls of that February day in 1987. Of the many photos she took, one image really stuck with her, of Grimes in an old-fashioned dress, playing the dulcimer, laughter illuminating her face. “I pinned it up wherever I lived,” she says. “It’s a picture that made me really happy.”

Elman graduated and went on to a fruitful career as a newspaper designer, playing dulcimer on the side. When Grimes died in 2004, one of her daughters tracked Elman down in Virginia, and requested a copy of the photo for her mother’s obituary.

In 2007, when Elman was back in Athens as an assistant professor of visual communication, a Grimes daughter got in touch again. She requested help making contact with Ohio University Press about publishing a first-person book her mother had written about her travels through Ohio in the 1950s, collecting traditional music. Elman mentioned that she’d love to design the book. Many months later, the Press agreed to hire her on for the project.

“I tried hard to avoid making the book feel text-heavy,” Elman says. “I wanted it broken up in a way so people wouldn’t feel like they were opening a heavy tome.”

Stories from the Anne Grimes Collection of American Folk Music, written by Grimes and edited by her four daughters, was published in July. There are 40 chapters, each presenting an individual that Grimes interviewed. Elman’s design integrates small Ohio maps showing the home counties of the singers and musicians, lyrics right out of Grimes’s typewriter, scraps of paper with musical notation on it, and black-and-white portraits, including Elman’s photograph.

Throughout the design process, Elman continued to use that photo, now framed and hanging in her home, as inspiration. “I wanted to do right by her,” she says. “I just feel really honored to have the opportunity to do this.”

By Susan Dalzell

This story will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2010 issue of Perspectives magazine.