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Women Raise Profile in American Folk Music

Dyann and Rick Arthur record a performance at the Portland Old-Time Music Gathering.

MusicBox Project is now in Library of Congress

When people think of musicians in the American roots genre, Allison Krauss is one of the few female stars who comes to mind. For the most part, history remembers the men in old-time country, blues and folk music - like Lead Belly, Muddy Waters or Doc Watson.

Now, a Seattle-area woman who studies American folk music and culture has made it her mission to change that and the Library of Congress has taken notice.

Dyann and Rick Arthur are in their element. They're at the Old-Time Music Gathering in Portland, Oregon. Impromptu jam sessions and multiple concerts are under way on three floors of this performance hall.

As Dyann prowls the halls, she calcuates the ratio of male to female instrumentalists. "This one's pretty well integrated, and then there are some of them that are primarily the guys."

Dyann plays piano and guitar though she made her living from mortgage banking. She retired recently, as did her husband, a pilot.

The couple discussed at length what they would do in retirement. They wanted something meaningful that combined music and travel.

The result was a trek through Oregon, Washington and 28 other states to collect oral histories and tape live performances of women making traditional music.

"They don't have mentors," Rick says. "They don't have an image to see themselves in that position. Early on we took that as kind of a philosophical goal to produce those types of images that women could identify with."

The endeavor quickly morphed into a nonprofit named the MusicBox Project. It currently has profiles of 81 American roots musicians.

"All forms of music," Dyann says. "We like to say A to Z, Appalachian to Zydeco."

The Arthurs donated a copy of their collection to the Library of Congress. One featured artist is vocalist and guitarist Lauren Sheehan of Portland. Sheehan trained as a classical musician in the late 1970s. Then one day, she borrowed a folk music anthology from her college library. It was a turning point.

The work of American roots vocalist and guitarist Lauren Sheehan is in the American Folklife collection at the Library of Congress.
The work of American roots vocalist and guitarist Lauren Sheehan is in the American Folklife collection at the Library of Congress.

"When I heard that breadth, I sought out folk festivals even more," Sheehan says. "That was because there was an archived piece of real music that spoke to me."

That series on vinyl included selections of 1930s-era recordings collected by the Library of Congress.

Now, through the MusicBox Project, an incredulous Sheehan finds herself in the American Folklife collection at the Library of Congress.

"I am only a little drop in the bucket of oral tradition, but I am a drop in the bucket. All this being in the Library of Congress is so cool because other people can hear that."

Dyann says part of her mission is to present role models for up-and-coming women players.

"With the educational piece that we hope to do as this thing goes forward, I would say three to five years out - is going to be allowed to go into the schools in a format that says, 'Look at that saxophone player. There's another one. I can do that too.'"

The Arthurs have also created a YouTube channel featuring more than 300 musical performances and Dyann is working on a documentary on the subject.