We are pleased to feature Milwaukee guitarist Josh Lane on the Library as Incubator Project website.  Josh is pursuing a graduate degree in music from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is currently involved in a research project about the Avante Garde Coffeehouse, a historic music venue in Milwaukee.  Look for a series of posts about the project this summer. 


1. Tell us a little bit about yourself. How do you identify yourself as an artist (poet, fiction writer, painter, photographer, etc.), and what sort of work do you create?

I am a finger-style guitarist. Many people ask what that is. I do not consider finger-style guitar a genre of music but a genre of techniques for playing guitar. There is no all-encompassing definition for it, most end in unintended exclusions.

I expose myself to existing repertoire in the style, however, I self-compose rarely because I am still trying to build literacy in the style. Most of my time is spent researching vernacular music in the repertoire of guitarists born around the start of the 20th Century.

Josh Lane plays Bert Jansch’s arrangement of “Angie,” by Davy Graham.


2. What is/has been your relationship to libraries throughout your life?  Throughout your work?

I remember going to the library a lot as a child and making my mom checkout Three Billy Goats Gruff by Paul Galdone. My interest in libraries waned as a teenager. It really was not until I started to seriously study music that the library’s value became apparent.

I am a big believer in the power of place on an artist. In order to perform someone else’s work, I need some sense of the various contexts of their life, the composition’s life, broader cultural conditions, etc. I do a lot of comparative analysis between performances of a given piece, trace the lineage of traditional songs that have been arranged, and try to build artist biographies. Performance involves creating a character; it is not an attempt to precisely emulate another artist, but to understand what would violate the aesthetic or authenticity that drew me to them in the first place.


3. Tell us the story of a specific project that was incubated by a library– how did it start, and how did the library help to bring it to life? 

The most recent project involved transcription and typesetting of a performance of “Samson and Delilah,” by Rev. Gary Davis (1896-1972) that was recorded in February, 1968 at the Avant Garde Coffeehouse in Milwaukee, WI.

I wanted to establish a context for this performance in relation to his other performances. This involved building a list of all the known audio or video performances of “Samson and Delilah” (sometimes titled “If I Had My Way”) recorded, trying to obtain copies of each, and then performing a comparative analysis. A comparative analysis is an important tool in building an understanding of a piece of music, particularly when components of form or narrative can vary between performances. A few of the recorded performances I found were on out-of-print vinyl records that have not been reissued or on compact discs that are no longer sold. Interlibrary loan enabled me to locate things like the vinyl record Bring Your Money, Honey! (London, UK: Fontana) released in 1968, held at the University of Mississippi Library.

I then wanted to establish a context for this arrangement in relation to other settings of the narratives about Samson. The story comes from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament. I was familiar with title variants of “Samson and Delilah” and “If I Had My Way,” but searching in the biblio-discography Blues & Gospel Records, 1890-1943 (New York: Oxford University Press) revealed a few more, and also aided in compiling a detailed list of the commercially recorded variants:

The biblio-discography was held in the Reference section of the Music Library at University Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I also discovered the hymn “Wasn’t That a Witness for My Lord.” It contained verses about Samson with couplets near exact to those used by Rev. Gary Davis. The similarities of the two songs are best revealed in the performances “Sampson” and “If I Had My Way” by the Golden Gate Quartet.

Click to view a larger version of the full hymn.

The hymn was first collected and published in 1907 by Emily Hallowell in Calhoun Plantation Songs (Boston: C.W. Thompson & Co.) A copy of the second edition of the book is available in the digital collections of the Sibley Music Library at the Eastman School of Music.


4. What can libraries do to serve artists like you?

I would like more libraries to try to establish themselves as a venue for music, visual art, and film, as well as workshops that are dedicated to these mediums. I think artists play a key role in this by being open and amenable to how they can participate, and to what they can contribute. This is somewhat of a paradigm shift in the role a library can have in a community, and ushering it in will require some dynamic participation.


5. As an artist, what would your ideal library be like?  What sorts of things would you be able to do there? What kinds of stuff would it collect?

I would like there to be a more open platform to other forms of expression—I view libraries as containing mediums of expression. There is a certain amount of institutionalization in the idea that libraries are just repositories of books. I think libraries are still trying to break free from a time when books had a monopoly on commoditized mediums of expression. This monopoly no longer exists.  Gone too is the monopoly on the tangibility of commoditized medium: Do we choose an ebook or a hard copy? A streamed mp3 file or a vinyl record?

As a researcher, I have found an inequality in resource accessibility due to physical location. It creates a level of exclusivity that I associate with museums. I think inclusivity can be established through strategic collaboration. I would like to see smaller libraries be satellite sites for larger libraries; things accessible in the reading rooms of the latter could be made available in the reading room of the former. Devices like microfilm scanners that can be controlled remotely via the Internet could be extremely useful, but not unless there is collaboration between libraries to distribute the cost and maximize the content pool.


6. What resources and services do you use at your library (digital collections, physical collections, space, reference librarians, workshops, events, etc.)? How do you find out about them?  How do they help to support your work?

Aside from the resources and services I already discussed, having access to subscription-based services like JSTOR and ProQuest has been very useful. I am pretty sure that these things were pointed out to me by the music librarian at UWM, Rebecca Littman. She is a font of informational nooks and crannies and best practices for finding them.

I like looking through old newspapers.  I think it is important to find ways to understand a concept or event as it happened. Only reading modern perspectives on past events can be misleading. Hindsight is often blind to minutiae. To build an understanding of what was going on in the 1960s, musically I need read things printed during that time as much as things printed today.


7.  Have you shown your work in a library?

My work has never been displayed in a library. I think the setting would need to be right; it would need to be relative to what the library and what I am trying to assert or exhibit. I like settings that are generative for all involved. There is an air of legitimacy that I feel libraries have. I think some of that comes from how serious I take them now.


8. What does “library as incubator” mean to you?

Libraries are fertile ground for artistic growth but only if you let them.

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