In Remembrance.

In Remembrance

Ron Carne
Lila Gosch
Jessica Holland
Jim Saxe
Larry Thatcher

Gail Anderson Needleman

by Sam Whitingm, San Francisco Chronicle

When Gail Needleman arrived at Holy Names College in Oakland, she discovered a collection of folk songs scattered across hundreds of sheet-music scores. She already knew how to sing most of them, so she made it her academic mission to get these songs off paper and into digital recordings.

As Needleman advanced from graduate student to lecturer in music at Holy Names, she became a nationally recognized expert on the roots and variants of traditional American song. She knew sea shanties and spirituals and cowboy campfire songs and the songs that prisoners made up to pass the time. Upon request, she would sing Going Across the Mountain, a complicated Appalachian song with a different melody for each verse.

Twenty-two years into her online project, Needleman was still at work tracking recordings down on a grant from the Library of Congress when she collapsed at her home near Lake Merritt in late February. She never regained consciousness and died March 2 at an Oakland hospital. The cause of death was cardiac arrest. She was 73.

Her death was confirmed by her husband, Jacob Needleman, a retired professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University

She was a genius at music and created an entirely new understanding of folk music, Jacob Needleman said. She played the piano miraculously and sang miraculously and had the best mind I have ever encountered.

A month before her death, Needleman and her longtime Holy Names colleague Anne Laskey recorded Building Bridges through Listening: Primary Sources in the Music Classroom, which has since been uploaded to the American Folk Song Collection, a website with 350 field recordings accessible at the touch of a button.

After Ruth Crawford Seeger, Gail was the best transcriber of folk songs in the United States, and also had an incredible ear for the intricacies of rhythm, Laskey said, referring to the musicologist and stepmother of banjo-picking Pete Seeger. This collection would not exist without her.

Gail Anderson was born Feb. 11, 1949, in Denton, Texas. Her father, Miles Anderson, was a physics professor at the University of North Texas. Her mother, Harlene Anderson, was a botanist and pianist. Miles Anderson played violin and got his doctorate at Stanford in the late 1950s and brought Gail and her siblings, Barbara and David, to live in graduate student housing.

During family vacations, the Andersons would harmonize on songs by the Kingston Trio and other folk acts that were popular in the 1950s. They had plenty of time to rehearse during the three- or four-day drive back to Denton in a Dodge sedan.

Back in Texas, Gail would entertain family guests by standing on the bench at the family piano and singing from the Baptist hymnbook. Her parents enrolled her in piano lessons, and by middle school she had advanced to violin and viola. She skipped sixth grade and then skipped ahead to play in the high school orchestra while she was still in middle school.

At Denton High School, she was salutatorian and was involved in speech and drama, and after graduating in 1966, she moved to the Stanford campus for the second time, as a freshman majoring in English. She stopped short of her degree, having become involved in the Vietnam War protests on the Stanford campus.

This time she did not go back to Texas. Instead, she moved to a small farm in the mountains to raise goats and chickens and withdraw from society, her brother said. When she returned, she went into theater, first with a street troupe and then with PlayGround for the Performing Arts, a nonprofit educational organization for young people, headquartered on the Peninsula.

In 1996, 25 years after leaving Stanford, she returned to collect her degree in English, with honors. She was then accepted into graduate school of music education at Holy Names to pursue her master’s in music education.

Once she had her master’s, she stayed on as a lecturer. Her first innovation was to develop a Great Works undergraduate music curriculum as a four-year requirement. It started with American folk music and moved backward to the earliest known songs of medieval times and on up through the classical, Romantic and contemporary periods.

Gail was just so talented and thoughtful, said Logan McKinney, who took Great Works as a graduate student and now teaches at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. As a Mormon, McKinney grew up singing in choirs and majored in music at Utah Valley University. But he’d never encountered a musical mind like Needleman’s

She was fascinating, McKinney said. She would draw things out of the music that you would not see otherwise.

The American Folk Song Collection started with binders full of handwritten papers in the music resource center at Holy Names. Needleman and Laskey gathered up these papers and took them to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C

They listened to scratchy recordings from the 1930s and 1940s, and if they couldn’t find scores for a song, they transcribed it themselves.

It’s extremely hard to catch the lyrics on many of these recordings, and Gail excelled in deciphering them, Laskey said.

Needleman would listen to a song maybe 100 times if that is what it took to get the words down by hand. Then she’d start on the music score, which required 100 more listens, to get the words and notes down on paper.

She just had a very deep sense of the importance of music in realizing people’s humanity and connections to each other, Laskey said.

She just had a very deep sense of the importance of music in realizing people’s humanity and connections to each other, Laskey said.

Needleman and Laskey would stay a week in Washington and be at the Library of Congress when it opened at 8:30 a.m. They’d get kicked out nine hours later when it closed, then go work in their hotel rooms. But they would return the next day.

It took seven cross-country trips but in the end, Needleman and Laskey created a website of 710 songs, 350 of which exist in a recorded version.

With its powerful database, this is the primary online English language folk song collection in the world, Laskey said. It receives more than a million page views a year, and teachers use it to continue the oral tradition of passing folk music from one generation to the next.

Needleman is survived by her husband, Jacob Needleman, of Oakland; mother, Harlene Anderson, and brother, David Anderson, both of Denton, Texas; and sister, Barbara Anderson, of Williamsburg, Va.

Donations in her name can be made to the Kodály Foundation for Music Education, P.O. Box 318052, San Francisco, CA 94131


Gail Anderson Needleman, renowned Bay Area expert in American folk music, dies at 73. by Sam Whiting, San Francisco Chronicle, April 14, 2022. Link

The American Folk Song Collection, Kodály Center, Holy Names University, Oakland, California. Link

Building Bridges Through Listening: Primary Sources in the Music Classroom, presented by Anne Laskey and Gail Needleman, OAKE National Conference, March 3–6, 2022. YouTube Link

Gail Needleman: Music Is Something You Do, Interviewed by Richard Whittaker, Works Conversations, April 16, 2012. Link