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History of the American Folklife Center

by Nancy Groce

History of the American Folklife Center Archive

The collections of the American Folklife Center Archive are among the treasures of the Library of Congress. Today, the Center houses more than three million items of ethnographic documentation that record the folklore and traditional cultural expressions of the United States and other countries throughout the world. The Archive includes unparalleled holdings of sound recordings (more than 200,000 hours in diverse formats), field notes and other manuscript materials, photographs, videotapes and other visual formats, and ephemera dating from the late nineteenth century through the present day. Most of the collection's materials were created in fieldwork situations by folklorists, ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, and other cultural specialists. Some worked as private individuals, others for the Library of Congress, and some others for other federal, state, or local agencies. The Archive's holdings continue to be enhanced through the acquisition of both new and long-standing collections.

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Robert Winslow Gordon
Robert Winslow Gordon, the first Head of the Archive of American Folk Song. 1928. Photo courtesy Mr. and Mrs. Bert Nye
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The American Folklife Center (AFC) was created by the United States Congress in 1976 to "preserve and present American Folklife," but its roots can be traced to the establishment of the Archive of American Folk-Song in the Library's Music Division in 1928. That year, the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam (1861-1955), invited Robert Winslow Gordon (1888-1961) to become a "specialist and consultant in the field of Folk Song and Literature." Gordon was already a devoted collector of American folk music: as a Harvard student between 1906 and 1917, he conceived of a "national project" to collect the entire body of American folk music. Leaving graduate school to pursue his dream, he traveled extensively throughout the United States recording folksongs with an Edison wax-cylinder machine and supporting himself through teaching, writing, and the occasional grant. He convinced Carl Engel, the chief of the Library of Congress's Music Division, that grassroots traditions should be represented at the national library. Through his efforts, the Archive of American Folk-Song was established with private funding, and Gordon was appointed its director. (For more about Gordon and examples from his collections, see the online presentation: Folk-Songs of America: The Robert Winslow Gordon Collection, 1922-1932).

Unfortunately, Gordon's position at the Library eventually ended when funding faltered. However, the idea of a national folk archive had taken root and it was revived when the Texan folksong collector John A. Lomax (1867-1948) came to the Library in 1933. John was assisted by his young son Alan Lomax (1915-2002), who in 1936 became the Archive’s first federally funded staff member. In 1937, Alan was promoted to "assistant in charge." On behalf of the Library, the younger Lomax undertook important collecting expeditions throughout the eastern United States, produced a seminal series of documentary folk music albums entitled "Folk Music of the United States"; and recorded legendary performers including jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton and folk singers Lead Belly (Huddie William Ledbetter) and Woody Guthrie. In the years that followed, Alan introduced audiences in Washington, D.C., and radio audiences throughout the United States, to the richness of America's traditional music and musicians.

Although initially established to collect and preserve American music, the Archive's holdings soon acquired an international scope. As early as 1935, Alan Lomax made a recording trip to the Bahamas, and soon other eminent collectors began to donate important recordings and materials from beyond the borders of the United States. Over the years, despite the prominence of the word "American" in the Archive's and later the Center’s titles and official descriptions, the collection has become increasingly multinational.

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Disc-cutting equipment
Disc-cutting equipment installed inside an automobile, used in Archive of Folk Song recording trips in the 1930s and 1940s.
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During the 1930s and 1940s, the Archive received another major infusion of material when John A. Lomax, Benjamin A. Botkin, (who succeeded Lomax as head of the Archive in 1942), and others associated with the Library of Congress participated in New Deal-era programs such as the Federal Writers' Project, the Ex-Slave Narrative Project, and the California Folk Music Project. Employing hundreds of researchers and writers, these economic relief programs initiated by the Roosevelt administration generated tens of thousands of recordings of traditional musicians and oral and written history interviews with Americans from all walks of life, which were eventually deposited in the Archive and other divisions of the Library of Congress.

One of John Lomax's most important contributions to the Archive was an arrangement whereby the Library loaned recording equipment to local researchers in exchange for "any records that he might obtain with it." For the remainder of the twentieth century, this arrangement allowed important collectors such as Vance Randolph, Charles Todd, Robert Sonkin, Eloise Hubbard Linscott, Zora Neale Hurston, Herbert Halpert, Helen Creighton, William Fenton, Melville Herskovits, Helen Hartness Flanders, Austin Fife, and many others to pursue their personal collecting activities while simultaneously enriching the national collection.

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Charles L. Todd with Mexican boys and men.
Collector Charles L. Todd with recording equipment, surrounded by Mexican boys and men at a migrant worker camp in California, 1941. From Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd & Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection. Call number AFC 1985/001:P16.
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By the 1940s, the Archive of American-Folk Song had expanded its documentary scope to include folklore, verbal arts, and oral history. Successive Folk Archive heads continued the politics and practices established by the Lomaxes – lending documentation equipment and supplies, publishing materials from the collections, and encouraging donations of materials from the United States and around the world. Benjamin A. Botkin (1901-1975), who headed the Archive from 1942 until 1945, helped to redefine and broaden the purview of folklore research to include ethnic studies, occupational folklore, and urban folklife.

The desire to distribute the Archive's holdings for public and educational uses led to the creation of the Library's Recording Laboratory, which produced the first releases in the seminal "Folk Music of the United States" series in 1942. In the 1950s, these early 78-rpm albums were converted and reissued as 33-rpm albums. New LPs based on the Archive’s holdings continued to appear through the early 1980s. In the 1990s, CD versions of many of these early recordings, as well as new releases from the Archive's world music collections, were produced and distributed through cooperative agreements with commercial recording companies.

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Ethnomusicologist  John Wesley Work, III
Ethnomusicologist John Wesley Work, III, above, contributed his 1938-1941 collection of African American blues and gospel to the Archive, and, in 1941, collaborated with Lewis Jones and Charles S. Johnson, collecting African American music in a two-year joint project between Fisk University and the Library of Congress. Their recordings form the online presentation "Now What a Time": Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals, 1938-1943.
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Duncan Emrich (1908-1977), head of the Archive of Folk-Song from 1945 until 1955, was another Harvard-trained folklorist and historian (like his predecessors Robert Gordon, John A. Lomax, and Benjamin Botkin). The growing reputation of the Archive following WWII resulted in a flood of requests for reference information and services from private individuals, the media, and publishers. Emrich argued vigorously for a larger staff to respond to the many demands of acquisition, processing, and reference. Although the Library failed to hire additional staff, it did name Emrich chief of a short lived Folklore Section within the Music Division. Emrich developed a visionary four-year plan for acquiring recordings from the American states not represented in the Archive and also actively sought to expand the Archive's foreign holdings.

Following World War II, the Archive was enriched by the acquisition of field recordings by a new wave of American collectors, including Wayland Hand, who recorded miners in Butte, Montana; Arthur Campa, collecting Hispanic songs in New Mexico; and Thelma James, recording minority communities in Detroit. Increasingly, collectors such as Anne Grimes (Ohio folksongs), Ray B. Browne (Alabama Folklife), Sherman Lee Pompey (Ozark folk songs and folklore), Joseph S. Hall (folklife from the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee), Harry Oster (Iowa and Louisiana cultural traditions), and Alan Jabbour (fiddling traditions), submitted their fieldwork on the new documentary medium of magnetic audiotape.

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Josh and Henry Reed
Henry Reed, age 19, plays banjo and his older brother Josh plays fiddle. Forms part of the online presentation, Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection recorded by Alan Jabbour. Photograph, ca. 1903, from the collection of James Reed, reproduced with permission.
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In 1955, Emrich resigned and Rae Korson (1901-1991) was named the new head of the Folk Archive. Korson, who had served as assistant and reference librarian to both Botkin and Emrich, and who was also married to the eminent folklorist George Korson, would serve as head of the Archive until 1969. She was particularly interested in improving reference service and publishing additional recordings from the collections. In 1963, she hired Joseph C. Hickerson to take the place of reference librarian Donald Leavitt.  During the 1950s and 1960s, the folk music revival led to renewed interest in traditional culture and the Folk Archive both nourished and profited from the proliferation of folk recordings, performances, coffee houses, and festivals. The Archive served as a major resource for many of those seeking tunes, lyrics, and stories and the collection’s higher visibility resulted in new donations and acquisitions.

Alan Jabbour (1942- ) followed Korson as head of the Archive in 1969, and was, in turn, succeeded in 1974 by Joseph C. Hickerson (1935- ). Hickerson, who headed the Archive until 1998, was an active folk revival performer himself and realized the importance of documenting and collecting material from the folksong revival and the burgeoning folk festival scene, which flourished in the 1970s and 1980s. Under Hickerson's leadership, special emphasis was placed on the organization and cataloging of the Archive's collections, the creation of listening tapes and finding aids to facilitate the research of visiting scholars, and the further production and dissemination of recordings. In particular, between 1974 and 1976, as part of the American Revolution Bicentennial program, the Library issued the first five of what would eventually become a fifteen-album series of topical albums entitled "Folk Music of America," edited by music historian Richard Spottswood.

The American Folklife Center

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Hethu'shka Society concert. Neptune Plaza, Library of Congress, Washington DC
Dancers interacting with the audience in the Hethu'shka Society concert. Neptune Plaza, Library of Congress, Washington DC, 1985. Photo by John Gibbs. Forms part of the online presentation, Omaha Indian Music. Following a successful concert on the Neptune Plaza in 1976, the year that the American Folklife Center was established, The Neptune Plaza Concert Series was begun the following year and continued until 1995. Currently the Homegrown Concert series presents performers from all over the US.
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In the 1970s, a number of factors — including the Bicentennial of the United States in 1976, a growing popular and scholarly interest in folk, traditional, and grass-roots culture, and an increased awareness and pride in the ethnic and regional diversity of the American people – contributed to a concerted lobbying campaign by cultural specialists, who believed the time had come for a national center devoted to the preservation and study of folklore. In 1976, the United States Congress passed the American Folklife Preservation Act, Public Law 94-201, which created the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, scholarship, training, live performances, exhibits, publications, and preservation. The Legislation also called for the establishment and maintenance of a national archive. Given this mandate, in 1978, the Library of Congress took the logical step of transferring the Archive of Folk Culture (which was founded in 1928 as the Archive of Folk-Song, and which by the 1970s was also frequently referred to as the Folk Archive) from the Music Division to the newly established American Folklife Center.

In September 1976, Alan Jabbour, who had served earlier as the head of the Folk Archive, became the first director of the American Folklife Center. In 1977, the first year of its operations, the Center launched two field documentation projects: the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project and the South-Central Georgia Folklife Project. In subsequent years, the Center undertook large cultural heritage survey projects in northern Maine; in Lowell, Massachusetts; in the New Jersey Pine Barrens; in Paterson, New Jersey; along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina; at the New River Gorge, in West Virginia; in Paradise Valley of northern Nevada; and in various other sites throughout the United States.

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Mountain Chief of the Blackfoot Tribe listens to a cylinder recording of a Blackfoot song made by Frances Densmore
Mountain Chief of the Blackfoot Tribe listens to a cylinder recording of a Blackfoot song made by Frances Densmore (left), 1906. Library of Congress.
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In addition to documentation projects, the American Folklife Center launched other major initiatives. For example, in 1979, the Folklife Center launched the ambitious Federal Cylinder Project, which copied more than ten thousand wax cylinders and cylinder-based recordings of ethnographic materials dating from the 1890s through the 1930s onto preservation tape. Among the transfer materials were valuable early recordings of the music and lore of Native American cultures, many of which were initially made by the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology.  In 2000, the Save Our Sounds audio preservation project, launched jointly by the American Folklife Center and the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, continued to set standards and guidelines, and to oversee the preservation of historically important audio documents. The Center also sponsors an active program of lectures, concerts, and symposia on folklife topics, which are recorded and added to the holdings of the Library of Congress.

Since the 1978 transfer of the Folk Archive to the American Folklife Center, archival holdings have continued to expand — both from documentation initiatives undertaken by the Center itself and, of even greater importance in recent years, from the acquisition of major collections from outside fieldworkers, scholars, and public folklife programs. The initial pre-WWII focus on folk song has broadened to include an equal emphasis on story and other narrative forms, oral history, material culture, celebration and customs, and manuscripts and other ephemera related to all aspects of traditional culture. In 1981, the Archive was officially renamed the Archive of Folk Culture to reflect the increased range of its collections and the international scope of its holdings.

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Peggy Bulger with Navaho Veteran
World War II veteran and Navajo code-talker Keith Little with American Folklife Center Director Peggy Bulger. Photo by James Hardin, 2001.
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In 1999, Peggy A. Bulger (1950- ) succeeded Alan Jabbour as director of the American Folklife Center and that same year, the Center was granted permanent authorization by the U.S. Congress. In 2002, Michael Taft (1947- ) was appointed head of the Folk Archive, succeeding Joseph Hickerson. Under Bulger’s directorship, several important initiatives were launched:  In November 2000, the American Folklife Center established the Veterans History Project in response to Congressional legislation (Public Law 106-380) mandating that a collection of documentary materials be established at the Library of Congress honoring the nation's war veterans and those who served in support of them "so that future generations will have original sources of information...and may learn of the heroics, tediousness, horrors, and triumphs of war." To date, a specially hired Veterans History Project staff has amassed more than 60,000 interviews.

Other significant recent additions include the donation of over a quarter million items (including 8000 hours of recordings) by the International Storytelling Center of Jonesborough, Tennessee; a collection of 800 local documentation projects from throughout the United States, undertaken as part of the Local Legacies Project; a huge collection of material (including over 4700 hours of recorded performances from the National Folk Festival) from the National Council for Traditional Arts; tens of thousands of grassroots oral history interviews currently being collected by the non-profit StoryCorps project; and the Alan Lomax Collection, which contains more than 10,000 hours of sound recordings, 5,000 moving images, 5,500 photographic prints and negatives, and 150 linear feet of manuscripts.

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The Secret Place: Alice Phipps hooked rug
"The Secret Place: Alice Phipps,"
a hooked rug made by Mary Sheppard Burton as part of her Tell Me ‘Bout Series, 1994. Forms part of the Mary Sheppard Burton Collection online presentation. The rugs, each accompanied by a narrative, are among the more recent acquisitions of the American Folklife Center, added to the collections in 2006.
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In the days before the internet, the American Folklife Center maintained a very active program of publishing, including books, booklets, symposium proceedings, LP records, CDs, and other productions.  Lists of the Ameircan Folklife Center's historical printed materials and published recordings are available online.  Although many of these materials are currently out of print, some are available online, and some others can be requested from the Center.  As time passes, the Center plans to digitize and place online as many of its historical publications as is feasible.  Currently, the Center publishes  Folklife Center News, a newsletter containing information and articles about the Center and the Archive; current issues and many back issues are available online.

Since the advent of the world wide web, The American Folklife Center has concentrated on presenting its materials in online formats, to reach researchers and listeners more quickly and directly.  The American Folklife Center website features more than two dozen substantial online presentations containing thousands of items. It also contains links to over 120 webcasts presenting streaming video of AFC concerts, lectures, and symposia.  In 2007, the Traditional Music and Spoken Word Catalog was added to the website. This searchable database provides bibliographic information on approximately 34,000 ethnographic items, including thousands of sound recordings made between 1933 and 1950. 

Today, the Archive continues to actively add to its collections. It is truly unparalleled as the national archive of folk and traditional materials in the United States and its diverse holdings reflect the multicultural character of American society and the international scope of the Library of Congress. Access to the Archives is free and its resources are available to all researchers.

 

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