By GUHA SHANKAR
The Library of Congress was the site of a remarkable gathering of interdisciplinary scholars, musicians, artists and community representatives who came together on Aug. 15 and 16 for a public symposium titled “Laborlore Conversations IV: Documenting Occupational Folklore Then and Now.” The American Folklife Center’s (AFC) extensive research collections pertaining to occupational folklife and work culture provided a focus for the symposium.
Sponsored by the AFC in collaboration with the San Francisco-based Fund for Labor History and Culture, the symposium’s goals were to provide a forum in which to examine the ethnographic work of several generations of documentary field workers; to explore the use of archival collections for contemporary research on work and community life; and to analyze the challenges confronting labor scholars, advocates and community members in today’s global economy. A related aim of the gathering was to honor Archie Green, the “dean of laborlore,” who was given the Library’s Living Legend award.
The symposium began on the evening of Aug. 15 with the Library’s premiere of documentary filmmaker Anne Lewis’s 2007 film, “Morristown.” The documentary provides an in-depth, multifaceted view of how one Tennessee town experienced the impact of globalization, immigration and relocation to Mexico of various industries. Lewis discussed her experiences in producing the film and of her commitment to chronicling the perspectives of workers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Nick Spitzer’s keynote speech on Aug. 16 addressed the historical and contemporary relationship between workers in the skilled building trades in New Orleans to the music and culture of that city. Spitzer, who is a folklorist, university professor and host of the nationally syndicated radio show “American Routes,” played samples of the musical traditions as well as recordings of the recollections of longtime residents and veteran workers in New Orleans. Spitzer highlighted the resilience and creative spirit of New Orleans communities and their continuing struggle to rebuild after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Their struggle, in Spitzer’s view, is one in which all Americans should assist.
Other panels were equally timely. Bob McCarl, folklorist, professor of anthropology at Boise State University and convener of the panel “Social Justice, the Environment & the Ethics of Collaboration,” provided a particularly somber reminder of the dangers that confront workers in some industries. At the start of the session, he asked the audience to stand in remembrance of workers who had become trapped in a mine in Utah the previous week. The panel, comprising scholars and members of mining communities in the southern and western United States, discussed issues facing mining communities and researchers who work in those communities.
McCarl provided a retrospective analysis of pioneer scholar George Korson, one of the most prolific collectors and publishers of mining folksongs, folklore and cultural history. Dating from the 1940s, Korson’s rich collection of field recordings, manuscripts and other materials is housed in the AFC. The panel linked Korson’s focus on local economic and political concerns to larger global environmental and human rights issues in contemporary mining sites in West Virginia and Idaho. The panelists, who included community representatives Barbara Miller from Idaho and Elaine Purkey and Fred Williams from West Virginia, opened up several broad avenues for discussion. These concerned the responsibility of scholars and documentary filmmakers to engage in thorough fieldwork and alliance building in the communities in which they work; to focus on both tradition and change in these communities as technology shifts from handwork to mechanization; to analyze and more thoroughly represent the political and public contexts in which work cultures are situated; and to consider how best to represent community perspectives in the course of those collaborative projects.
Other presentations also drew on materials in the American Folklife Center’s archives. Carl Fleischhauer of the Library’s Office of Strategic Initiatives focused on the self-documentation methods employed by Les Stewart, rancher and owner of the Ninety-Six Ranch in Paradise Valley, Nev. Stewart’s home movies, which capture an insider’s perspective on ranching life in the West, are part of the collection of materials gathered by the AFC-led team of researchers as part of the Paradise Valley Folklife Project (1978–1982). Selected documentation from the collection is available on the Library’s American Memory Web site in a presentation titled “Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945–1982”.
Fleischhauer, who had been a fieldworker on the Paradise Valley project, presented his case study as part of the panel titled “Collecting and Contextualizing Laborlore.” The panelists, who focused on maritime traditions as well as ranching culture, addressed issues such as how to present labor culture and traditions to a broad public audience through museum displays, on the Internet and at live gatherings such as festivals. Especially interesting were the comments of community members Janice Marshall and James Lane of the waterman’s community of Crisfield, Md., on the Eastern Shore. The pair reflected on the ways in which their work with professional folklorists, such as co-panelists Elaine Eff and Paula Johnson, had helped them articulate and represent their intimate knowledge of community history and work traditions to the public.
The final panel of the day, “Expressive Culture, Work Culture and the Art of Representation,” considered the ways in which work is portrayed in art and the media. For example, Maribel Alvarez, professor of folklore at the University of Arizona, provided a thought-provoking case study of Mexican craftsmen who make figurines for the tourist market along the U.S.-Mexico border. The panelists debated issues of self-representation, the aesthetics and politics of portraying work culture for various audiences and the ways in which workers incorporate traditional and emerging technologies into their creative expressions of place and community history.
The evening concluded with a musical tribute to Archie Green and the presentation of the Living Legend award, which his son Derek accepted on his behalf. Several of Green’s colleagues, including emeritus professors Roger Abrahams and Daniel Patterson, along with American Folklife Center Board member Judy McCulloh, shared their reminiscences of Green. Folklorist Joe Wilson mediated a performance and discussion session with celebrated performers of old-time music Hazel Dickens and Mike Seeger. All three reminisced and shared stories about their various projects undertaken over the last 40 years with Green.
For more information about the symposium and to access webcasts of the welcoming remarks by AFC Director Peggy Bulger, keynote address and panel discussions, go to www.loc.gov/folklife/laborlore/program.html.
Guha Shankar is a folklife specialist in the American Folklife Center.