When the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress was created in 1976, Congress used the following definition in Public Law 94-201, which created the center:
"The term 'American folklife' means the traditional expressive culture shared within the various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, regional; expressive culture includes a wide range of creative and symbolic forms such as custom, belief, technical skill, language, literature, art, architecture, music, play, dance, drama, ritual, pageantry, handicraft; these expressions are mainly learned orally, by imitation, or in performance, and are generally maintained without benefit of formal instruction or institutional direction.”
However, the center’s creation can really be traced back to 1928, when folklorist Robert W. Gordon established the Archive of American Folk Song in the Library’s Music Division. In addition to the recordings Gordon made while touring the country, the archive, now known as the Archive of Folk Culture, included the pioneer cylinder recordings of Jesse Walter Fewkes (the first ever made in the field), Frances Densmore and Helen Roberts, and the field recordings of ex-slaves and others made by the WPA and other New Deal agencies during the 1930s. Thus preserved are performances by both Native Americans known only within remote tribal communities and the legendary greats of the national folklore pantheon like Woodie Guthrie, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and Jelly Roll Morton. Today, the archive holds approximately 2,500 collections consisting of more than 100,000 sound recordings and three million items.