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American Folklife Center: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

"" Community Life and Celebration

Marine Supplies store  interior
In Wefing's Marine Supplies store, fieldworkers Nancy Nusz (right) speaks with a local engine mechanic while a store clerk looks on, Apalachicola, Florida, 1986.
(Florida Maritime Project Collection. Photo by David A. Taylor)

Stores such as the one shown here are often meeting places for members of the community and, in the case of this marine supply store, good sources of information about local fishing activities, practitioners, and traditions.

The usual connotations surrounding the word folklore, which was coined in England by William Thoms in 1846, involve oral traditions. In the United States, when the Festival of American Folklife (now the Smithsonian Folklife Festival) was first presented on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1967, and when the American Folklife Center was created by an act of Congress in1976, the term folklife was recognized as one that embraced not only oral traditions but also material culture and all the community customs, traditions, and events that make up daily life. Folklore and folklife remain somewhat confusing and elusive terms. But the distinguishing characteristic of all folklife expressions is to be found in their origin within, and connection to, a particular group or community.

In general, folklore begins at home, because for most of us the immediate family constitutes our first folk group and a good deal of knowledge is conveyed within it. All the folklife expressions heretofore discussed (song and music, stories, jokes, games, dance, foodways, and material culture) can be part of family folklore, which is, of course, deeply affected by ethnicity, religion, region, and socioeconomic status. Family folklore, as a special category of experience, is often invisible to its practitioners because it consists largely of the customary practices of daily life, which are sometimes referred to by all of us offhandedly as “just the way we do things.”

Sol Milshtein and family
Engagement party for Sol Milshtein and his American fiancée, Rose, in Luboml, Poland, 1937.
(Aaron Zigelman Foundation Collection. Photograph by Lillian Ziegelman Chanales)

Aaron Ziegelman left his hometown, Luboml, Poland, in 1938, when he was ten years old, and came to the United States with his mother and sister. One of the oldest Jewish communities in Poland, Luboml was obliterated during World War II. In 1994, Ziegelman organized a research project to engage archivists, anthropologists, and historians in the collection of information about Jewish life in Luboml, obtained from survivors and other sources. The resulting material, donated to the American Folklife Center in 2002, includes more than two thousand photographs, motion pictures, letters, maps, and oral histories that richly document everyday life in Luboml's Jewish community, capturing aspects of local schools, businesses, recreational activities, religious life, holidays, and weddings.


Family folklife includes such things as the nicknames given to children, the ways birthdays and holidays are celebrated, the planting and cultivation of a garden, practices governing the serving and eating of meals and assigning and carrying out of household chores, the arrangement of photographs in an album and the uses to which the album is put at family gatherings, and the family reunion itself, in all its agony and ecstasy. Although families may consist of mother, father, and one or more children, along with an extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and miscellaneous in-laws, recent folklore studies have also examined nontraditional family groups, such as single-parent households and gay and lesbian couples. There are parallel traditions to be found in all of these family units.

The folkloric concept of “foodways” comprises all the many traditional activities surrounding the production, procurement, sale, purchase, preparation, and consumption of food. Each food-related activity is itself a rich nexus for folklife study. Foodways often overlap with, for example, religious traditions — such as religious dietary restrictions, the symbolic connotations of particular items of food, or church suppers — and with occupational culture (the work of cowboys, farmers, hunters, fishermen, vintners, and shopkeepers), as well as with festivals and other ritualized events. American Folklife Center field project collections include documentation of wine-making in California’s Santa Clara Valley, ramp dinners and ginseng harvesting in West Virginia, cranberry culture in New Jersey, and oyster roasts in north Florida.

As individual family members venture out into the world, they form relationships with other people and groups who possess traditional knowledge: children in their school, sport, and social organizations; adults in their places of work, worship, and social interaction. Each purposeful and regular gathering has the possibility, to a greater or lesser degree, of developing shared traditions and, thus, becoming a folk group. Therefore, each family member may potentially become a member of, and in part derive his or her identity from, a number of different social, religious, ethnic, regional, and occupational groups and relationships.

Bride and groom at a Cambodian wedding
Pen Hing (left) and Sopheap Kuth celebrate their wedding at the home of Pen Hing's mother, Mrs. Chounn Chen, in Lowell, Massachusetts, September, 26, 1987.
(Lowell Folklife Project Collection. Photo by John Lueders-Booth)

The Lowell Folklife Project's examination of cultural life in an old New England mill town included study of some of the many ethnic groups represented among its citizens, especially the Irish, French, Greeks, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, and Cambodians. Wedding ceremonies and customs, such as the Cambodian one depicted here, in which the groom follows the bride to her bedroom, bring family and friends together and educate young people about the traditions of their community.

Children may be considered as one folk group, and the complex of children’s folklore and games may be approached for study in a number of ways. Play patterns are an integral part of human culture and are universal. Through play, children acquire physical and mental dexterity, as well as social skills. Games may involve ancient customs and beliefs and rituals pertaining to colors, numbers, and words. Songs and games such as “Red Rover,” “Duck, Duck, Goose,” and “London Bridge” have been known and played for generations, folklore passed from one child to another.

For many adults, religious belief and participation in the work of a church or religious organization are of central importance to defining identity. For some, the religious life permeates everything they do and gives meaning to a range of places and activities beyond the confines of their place of worship and the hours of devotional services. Folklorists are interested in religious customs as they are lived and experienced in everyday life, for it is religion that gives cultural significance to a multitude of objects and activities in all societies.

For many of us, the world of work occupies as much of our time as the world of family, and some of us spend more waking hours at the office, studio, or factory than we do at home. Like the home, these work places, with their opportunities for sustained social interaction, create traditions that are shared and passed on to new generations of workers. Initial folkloric interest in work grew out of the Industrial Revolution and the desire to study earlier ways of life and modes of economic production. In the United States, students were particularly attracted to the resource-based trades that established regional and national identities linked to raw materials, such as mining, fishing, building construction, ranching, and logging. Such a list informed the Folklife Center’s Italian-Americans in the West Project, for example, with its examination of occupation in five western states. Center studies of occupation and culture have also been conducted in Paterson, New Jersey, north Florida, and southern West Virginia. Likewise, occupation was a large consideration in many of the collections made during the 1930s New Deal projects. Documentation of farmers, factory workers, fishermen, waitresses, shopkeepers, and many others formed a historical record of everyday work during the Great Depression.

Men harvesting Spanish moss
Harvesting Spanish moss in the Atchafalaya Swamp, Louisiana, 1974.
(Turner Browne Collection. Photograph by Turner Browne)

In the 1970's, Louisianan Turner Browne set himself the task of making photographs of Louisiana Cajun culture, which he feared was dying out. The resulting collection of fifteen hundred negatives and seventy-seven prints, donated to the American Folklife Center in 1999, includes such themes as Mardi Gras, foodways, horse racing, trapping, gambling, boat navigation, and socializing. The photographs offer a portrait of community life that demonstrated the intimate relationship between culture and environmental resources. The Spanish moss shown here has many uses when cured, in building construction and insulation, for example, and for stuffing mattresses and upholstered chairs.

One American Folklife Center project focused attention on grassroots community traditions nationwide. As part of the celebration of the Bicentennial of the Library of Congress in 2000, Librarian James H. Billington suggested a project that came to be known as Local Legacies. The Library invited U.S. senators and representatives to identify “signature” traditions and activities from their states and districts; document them in photographs, sound recordings, and written reports; and send a portion of that documentation to the American Folklife Center for inclusion in the Archive of Folk Culture. The resulting collection, Billington suggested, would provide a snapshot of traditional cultural life in America at the end of the twentieth century.

The American Folklife Center contacted folklorists in every state to solicit their help and participation. Congressional enthusiasm and response far exceeded expectations, with about 90 percent of the Senate and over 70 percent of the House of Representatives nominating projects in their home districts. Festivals, historic sites, civic activities, occupational culture, environmental projects, and artists and craftsmen were nominated and documented. Box after box of materials arrived at the center, with documentation of community barbecues, parades, trail rides, and folk music festivals. The Local Legacies Project Collection consists of more than eight hundred projects that illustrate and showcase community culture in America.

Thus does the work of building the Folk Archive proceed, this “national project with many workers.” Across the United States, a panoply of events and activities bears witness to the endless capacity of the American people to celebrate themselves in creative, ingenious, and fanciful ways. These are the folklife expressions that Americans have themselves designated and documented as their “local legacies” to the future.

The original yellow ribbon
The yellow ribbon that Penne Laingen tied around an oak tree in the front yard of her Bethesda, Maryland home in 1979.
(American Folklife Center )

The provenance of the recent tradition of displaying yellow ribbons to express support for absent loved ones dates to November, 4, 1979, when Penne Laingen tied a ribbon around an "old oak tree" in her front yard, to symbolize her determination that her husband, Bruce, who was being held hostage in Iran at the time, would return home safely. Mrs. Laingen pledged that her yellow ribbon would remain in place until her husband, the acting ambassador to Iran, took it down himself. A combination of media attention and the creation of a support organization, the Family Liaison Action Group (FLAG), which adopted the yellow ribbon as its symbol, brought the Yellow ribbon to national attention. Its display caught on for a variety of similar occasions and in a variety of forms and manifestations.
Two essays by Gerald E. Parsons, Jr. are available online at The New Yellow Ribbon Tradition.

Ray Dickens, Jr. Kimberly Dickens, and Jeffrey Honaker at their roadside stand
Ray Dickens, Jr. (left) Kimberly Dickens, and Jeffrey Honaker on Drews Creek Road, Naoma, West Virgina, selling ramps to motorists on their way to the local annual ramp supper in 1979 .
(Coal River Folklife Project Collection. Photo by Lyntha Eiler)

1981 Ramp Festival poster
Poster for the 28th Annual Cosby Ruritan Club Ramp Festival, Cosby, Tennessee, 1981.
(American Folklife Center Poster Collection)

One of the first edible wild foods to appear in the Appalachian mountain region in early spring, the ramp (Allium tricoccum) is a type of leek that grows in the rich, dark woodlands near mountain streams. Throughout the Appalachian South, ramps are celebrated and enjoyed with suppers and festivals. The gathering and processing of ramps, as well as the suppers themselves, provide occasions for community gatherings, storytelling, and comradery. For many in the region, celebrating ramps is one of the rites of spring, and is a touchstone of a shared past and present.

The Cosby Ramp Festival claims to be the oldest of many festivals celebrating the ramp, which has been described as a cross between scallions and garlic. Founded in 1954, the festival takes place each spring on Kineauvista Hill, near Cosby, in east Tennessee. The Tennessee General Assembly acknowledged both the festival and its namesake plant in 1980 by designating a "Ramp Festival Day," resolving that "this legendary root, distinguished by odoriferous qualities, is purported to supply unyielding powers believed to have furthered the chivalrous and intrepid deeds of those who have chosen the mountains for their homes."
The Coal River Folklife Project Collections materials are available online in the American Memory presentation Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia.

Men harvesting cranberries
Harvesting Cranberries at the Birches, on Roberts Branch of the Batsto River, near Tabernacle, New Jersey, 1982.
(Pinelands Folklife Project Collection. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer)

Les Stewart on horseback
Rancher Les Stewart, Ninty-Six Ranch, Paradise Valley, Nevada, 1980.
(Paradise Valley Folklife Project Collection. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer)

In 1983, the American Folklife Center conducted a field project in a region of southeastern New Jersey known as the Pine Barrens, which had been designated the Pinelands National Reserve by Congress in 1978. The Pinelands Reserve differs from national parks, forests, or monuments by virtue of safeguarding both natural and cultural resources, while maintaining patterns of compatible human use and development. People are encouraged to remain in the Pinelands Reserve and maintain their traditional patterns of land and resource use. Cranberry cultivation began in the Pine Barrens in the 1870s, and many cranberry bogs have been owned by successive generations of the same family. In the 1980s, at a time of the Folklife Center's field project, many of the workers in the cranberry bogs were from Haiti, Cambodia, and (as in this photograph) Puerto Rico. The American Folklife Center holds extensive documentation of cowboy life in Montana, Utah, and Nevada and has published several books and produced a major exhibition, The American Cowboy (1983), on the subject. Les Stewart, himself a historian of ranch life in Nevada, and his family were especially welcoming to field workers during the Paradise Valley Folklife Project.
Materials selected from the Paradise Valley Folklife Project Collection, including sound recordings, film, and photographs, are available online in the American Memory presentation, Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-1982.

Fox hunters with their dogs
Foxhunters in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, 1980.
(Pinelands Folklife Project Collection. Photo by Mary Hufford)

Maria Atiles with her loom
Weaver Maria Atiles at the Joseph Teshon Company, Inc., Paterson, New Jersey, 1994.
(Working in Paterson Project Collection. Photo by Martha Cooper)

In The United States, there are two major traditions of foxhunting: the English style, in which participants mounted on horses "ride to the hounds" in pursuit of the fox; and a less formal style, in which dog owners drive pick-ups and station themselves at listening points in order to hear the musical baying of their hounds as they chase the fox. The occupational culture of workers in the textile and garment-manufacturing industries was documented along with many other businesses in Paterson, New Jersey, by the American Folklife Center's 1994 field project, Working in Paterson, which was cosponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Office of the National Park Service. Founded in 1791, Paterson was the country's first planned industrial center. At one time, it was the largest silk manufacturing center in the nation. The Working in Paterson Project Collection includes over four hundred audiotaped interviews and thousands of photographs that document how that industrial heritage expresses itself in the lives of Patersonians today.
The materials collected during the American Folklife Center's field project in Paterson, New Jersey are available online in the American Memory presentation Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting.

Crow Fair campgrounds
Crow Fair campgrounds, Crow Agency, Montana,
August 1979.

(Montana Folklife Survey Collection. Photo by Michael S. Crummett)

Aloha Fair participants
Dressed in a Feather cape, the "king" (or Mo'i) is surrounded by his "royal court." Halema'uma'u Crater, Aloha Festival, Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii,
August 1994.

(Local Legacies Project Collection. Photo by Ric Noyle)

Held in various forms and venues throughout the country, the intertribal powwow is a contemporary social gathering centered around dancing. At encampments, such as the one shown in this ariel photograph, the powwow lasts from several days to a week, and people live in a traditional tent village. The symbolic center of the event is the drum, a name that applies both to the instrument and to the group of musicians that play it. Traditional dancing, regalia, foods, and games figure in the gathering, and children thus learn the traditional ways of their parents and ancestors. An annual statewide festival, begun in 1946, celebrates the pagentry of ancient Hawaiian culture and today's multiculturalism. In 1999, more than thirty thousand volunteers helped put on three hundred events on six islands, and about one million people attended. The theme was "Hui Pu I Ka Hula" (together in song and dance), chosen to strengthen awarness of cultural heritage.
More examples from the Local Legacies project are available in the online presentation Local Legacies: Community Roots.

Performers in costume as Columbus greeting an American Indian
"Columbus Landing Ceremony," Columbus Day Celebration, San Francisco, California, 1989.
(Italian Americans in the West Collection. Photo by Ken Light)


Children performing a dace for the birthday of Confucius
Ceremony to commemorate the birthday of Confucius at an elementary school in Chinatown in Los Angeles, California, 1984.
(The Nora Yeh Kemmeny Family Collection. Photo by Nora Yeh)

Columbus Day parades began in San Francisco in 1869, and since 1885 the local Italian American community has produced elaborate Columbus Day parades and pageants to celebrate its ethnic identity. After World War I, the annual celebration came to include a variety of events, such as the mock landing of Columbus in the New World, staged from fishing boats in the harbor; the selection of a pageant queen, "Queen Isabella"; and the impersonation of Columbus by a succession of Italian American men. In 1989, the Columbus Landing Ceremony was held at Aquatic park, in San Francisco, with the U.S. Navy Band providing music and Joseph Cervetto, Jr. playing the part of Christopher Columbus, a role that his father had taken before him. Although this ritual dance in honor of Confucius, who is known as the "Supreme Saint and Master Educator," is traditionally performed in a Confucian temple, by both boys and girls, this particular ceremony took place in a school. The performance was accompanied by Chinese instruments of eight different types. The event was supported by the government of Taiwan to promote education and help preserve this ancient Chinese cultural tradition within the Los Angeles community.

National Folk Festival program cover with a drawing of an American Indian eagle dancer
Program for the 22nd National Folk Festival, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, June 1957.
(National Council for the Traditional Arts Collection)

Street procession: parishioners in costume portray Roman soldiers escorting Jesus who is bearing a cross.
Street Procession staged by Nueva Esperanza Church, Lowel, Massachusetts, April 1, 1988.
(Lowell Folklife Project Collection. Photo by John Lueders-Booth)

The National Folk Festival was first held in 1934, in St. Louis, Missouri, the brainchild of Sarah Gertrude Knott, a woman of vision and determination. Knott's intention was to bring together "groups from different sections of the country with their folk music, dances, and plays, to see what their story would tell of our people and our country." Over the years, the festival was held in many different locations, from Dallas, Texas, to Washington, D.C. Documentation of the festivals has resulted in a huge collection of material, comprising over forty-seven hundred hours of recorded performances. Under a cooperative agreement with the National Council for the Traditional Arts (the umbrella organization for the festival), the collection is being copied for preservation and access, cataloged, and transferred to the American Folklife Center. In 1987, the American Folklife Center launched a year-long study of traditional arts and culture in Lowell, Massachusetts, in cooperation with the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, looking in particular at the creation and uses of community space. Lowell is a city of more than fifty ethnic groups, and a succession of immigrants have relocated to the city. Ethnic and cultural identities are intimately connected with place, and when cultural groups relocate they find ways to make their new home their own. In this photograph, parishioners of Nueva Esperanza Church stage their annual enactment of the Passion of Christ on Good Friday. By mapping a sacred route, the via dolorosa of ancient Jerusalem, onto the secular cityscape, they transform the old mill town into a reflection of their Catholic faith.

Participants pointing in game of "Where's the Bear"
Family and visitors join in playing a game of   "Where's the Bear," during a Fourth of July Celebration at the home of Al and JoAnna Collette, Pueblo, Colorado, 1990.
(Italian Americans in the West Project Collection. Photo by Ken Light)

Josephine Martellaro with the St. Joseph's Day Table she created
Josephine Martellaro of Pueblo, Colorado, with the St. Joseph's Day Table she created at her home in 1990.
(Italian Americans in the West Project Collection. Photo by Myron Wood)

In July 1990, a team of folklorists for the Italian-Americans in the West Folklife Project studied the social, occupational, and religious traditions of the Italian American community in Pueblo, Colorado, and interviewed members of local families, such as Al and JoAnna Collette. The Collettes had established their business, Colette Catering and Carry Out, as a way to involve their children in their daily lives, and six of the seven worked for the catering service. Collette Catering was often called upon to prepare foods for the St. Joseph's Day table ritual, a tradition brought from Sicily in which parishioners prepare an elaborate feast in gratitude to St. Joseph for his intercession on their behalf. The Collettes invited the Folklife Center field team to spend the Fourth of July with the family, for food, fun, and fireworks. After supper, folklorists and family members joined in playing a number of games, including "Simon Says" and "Where's the Bear."

Young girls in costume wait their turn to participate in the parade, holding a banner that reads, "Anita's Americettes Baton and Acrobatic Corps, Canon City, Colorado."
Fourth of July parade, Pueblo, Colorado, 1990.
(Italian Americans in the West Project Collection. Photo by Ken Light)

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( October 29, 2010 )
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