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American Folklife Center: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

"" Story and Other Narrative Forms

Ben Horry
Ben Horry, formerly a slave in South Carolina
(Manuscript Division. Photographer unknown)

In the 1930s, researchers working in the South for the Federal Writer's Project sought out and interviewed former slaves and recorded their words in writing. The interviewers spoke with hundreds of elderly people about their experiences of slavery. Today, these written accounts of day-to-day life give voice to the individual men and women who suffered and endured during a dark and troubling period of American history. At the same time, folklorists such as Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, Alan Lomax, John and Ruby Lomax, Robert Sonkin, and John Henry Faulk were making audio recordings of former slaves, as part of both their own and WPA-sponsored collecting expeditions.
For an anthology of recordings of former slaves from AFC collections, see the American Memory presentation Voices from the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories.

Although the American Folklife Center’s collections of folksong and other musical forms have received the most attention from scholars, the media, and the general public, the Folk Archive contains extensive collections of narrative materials as well, both in the form of sound recordings and as manuscripts.

Story is a principal conduit for folklore, as it is for culture in general. Stories range from ancient myths and legends, to personal-experience narratives, to the latest urban legends and e-mail hoaxes. The parables of the New Testament convey the moral and religious teachings of Jesus. Aesop’s fables are didactic animal tales offering a clever illustration of a political or ethical point. Medieval romances, such as those of King Arthur, Parsifal, or Tristan and Isolde, provide narrative instruction on morals and manners. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected German folktales that project the deepest values of the German people. And in Finland, Elias Lönnrot collected the stories that make up the Kalevala (1835), the Finnish national epic.

Likewise, in the making of the American nation, stories helped create both national and regional identities. Hero tales, such as those told of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, Davy Crockett killing the bear, and John Henry battling the steam drill, encapsulate national mores and values. America has its “Jack Tales” from Appalachia, tales of Brer Rabbit from the American South, and coyote tales of Native American tribes. All three of these concern the trickster, a folk character who appears in different forms in different cultures, using clever tricks to outsmart his rivals or “beat the system.” America has its ghost stories and other tales of the supernatural, creation stories, and animal fables.

In addition to examples of story genres mentioned here, there are in the Archive of Folk Culture many other forms of verbal lore. Poems, jokes, and riddles tell of our delight in language, and sometimes of our feelings toward outsiders. Folk drama enacts a community’s values and often parodies its foibles. Children’s games often include rhymes and chants. Jokes, including ethnic and racial jokes, are also part of folklore, and may be found in the Folk Archive as well.

Autograph Album cover decorated with birds

Autograph album page with verse
Cover and inside page of an autograph album owned by George Steinmetz, 1883.
(Donated by Orville B. Craig, April 18, 1955. Duncan Emerich Autograph Album Collection)

The Duncan Emerich Autograph Collection comprises twenty autograph albums and ephemera dating from the turn of the twentieth century, compiled by Duncan Emerich when he was head of the Archive of Folk-Song from 1945 to 1955. The albums were sent to the Folk Archive in response to the Emerich's request for such material on the NBC Weekend radio program. Albums from several families in Iowa represent a German and Anglo-American tradition that dates back to the fifteenth century. The entry shown here, addressed to George Steinmetz, contains the advice:

Be firm when thy conscience is assailed,
Firm when the star of hope is veiled,
Firm in defying wrong and sin,
Firm in life's conflicts, toil and din,
Firm in the path by martyrs trod,
And O, in love to man and God
Be firm!

One special field project was launched during the 1930s, largely under the aegis of the WPA Federal Writers’ Project. Interviews were conducted and transcriptions made of former slaves telling their stories of life under slavery. These well-known written materials are located in the Library’s Manuscript Division. About the same time, a number of folklorists, including Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and John Henry Faulk, made sound recordings of former slaves, and over six hours of these moving narrative accounts are located in the Folk Archive, capturing the voices of those who lived through one of the darkest periods of American history.

Not to be overlooked in the Folk Archive collections are written forms of narrative. There are many thousands of pages of manuscript materials, from researchers’ field notes created during virtually every center-sponsored field project to letters written by collectors, performers, and others. One collection includes written stories, jokes, anecdotes, and rumors compiled during World War II to survey people’s thoughts and feelings about the war. The government-sponsored program was designed for internal-security reasons, to find out what rumors were being spread. There is also a small but interesting collection of autograph albums from the nineteenth century and a very large collection of Brazilian chapbooks (grassroots “newspapers” containing songs, poems, and stories on a variety of topics) that continues to grow through the good auspices of the Library’s Hispanic Division and the Rio de Janeiro field office.

Between 1977 and 1997, the American Folklife Center conducted fifteen field projects and cultural surveys. As a result, the archive collections are rich in narrative accounts (and other documentation) of everyday life along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina and cowboy life and occupational culture in Montana and Paradise Valley, Nevada. Traditional agricultural practices in the Pinelands National Reserve in New Jersey are documented in narrative, as is Acadian culture in northern Maine. Ethnic and occupational traditions in Chicago, Illinois, Paterson, New Jersey, and Lowell, Massachusetts are described, and so is life in the Appalachian forests of West Virginia. Housewives in the Pine Barrens share their recipes for cranberries and others in western Virginia tell how to piece a quilt; a rancher in Nevada tells how cowboy life has changed over the years; a woman in Paterson tells how she came to join a union as a young girl working in the mills.

Fourth grade girls, playing a hand-clapping game
Fourth-Graders in Blue Ridge Elementary School, Ararat, Virginia, perform a hand-clapping routine called "My Left, My Left, " September 12, 1978.
(Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection. Photo by Patrick Mullen )

The Central Blue Ridge is a varied and dynamic region, deeply traditional and simultaneously modern. In 1978, the National Park Service engaged the help of the American Folklife Center in its plans for the cultural interpretation of the Blue Ridge Parkway. A team of field-workers talked with hundreds of people who live along the parkway and made tape recordings of conversations, storytelling, family histories, descriptions of cooking, canning, and quilting, musical performances, and church services. The team took photographs of houses, people, crops, home interiors, baptisms, and dances. This particular photograph of school children depicts one ancient and persistent form of folklore, children's games, which are often passed on orally or by imitation, in schoolyard transactions.

The addition of two very large collections to the Archive of Folk Culture — the International Storytelling Foundation Collection and the Veterans History Project Collection — substantially increased the representation of narrative and oral history.

The International Storytelling Foundation, located in Jonesborough, Tennessee, donated one of the largest and most important archival collections of modern storytelling in the world. The collection includes eight thousand hours of audio and video recordings, as well as photographs, manuscripts, and publications, that document every National Storytelling Festival since its founding in 1973. Performers represented in this collection include traditional storytellers, with stories that have been passed along in their families for many generations, and “professional” storytellers, with newly minted tales of their own families, experiences, and observations. Unlike the audiences of bygone days, gathered around a hearth to pass the time on a long winter night, audiences at Jonesborough and other such venues have found themselves under a tent on a bright autumn day. But the artful storyteller still has the power to entertain, delight, and, occasionally, instruct.

In October 2000, Congress unanimously passed the Veterans Oral History Act (Public Law 106-380) in order to create a collection of documentary materials at the Library of Congress honoring the nation’s war veterans and those who served in support of them. “It is in the nation’s best interest to collect and catalog oral histories of America’s war veterans so that future generations will have original sources of information . . . and may learn of the heroics, tediousness, horrors, and triumphs of war,” states the legislation. This enormous and important task was given to the American Folklife Center, which has come to be known for its expertise in collecting and preserving the cultural heritage of the American people. [See the Veterans History Project website for more information.]

Woody Guthrie playing a guitar
Woody Guthrie with a guitar labeled "This Machine Kills Fascists," 1943.
(New York World -Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Prints and Photographs Division. Photo by Al Aumuller)

"Vote for Bloat" brown paper manuscript by Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie letter "Vote for Bloat," September 20, 1940.
(Woody Guthrie Manuscript Collection, American Folklife Center)

In 1940 Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers recorded Songs for John Doe, an album with clear antiwar overtones, but over the next year the sentiments of the Almanacs and many other Americans changed drastically. In 1943 Guthrie joined the Merchant Marine, and his music also took a patriotic turn, with songs like "Talking Hitler's Head Off Blues." This photograph was probably taken in 1943 as a publicity photo for Bound for Glory, Guthrie's autobiographical novel. Slogans similar to the one shown here appear on his instruments throughout the early 1940s — Guthrie's way of contributing to the war effort. By 1940 Woody Guthrie was living in New York City and enjoying one of the most productive and lucrative periods of his career. He had steady radio work, had just written "This Land is Your Land," and had begun writing Bound for Glory. In March 1940, through his friendship with Alan Lomax, Guthrie came to the Archive of American Folk-Song for a three-day recording session. The memorandum asking the Librarian of Congress to pay for the session reads, "Alan Lomax has in Washington with him today and tomorrow a folk singer for whose excellence he vouches." These recordings and other products of Woody's feverish creativity are today housed at the Folk Archive. "Vote for Bloat," so titled from an illustration in the letter, is typical of Guthrie's prose style, in this case a rambling discourse about elections.
Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song, Correspondence 1940-1950 is available online.

Cartoon by Melinda Foster
"I would give you a kiss, Jack, but they are rationing sugar" by Melinda Foster, n.d.
(World War II Rumor Project Collection)

"Food," an essay by Juanita Parker
"Food?" by Juanita Parker, 1943.
(World War II Rumor Project Collection)

The Office of War Information (OWI) was created in 1942 to provide an "informed and intelligent understanding of the status and progress of the war effort, war policies, activities, and aims of the United States government." One project of the office was to collect the rumors about the war. The papers of this project now reside at the American Folklife Center as the World War II Rumor Project Collection. High school students provided a ready source of rumors, jokes, and anecdotes about the war.

Lampiões chapbook cover: block-print image of a man wearing a traditional hat
Marechal Sabóia, Lampiões. Lampiaõ is a
historical / mythical figure in northeast Brazil whose exploits are reminiscent of Robin Hood.

(Brazilian Chapbook Collection)

Maria Bonita chapbook cover: lithograph of a woman leading a group of men with rifles
António Teodoro Dos Santos, Maria Bonita: A Mulher Cangaço.
(Brazilian Chapbook Collection)

Brazilian chapbooks trace their origin to the poetry of medieval Europe that was transmitted orally by troubadours and minstrels. As written communication spread, this oral poetry was set to music and reproduced in handwritten chapbooks, often featuring a cover illustrated with wood-block prints. Brought to Brazil by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, chapbooks took on the function of grassroots newspapers. Because the chapbooks were displayed outdoors, at weekly fairs, hanging form a string (cordel), they are called "literatura de cordel." The American Folklife Center's chapbook collection, the largest in the world, includes more than five thousand items, the earliest dating from the 1930s.

Jackie Torrence
Jackie Torrence, a former reference librarian from High Point, North Carolina, now a professional storyteller, at the 1986 National Storytelling Festival, Jonesborough, Tennessee.
(International Storytelling Collection. Photo by Tom Raymond)

Ray Hicks telling stories in front of a medicine show banner
A western North Carolina farmer and storyteller, Ray Hicks tells a tale at the 1983 National Storytelling Festival, Jonesborough, Tennessee.
(International Storytelling Collection. Photo by Tom Raymond)

The National Storytelling Festival, co-sponsored by the International Storytelling Center and the National Storytelling Network, has taken place each October in Jonesborough, Tennessee, since 1973, stimulating a revival in the art of storytelling. Traditionalists such as Ray Hicks tell tales alongside performers with inclinations toward social activism or experimental theater. The revival has supported, in many ways, a fledgling group of professional storytellers, among them the former reference librarian Jackie Torrence. In 2001, the American Folklife Center acquired the International Storytelling Collection, with over a quarter million items of value to both storytellers and scholars of the art.

Photo of marines in Korea
Color slide submitted by Nicholas W. Phillips, who served as a marine in Korea, 1952-53 (select for full image).
(Veterans History Project Collection. Photographer unknown)

Amanda Brown with collection materials
A Veterans History Project assistant, Amanda Brown, sorts and arranges materials sent to the Library of Congress that document the experiences of America's war veterans.
(Photo by James Hardin)

On October 27, 2000, the U.S. Congress mandated a new national collection of oral-history accounts of the experiences of America's war veterans ad civilians who supported them. Congress unanimously passed legislation that directed the American Folklife Center to collect and preserve at the Library of Congress interviews on audio and video tape, as well as other documents, such as letters, photographs, diaries, and maps (Public Law 106-380). A searchable collections database enables comprehensive tracking of all the documentary materials received, as well as subject searching, and a National Registry of Service recognizes and honors participants by listing the names of those who contributed oral histories or other documentary materials to the developing collection.
Select this link to go to the Veterans History Project website.

Hand made poster: "They Were Heroes But Now They're Angels."
"They Were Heroes But Now They're Angels." Posters attached to the wall surrounding Arlington Cemetary, across the street from the west side of the Pentagon, Septermber 19, 2001.
(September 11, 2001, Documentary Project Collection.
Photo by James Hardin

On September 11, 200, the American Folklife Center sent an urgent message to folklorists and other colleagues around the country asking them to make audio recordings that documented the reactions of ordinary Americans to the tragic events of September 11, when hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; the Pentagon, in Arlington, Virginia; and a field in rural Pennsylvania. Folklorists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and students went out into their local communities and recorded the reactions of their friends, neighbors, teachers, community leaders, police officers, and others. The idea for the project was suggested by the documentary project undertaken when Alan Lomax called on folklorists to make audio recordings of ordinary citizens commenting on their reactions to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941and the subsequent declaration of war by President Franklin Roosevelt. The September 11, 2001, Documentary Project Collection includes about six hundred taped interviews and more than two hundred photographs of spontaneous memorials from twenty-two states.
Select this link to go to the American Memory presentation September 11, 2001 Documentary Project.

Select this link to go to the American Memory presentation, After the Day of Infamy: "Man on the Street" Interviews Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

The Library of Congress » American Folklife Center
( October 29, 2010 )
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