The key figures in charting new directions in folklore studies in the 1930s were New Deal folklorists B. A. Botkin (national folklore editor, Federal Writers' Project, 1938–39; chief editor, Writers' Unit, Library of Congress Project, 1939–1941; head, Archive of American Folksong, 1942–1945); Alan Lomax (head, Archive of American Folksong, 1937–1942); and Charles Seeger (head, Resettlement Administration's Special Skills Division, 1935–1937; assistant director, Federal Music Project, 1937–1939). These three men paid special attention to the culture of marginalized rural and urban communities. They saw themselves as contributing to a new liberal/Popular Front culture for an emerging, pluralistic, and industrial society.
Botkin, Lomax, and Seeger rejected traditional folklore scholarship's privileged hierarchies regarding what constituted the object of study—the lore over the folk, the past over the present, the rural over the urban, the agrarian over the industrial, survivals over revivals, older genres over newer emergent forms, oral transmission over technological media, homogeneous groups over heterogeneous ones. The New Deal provided an institutional base for an approach to folklore that would have been virtually impossible to pursue at that time in the university world. The New Deal folklorists argued for a rejection of evolutionary anthropology and for a functionalist approach to the role of lore in a culture. They were also cultural nationalists, who sought to reconcile romantic nationalist assumptions about the need for a homogenous folk tradition on which to build a national culture with the reality of American diversity. They envisioned the study and use of American folklore as playing an important role in a democratic culture.
Botkin most fully articulated the views of New Deal folklorists. He disagreed with those folklorists, and other students of American culture, who felt there were no folk in America and with those who felt threatened by American diversity. He declared that "there is not one folk [in America] but many folk groups—as many folk groups as there are regional cultures or occupational groups within a region." He also insisted that it was time "to recognize that we have in America a variety of folk groups, representing different racial, regional, and even industrial cultures." Botkin argued that while once geography had been a key factor in creating folklore, in the modern world the social structure itself produces the isolation and separation out of which comes a folklore of the educated, as well as the uneducated.
Federal Writers' Project director Henry Alsberg was convinced that Botkin's appointment would help the project move into a new phase of cultural studies focusing on the contemporary life of the nation's ethnic minorities and working class. Although John Lomax, Alan's father and Botkin's predecessor as Federal Writers' Project folklore editor, was a great folksong collector who broadened the canon of American folksong, he also saw folklore as flourishing only when the folk who valued it were separated from the mainstream of modern life. In sharp contrast, Botkin pioneered in the study of urban and labor lore and created experimental Federal Writers' Project Living Lore units consisting of creative writers. He believed folklore had an important role to play in a democratic culture: "The WPA looks upon folklore research not as a private but as a public function, and folklore as public, not private property."
In 1937 Alan Lomax succeeded John Lomax as head of the Archive of American Folksong. Like Botkin, but unlike his father, Alan Lomax thought the creation of folklore was a permanent and ongoing activity. He formed close ties with other New Deal folklorists and shared their left-of-center politics, egalitarian values, and functionalist approach. In an unprecedented manner, Alan Lomax used commercial radio to share the materials folklorists collected and his view that although folklore reflected specific traditions it could also help create intercultural understanding.
New Deal folklorists strove to institutionalize the informal supportive network that existed among them. Like Botkin and Lomax, Charles Seeger also regarded American folklore as hybrid forms best understood by documenting their function in cultures in transition. After becoming national Federal Writers' Project folklore editor, Botkin established a Joint WPA (Works Progress Administration) Folklore Committee. Botkin and Seeger cochaired the committee. When it became apparent that the days of the Federal Writers' Project and Federal Music Project were numbered, Botkin and Seeger used the contacts they had made through the Committee to try to find a permanent home in the Library of Congress for the projects they had begun and those they still wanted to undertake.
As it turned out, New Deal folklorists were not able to establish a permanent federal agency to promote such work. Nevertheless the episode was hardly without value. Botkin, Lomax, and Seeger would find ways to continue their work along lines they had established during the New Deal. Botkin published for general readers a collection of Federal Writers' Project ex-slave narratives, Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (1945). Although much of the Living Lore and other Federal Writers' Project folklore material remained unpublished, Botkin would draw on it in A Treasury of American Folklore (1944), and in his later regional and topical folklore treasuries. In the 1950s, he argued for applied folklore, a new term that embodied the values of New Deal folklorists. The work that Alan Lomax began in the 1930s later earned him the title "godfather of the folksong revival." Charles Seeger became one of the founders of the discipline of ethnomusicology.
In the 1950s, folklorist Richard Dorson, who as a young scholar in 1939 had sought Botkin's guidance, worked to secure a foothold in academe for folklore as a Ph.D. granting discipline. To achieve this he sought to enforce a narrow definition of what folklorists studied and to define the role of the folklorist strictly in terms of academic scholarship. He viewed the New Deal folklorists' ideas about folklore for the public as a threat to the academic identity of folklore, the authority of folklore as an academic discipline, and most importantly as a threat to the authority of academic folklorists.
Even during the postwar years, when New Deal folklorists' opponents in folklore studies sought to marginalize their influence, some younger folklorists sought contact with them and received the encouragement they sought in resisting narrow approaches to the material of folklore studies and to the role of the folklorist in the larger culture. In time, a group of folklorists, including some who had participated in the folksong revival, and who had been brought up on Botkin and Lomax's folklore anthologies, supported (1) the establishment in 1967 of the Smithsonian Institution's Annual Festival of American Folklife; (2) folklorist Archie Green's efforts to create an American Folklife Center, established in the Library of Congress in 1976; and (3) the creation of a network of public sector folklorists funded by the National Endowment for the Arts' Folk Arts Program, which was established in 1974. Given that much of the theory and practice of New Deal folklorists needs further study and given the constant ferment of a multicultural and advanced technological society, there is reason to think that the New Deal folklorist have left future generations a living legacy.
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