The Library of Congress > American Memory
banner image
return to home page table of contents about the guide abbreviations search banner image

American Folklife Center

James Hardin*

arrow graphicINTRODUCTION





see caption below

Fannie Lee Teals with her red, white, and blue American Revolution Bicentennial quilt, 1977. Photograph by Beverly J. Robinson. South-Central Georgia Folklife Project. American Folklife Center. (6-17617-29a)

full caption
| bibliographic record

The creative work of innumerable women is represented in the Archive of Folk Culture at the American Folklife Center—a national repository for ethnographic materials documenting the traditional expressive culture of ordinary people doing artful things in the course of their daily lives.

The American Folklife Center is charged by Congress to “preserve and present American folklife,” and researchers using the Folk Archive to investigate women's history will make two happy discoveries. First, material pertaining to women is extensive and may be found in nearly all of the archive's approximately three thousand collections; and, second, women are represented in the collections as central players in the expressive culture of everyday life.

Included in the congressional legislation that created the American Folklife Center in 1976 (Public Law 94-201) is a definition of American folklife: “the traditional, expressive, shared culture of various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, and regional.” Although there are organizations and groups within the American social fabric that are made up specifically of women, the traditional life and culture of women within family, ethnic group, religion, and region are inseparable from the larger whole. Folklife embraces family life and daily routine, material culture, celebrations and rituals, story and song, foodways, and more. The documentation of these subjects reflects women's ingenuity, creativity, humor, strength, hopes, joys, trials, and sorrows. And, frequently, it is women who are the chief bearers of tradition, those who have the responsibility for carrying on the cultural forms of a group from one generation to the next.

see caption below

Agnes Vanderburg and Kay Young on the Flathead Reservation, Northwestern Montana, 1979. Photograph by Michael Crummett. Montana Folklife Survey. American Folklife Center. (MT9-MC3-15)

full caption
| bibliographic record

The Archive of Folk Culture, which became part of the American Folklife Center in 1978, was established in the Library's Music Division in 1928 as the Archive of American Folk Song. The folk songs collected by the first head of the archive, Robert W. Gordon, have been augmented over the years by many other collectors, both men and women, working in the employ of the Library of Congress, as employees of other federal agencies and organizations, or as private individuals. The collections are now international in scope; encompass a wide range of traditional knowledge, custom, music, dance, art, and craft; and include material from many of the world's ethnic, religious, occupational, social, and regional groups.

But the archive is best known for its collections from the United States and is the de facto national folk archive. Contained therein, for example, are the classic recordings of African American and Anglo-American folk music recorded in the field by John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s and early 1940s. Although most of these recordings are of men, there are many fine performances by women, including Emma L. Dusenbury (1862-1941) of Mena, Arkansas, one of the country's best singers of traditional ballads; and “Aunt” Molly Jackson (1880-1960), who recorded in Eastern Kentucky and is known for her songs of protest against the hazardous working conditions suffered by coal miners. Equally important is the large collection of American Indian song and spoken-word material, used regularly by tribal leaders and scholars for language retention and cultural conservation. Although most of the performers were men, a major portion of this material was recorded in the field by women, using wax-cylinder machines and other recording technologies (see the section on “Women Collectors”). There are also unique recordings of ex-slaves narrating their pre-emancipation experiences, including moving accounts by women. Providing valuable insights into their respective periods are documentary recordings of multi-ethnic American music, culture, and life made during the New Deal era, and materials pertaining to the folk-song revival of the 1940s through the 1960s. Beginning in 1977, American Folklife Center staff members have conducted field documentation projects in many regions of the country. The materials from these projects touch on many aspects of American life.

Collection Content and Organization

Although the collections were not created in such a way as to highlight themes specific to the study of women's history and culture, all include documentation about women. It may be helpful to think of the material in four different ways. Documented in the collections are:

1. Cultural activities that have been traditionally—although not exclusively—practiced by women, such as foodways, quilting, or certain religious festivals. Folklife Center field projects are especially rich in material documenting the creative expressions of both everyday life and seasonal holidays and celebrations.

see caption below

Myrtle B. Wilkinson playing tenor banjo, Turlock, California, 1939. Photographer unknown. California Folk Music Project. American Folklife Center. (AFC 1940/001:PO51)

full caption
| bibliographic record

2. Performances by women—such as singing, dancing, and storytelling—for formal or informal audiences.

3. Representations of women, as depicted by men or women, in songs, stories, and folk art, for example.

4. Ethnographic field collections that have been made, organized, and commented upon by women.

The Archive of Folk Culture contains unpublished, multiformat, ethnographic, field documentary collections. A single collection might include sound recordings, photographs, videotapes, manuscript materials, and printed ephemera such as fliers, brochures, and newspaper articles. The Folk Archive is organized by collection rather than by format in order to preserve the unity of each collection. For example, in researching the Saint Joseph's Day Table tradition, as practiced in Pueblo, Colorado—an elaborate display of food and a community event staged as a thanks offering to the saint—you can view photographs, listen to spoken-word interviews, and read the comments of a field-worker participating in the Folklife Center's Italian-Americans in the West Project. Thus, you will be able to reconstruct, to some extent, the field-worker's intentions and experiences.

see caption below

Josephine Martellaro of Pueblo, Colorado, with the Saint Joseph's Day table she created at her home in 1990. Photograph by Myron Wood. Italian-Americans in the West Project. American Folklife Center. (IAW-MW-C001-13)

full caption
| bibliographic record

As a rule, the Folklife Center does not collect artifacts, but one item is an interesting exception. The archive contains the yellow ribbon that Penne Laingen tied around an old oak tree in her front yard in 1979, for her husband, Bruce, the former acting ambassador to Iran, who was being held hostage at the time. That act symbolized her determination to be reunited with her husband and stimulated a new incarnation of a folk custom that swept the country. The archive contains documentation and information about this symbolic display of ribbons.

In 1978, when the Archive of Folk Culture became part of the American Folklife Center, the archive held about half a million items. By the time of the Folklife Center's twenty-fifth anniversary, in 2001, the archive had grown to about two million items. Much of that growth can be attributed to the field surveys and documentation projects conducted by the Folklife Center in the intervening years. Continuing the tradition begun by archive heads Robert W. Gordon and John and Alan Lomax, the center has actively pursued a program of field documentation in many regions of the country.

These projects, often involving teams of folklorists and other cultural specialists, have resulted in large collections of documentary material—hundreds of hours of sound recordings, thousands of photographs, and thousands of pages of field notes. Some have had particular themes—such as land use in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, Acadian culture in northern Maine, Italian American culture in the West, or occupational culture in Paterson, New Jersey. Others are surveys of folklife in a particular place. Women figure in a central way in all of these documentation projects.

Finding Women's Lives in Folklife Materials

Although the Folklife Reading Room provides access to the many collections in the Archive of Folk Culture, almost every division of the Library contains significant folk-cultural resources. The four thousand books available in the Folklife Reading Room for the convenience of the readers researching folklife topics represent only a small selection from the Library's General Collections. Folklife researchers will also find materials of interest in, for example, the Area Studies divisions; the Local History and Genealogy Reading Room; the Manuscript Division; the Prints and Photographs Division; the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division; the Music Division; and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, all described in this guide.

see caption below

Dressmaker Elsa Mantilla and a beauty pageant contestant, Woodridge, New Jersey, 1994. Photograph by Martha Cooper. “Working in Paterson” Folklife Project. American Folklife Center. (WIP-MC-C008-20)

full caption
| bibliographic record

The history of women in Western and other societies, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has included a struggle to break free of traditional roles. Both men and women commonly experience a conflict between individual impulse and desire, on the one hand, and social roles and conventions, on the other. That conflict is frequently reflected in folk song, which has long chronicled the roles of women, in areas ranging from love and courtship to women's suffrage, and has been used to protest hateful social conditions, as in the well-known African American spirituals. Many songs and ballads, comic and tragic, portray women who are determined, boastful, or rebellious.

However the individual impulse might manifest itself, individual practitioners of traditional or conventional forms—sometimes known, sometime anonymous—have produced remarkable examples of the cultural expressions that have endured within a particular cultural group for many generations. Singers, fiddlers, boatbuilders, masons, and weavers, as well as pottery-makers, quiltmakers, basket-makers, and a multitude of other “makers,” have created beautiful things for use in everyday life and have found individual satisfaction in passing on the forms inherited from previous generations. These expressions of traditional culture provide vivid glimpses into the hearts and minds of a people. They deserve our attention.

*Authored the original chapter in American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States (Library of Congress, 2001), from which this online version is derived. Others who contributed to this effort are identified in the Acknowledgments.

red line
Home Table of Contents About the Guide Abbreviations Search
The Library of Congress> > American Memory