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Folklife and Fieldwork: A Layman's Introduction to Field Techniques

Introduction: What is Folklife?

Image: Ambrose Thibodeaux, Merlin Fontenot and Nathan Abshire Ambrose Thibodeaux, Merlin Fontenot, and Nathan Abshire play the three principal instruments of Acadian music: the triangle, the fiddle, and the accordion. First annual Acadian Music Festival, Lafayette, Louisiana, 1974. Photo by Turner Browne. American Folklife Center Collection

When Congress created the American Folklife Center in 1976, it had to define folklife in order to write the law. Here is what the law says:

American folklife is the traditional, expressive, shared culture of various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, and regional. Expressive culture includes a wide range of creative and symbolic forms, such as custom, belief, technical skill, language, drama, ritual, architecture, music, play, dance, drama, ritual, pageantry, and handicraft. Generally these expressions are learned orally, by imitation, or in performance, and are maintained or perpetuated without formal instruction or institutional direction.

Different terms have been used in the past to refer to traditional culture. Early British studies used terms such as bygones, popular antiquities, and curiosities. By the time the Englishman William J. Thoms coined the term folk-lore, in 1846, there was widespread popular and scholarly interest in the subject throughout Europe.

In this country interest in folklore began in the mid-nineteenth century with study of the American Indians, whose distinctive culture seemed to be vanishing. By the time the American Folklore Society was founded in 1888, other topics were gaining in popularity, such as, Anglo-American folksong and African American culture. The society's first president, Francis James Child, was a well-known ballad scholar; and collecting folksongs of all kinds was the goal of the Archive of American Folk-Song when it was established at the Library of Congress in 1928.

Over the years, the Archive has grown to include a wide variety of folk materials that document all aspects of traditional life, and in 1981 the name was changed to the Archive of Folk Culture to reflect more accurately its broadening scope.

Initially, then, the desire to collect folklore and folksong derived largely from the fear that these aspects of cultural expression were disappearing -- a valid motive that continues to impel collectors. But folklorists no longer believe that folklore and folklife are cultural remnants from the past or that they exist only in isolated pockets of the country. Folklife is universal to human culture and dynamic. Particular traditions come to an end or are modified; particular events, objects, and forms of expression change and evolve, but the process continues by which traditional culture is created. All of us participate in folklife activities and expressions, and folklife is alive in all our many and diverse American communities.

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  April 27, 2005
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