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Family Folklife:
Examples from American Folklife Center Projects and Collections

Family folklife is among the many types of ethnographic information in the collections of the American Folklife Center, and is often a focus of Center projects. These are only a few of the ongoing projects and collections that include family folklife and history in the Center's Archive. Select the titles to go to the online presentations.


StoryCorps is an ongoing nation-wide oral history project devoted to recording interviews between family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues. The 40-minute interviews usually are recorded in state-of-the-art recording booths. Some are in permanent locations, and others in modified Airstream trailer facilities that travel around the United States. For people who cannot get access to a booth or one of the travelling trailers, StoryCorps makes information kits available on request to people who wish to record their interviews at home. Recordings made for StoryCorps, plus photos of those who participated in the interviews, are preserved at the Library of Congress by the American Folklife Center. In addition, StoryCorps gives interview participants a CD recording of their interviews. Because StoryCorps handles the technical side of of the interview process and the Library of Congress takes care of the preservation of the recordings, conducting interviews with family members through StoryCorps is an option worth considering for some family oral history projects. For more information about the StoryCorps project and its procedures (including a link to the StoryCorps website), begin with the StoryCorps FAQ.

The Thomas Family in front of the bus
The Thomas Family and the unveiling of the city bus decorated with James Thomas's memoribilia that advertised the Veterans History Project in Orlando Florida in 2004.

The Veterans History Project

Another initiative that could be beneficial to some family oral history projects is the American Folklife Center’s Veterans History Project (VHP).  This project, mandated by the United States Congress in 2000, is dedicated to collecting, preserving and making accessible the recorded reminiscences of American war veterans. VHP relies on volunteer interviewers to record veterans, compile associated information on them, and submit it to VHP according to its guidelines.  Family-based projects concerned with documenting the memories of relatives who served in the military during times of war may find that participation in the Veterans History Project is advantageous, especially because VHP provides guidance about interviewing veterans and preserves collections and makes them accessible to the public. For information about VHP, select this link to go to the website.

Mary Sheppard Burton Collection

The Mary Sheppard Burton Collection was acquired by the American Folklife Center in March 2006. The centerpiece of the collection is a set of twelve beautiful hooked rugs made by Maryland artist Mary Sheppard Burton. The rugs comprise a series entitled Tell Me ’Bout, and each rug relates a personal narrative about the Burton family.

Tending the Commons:
The American Folklife Center's Coal River Folklife Project (1992-99)

This Collection documents the traditional uses of the mountains in Southern West Virginia's Big Coal River Valley. Several family gatherings, including reunions, were documented as part of this study. Search on family reunions. Includes Memorial Day reunions with the focus of tending and decorating gravesites.

Ross and her family being interviewed by Mary Hufford
Folklorist Mary Hufford, far right, interviews Daisy Ross, about her family custom of tending the family graves. Photo by Terry Eiler, May 31, 1996.

In the photograph to the left, the Mollet family tends their family graves on Memorial day. Roy Mollett, far left, is videotaping his family as they tend graves. This is the one weekend of the year that Performance Coal Company (a subsidiary of A.T. Massey) opens the road into the mountains around Shumate's Branch to allow public access to this cemetery. The day has become a family reunion day for families who participate. Each year former residents of the African American settlement at the mining town of Edwight return with their children and grandchildren to tend the graves of their relatives and hold a family reunion at the former home of Belle Wilson, a family ancestor.

Omaha Indian Music

Clifford Wolf, Sr.
Clifford Wolf, Sr. reading genealogies over the loudspeaker at the 1983 Omaha Indian Powwow as others read over his shoulder. Photo by Dorothy Sara Lee. Call number AFC 1986/038: FCP/0-DSL-214183-6/26. Forms part of the online collection Omaha Indian Music.

Photographs and sound recordings featuring the traditional Omaha music from the 1983 Omaha harvest celebration pow-wow, the 1985 Hethu'shka Society concert at the Library of Congress, and the wax cylinder recordings of Francis La Flesche and Alice Cunningham Fletcher made 1895-1897.

A Powwow is a gathering of extended families united by hereditary membership in a tribe or group of participating tribes together with guests, who may include members of other tribes. Expressions of family relationship may be found in dances and songs at the performances. Recordings of Omaha music made by an Omaha ethnologist, Francis La Flesche, and anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher between 1895 and 1897 form part of the collections of the American Folklife Center's archive. Duplicates of these wax cylinder recordings were given to tribe in 1983 at the Omaha harvest celebration powwow, and the Center documeted the powwow activities.

In addition to the repatriation of the Omaha music recordings, there was a separate gift of Omaha genalogies from Paul Brill, a non-Omaha who had some knowledge of Omaha language and had formerly worked with historical documentation at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He used his understanding of Omaha language and culture to compile the genealogies and made gifts of his research to the participating families at the Powwow. Brill's genealogies provided information on family trees going back many generations from Bureau of Indian Affairs records that were inaccessible to the Omaha at that time. Celebratory dances for both the repatriation of the cylinder recordings and the gift of the genealogies were presented by performers at the Powwow presentations.

Bob Ledbetter holding a grandchild
Uncle Bob Ledbetter, October, 1940, holding a child (grandchild?). Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division - Lomax Collection. Photograph. Call Number: LOT 7414-B, no. N71

Voices from the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories

This collection is comprised of almost seven hours of recorded interviews that were collected between 1932 and 1975 in nine Southern states. Twenty-three interviewees, born between 1823 and the early 1860s, discuss how they felt about slavery, slaveholders, coercion of slaves, their families, and freedom. Some ex-slaves represented in this collection were separated from their families before emancipation, and others do not tell us much about family life. A few tell about strong family ties that helped them make the transition from slavery to freedom. Bob Ledbetter, who was interviewed in 1940 by John Lomax in Louisiana, provides some insights into the importance of family ties for those slaves fortunate enough to have them. The recording of this entire interview is available online. Also, the interview with Harriete Smith by John Henry Faulk in 1941 includes a discussion of her extended familiy.


Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-82

List of Births page in the Boggio Family BibleSources of family history, such as family bibles, birth certificates, and information about military service can be helpful for establishing the dates of events discussed in interviews, and can also be used in interviews to ask a knowledgable person about individuals listed in these documents. Here is an example: the family bible of the Boggio family, Winnemucca, Nevada, 1978. Photo by Suzi Jones.

Documentation of a Nevada cattle-ranching community with a focus on the family-run Ninety-Six Ranch. Although the focus of the collection is on the occupational lore of ranching, images of family life are included. The material was collected as part of the Paradise Valley Folklife Project conducted by American Folklife Center from 1978-1982.




From the Symposia and Related Events Online Archive:

"How can I keep from Singing?": A Seeger Family Tribute The Library of Congress paid tribute to one of America's most enduring musical families in a two-day celebration, March 15-16, 2007. Events included a symposium and concert. Webcasts are available.

From the Benjamin Botkin Lecture Series Online Archive:

Norma E. Cantú, Professor of English, University of Texas at San Antonio: "La Quinceañera: A Coming of Age Ritual in Latino Communities." Wednesday, November 8, 2006. A webcast is available.

From the Homegrown Concert Series Online Archive:

Poster for the 2005 Homegrown Concert Series
Poster for Homegrown 2005

Following are selected traditinal music and dance performances by families at the Library of Congress 2005-2008. Webcasts and information about the performers listed and their traditions are available online for these American Folklife Center-sponsored performances.


The Bajich Brothers — Serbian-American Tambura Music from Kansas

Bar J Wranglers — Cowboy Music from Wyoming


Hoop Dances by Dallas Chief Eagle and Jasmine Pickner (Rosebud and Crow Creek Sioux tribes of South Dakota) November 15, 2007


The Gannon Family: Irish Music and Dance from Missouri

David & Levon Ayriyan — Armenian music from Rhode Island (father and son)


Birmingham Sunlights — African American Gospel quartet from Alabama (the group includes brothers Steve and Barry James)

Carter Family Tribute — Old Time Music from Virginia

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