Introduction: What is Folklife?
||Ambrose Thibodeaux, Merlin Fontenot,
and Nathan Abshire play the three principal
instruments of Acadian music: the triangle, the fiddle, and the accordion.
Acadian Music Festival, Lafayette, Louisiana, 1974. Photo by Turner
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.