and Other Narrative Forms
Horry, formerly a slave in South Carolina
(Manuscript Division. Photographer unknown)
|In the 1930s, researchers working
in the South for the Federal Writer's Project sought out and
interviewed former slaves and recorded their words in writing.
The interviewers spoke with hundreds of elderly people about
their experiences of slavery. Today, these written accounts
of day-to-day life give voice to the individual men and women
who suffered and endured during a dark and troubling period
of American history. At the same time, folklorists such as
Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, Alan Lomax, John
and Ruby Lomax, Robert Sonkin, and John Henry Faulk were making
audio recordings of former slaves, as part of both their own
and WPA-sponsored collecting expeditions.
|For an anthology of recordings
of former slaves from AFC collections, see the American Memory
from the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories.
Although the American Folklife Center’s collections of folksong
and other musical forms have received the most attention from scholars,
the media, and the general public, the Folk Archive contains extensive
collections of narrative materials as well, both in the form of
sound recordings and as manuscripts.
Story is a principal conduit for folklore, as it is for culture
in general. Stories range from ancient myths and legends, to personal-experience
narratives, to the latest urban legends and e-mail hoaxes. The
parables of the New Testament convey the moral and religious teachings
of Jesus. Aesop’s fables are didactic animal tales offering
a clever illustration of a political or ethical point. Medieval
romances, such as those of King Arthur, Parsifal, or Tristan and
Isolde, provide narrative instruction on morals and manners. Jacob
and Wilhelm Grimm collected German folktales that project the deepest
values of the German people. And in Finland, Elias Lönnrot
collected the stories that make up the Kalevala (1835),
the Finnish national epic.
Likewise, in the making of the American nation, stories helped
create both national and regional identities. Hero tales, such
as those told of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree,
Davy Crockett killing the bear, and John Henry battling the steam
drill, encapsulate national mores and values. America has its “Jack
Tales” from Appalachia, tales of Brer Rabbit from the American
South, and coyote tales of Native American tribes. All three of
these concern the trickster, a folk character who appears in different
forms in different cultures, using clever tricks to outsmart his
rivals or “beat the system.” America has its ghost stories
and other tales of the supernatural, creation stories, and animal
In addition to examples of story genres mentioned here, there
are in the Archive of Folk Culture many other forms of verbal lore.
Poems, jokes, and riddles tell of our delight in language, and
sometimes of our feelings toward outsiders. Folk drama enacts a
community’s values and often parodies its foibles. Children’s
games often include rhymes and chants. Jokes, including ethnic
and racial jokes, are also part of folklore, and may be found in
the Folk Archive as well.
Cover and inside
page of an autograph album owned by George Steinmetz,
(Donated by Orville B. Craig, April 18, 1955. Duncan
Emerich Autograph Album Collection)
|The Duncan Emerich Autograph Collection
comprises twenty autograph albums and ephemera dating from
the turn of the twentieth century, compiled by Duncan Emerich
when he was head of the Archive of Folk-Song from 1945 to 1955.
The albums were sent to the Folk Archive in response to the
Emerich's request for such material on the NBC Weekend radio
program. Albums from several families in Iowa represent a German
and Anglo-American tradition that dates back to the fifteenth
century. The entry shown here, addressed to George Steinmetz,
contains the advice:
Be firm when thy conscience is assailed,
Firm when the star of hope is veiled,
Firm in defying wrong and sin,
Firm in life's conflicts, toil and din,
Firm in the path by martyrs trod,
And O, in love to man and God
One special field project
was launched during the 1930s, largely under the aegis of the WPA
Federal Writers’ Project. Interviews were conducted and transcriptions
made of former slaves telling their stories of life under slavery.
These well-known written materials are located in the Library’s
Manuscript Division. About the same time, a number of folklorists,
including Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and John Henry Faulk,
made sound recordings of former slaves, and over six hours of these
moving narrative accounts are located in the Folk Archive, capturing
the voices of those who lived through one of the darkest periods
of American history.
Not to be overlooked in the Folk Archive collections are written
forms of narrative. There are many thousands of pages of manuscript
materials, from researchers’ field notes created during virtually
every center-sponsored field project to letters written by collectors,
performers, and others. One collection includes written stories,
jokes, anecdotes, and rumors compiled during World War II to survey
people’s thoughts and feelings about the war. The government-sponsored
program was designed for internal-security reasons, to find out
what rumors were being spread. There is also a small but interesting
collection of autograph albums from the nineteenth century and
a very large collection of Brazilian chapbooks (grassroots “newspapers” containing
songs, poems, and stories on a variety of topics) that continues
to grow through the good auspices of the Library’s Hispanic
Division and the Rio de Janeiro field office.
Between 1977 and 1997, the American Folklife Center conducted
fifteen field projects and cultural surveys. As a result, the archive
collections are rich in narrative accounts (and other documentation)
of everyday life along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North
Carolina and cowboy life and occupational culture in Montana and
Paradise Valley, Nevada. Traditional agricultural practices in
the Pinelands National Reserve in New Jersey are documented in
narrative, as is Acadian culture in northern Maine. Ethnic and
occupational traditions in Chicago, Illinois, Paterson, New Jersey,
and Lowell, Massachusetts are described, and so is life in the
Appalachian forests of West Virginia. Housewives in the Pine Barrens
share their recipes for cranberries and others in western Virginia
tell how to piece a quilt; a rancher in Nevada tells how cowboy
life has changed over the years; a woman in Paterson tells how
she came to join a union as a young girl working in the mills.
Fourth-Graders in Blue
Ridge Elementary School, Ararat, Virginia, perform a hand-clapping
routine called "My Left, My Left, " September 12,
(Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection. Photo
by Patrick Mullen )
|The Central Blue Ridge is a varied
and dynamic region, deeply traditional and simultaneously modern.
In 1978, the National Park Service engaged the help of the
American Folklife Center in its plans for the cultural interpretation
of the Blue Ridge Parkway. A team of field-workers talked with
hundreds of people who live along the parkway and made tape
recordings of conversations, storytelling, family histories,
descriptions of cooking, canning, and quilting, musical performances,
and church services. The team took photographs of houses, people,
crops, home interiors, baptisms, and dances. This particular
photograph of school children depicts one ancient and persistent
form of folklore, children's games, which are often passed
on orally or by imitation, in schoolyard transactions.
The addition of two very large collections to the Archive of Folk
Culture — the International Storytelling Foundation Collection
and the Veterans History Project Collection — substantially
increased the representation of narrative and oral history.
The International Storytelling Foundation, located in Jonesborough,
Tennessee, donated one of the largest and most important archival
collections of modern storytelling in the world. The collection
includes eight thousand hours of audio and video recordings, as
well as photographs, manuscripts, and publications, that document
every National Storytelling Festival since its founding in 1973.
Performers represented in this collection include traditional storytellers,
with stories that have been passed along in their families for
many generations, and “professional” storytellers, with
newly minted tales of their own families, experiences, and observations.
Unlike the audiences of bygone days, gathered around a hearth to
pass the time on a long winter night, audiences at Jonesborough
and other such venues have found themselves under a tent on a bright
autumn day. But the artful storyteller still has the power to entertain,
delight, and, occasionally, instruct.
In October 2000, Congress unanimously
passed the Veterans Oral History Act (Public Law 106-380) in order
to create a collection of documentary materials at the Library
of Congress honoring the nation’s war veterans and those
who served in support of them. “It is in the nation’s
best interest to collect and catalog oral histories of America’s
war veterans so that future generations will have original sources
of information . . . and may learn of the heroics, tediousness,
horrors, and triumphs of war,” states the legislation. This
enormous and important task was given to the American Folklife
Center, which has come to be known for its expertise in collecting
and preserving the cultural heritage of the American people. [See
the Veterans History Project website
for more information.]
Woody Guthrie with a
guitar labeled "This Machine Kills Fascists," 1943.
(New York World -Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph
Collection. Prints and Photographs Division. Photo by Al
Woody Guthrie letter "Vote
for Bloat," September 20, 1940.
(Woody Guthrie Manuscript Collection, American Folklife
|In 1940 Woody Guthrie and the Almanac
Singers recorded Songs for John Doe, an album
with clear antiwar overtones, but over the next year the sentiments
of the Almanacs and many other Americans changed drastically.
In 1943 Guthrie joined the Merchant Marine, and his music also
took a patriotic turn, with songs like "Talking Hitler's
Head Off Blues." This photograph was probably taken in
1943 as a publicity photo for Bound for Glory,
Guthrie's autobiographical novel. Slogans similar to the one
shown here appear on his instruments throughout the early 1940s — Guthrie's
way of contributing to the war effort.
||By 1940 Woody Guthrie was living
in New York City and enjoying one of the most productive and
lucrative periods of his career. He had steady radio work,
had just written "This Land is Your Land," and had
begun writing Bound for Glory. In March 1940,
through his friendship with Alan Lomax, Guthrie came to the
Archive of American Folk-Song for a three-day recording session.
The memorandum asking the Librarian of Congress to pay for
the session reads, "Alan Lomax has in Washington with
him today and tomorrow a folk singer for whose excellence he
vouches." These recordings and other products of Woody's
feverish creativity are today housed at the Folk Archive. "Vote
for Bloat," so titled from an illustration in the letter,
is typical of Guthrie's prose style, in this case a rambling
discourse about elections.
Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song, Correspondence
1940-1950 is available online.
"I would give
you a kiss, Jack, but they are rationing sugar" by Melinda
(World War II Rumor Project Collection)
Juanita Parker, 1943.
(World War II Rumor Project Collection)
|The Office of War Information
(OWI) was created in 1942 to provide an "informed and
intelligent understanding of the status and progress of the
war effort, war policies, activities, and aims of the United
States government." One project of the office was to collect
the rumors about the war. The papers of this project now reside
at the American Folklife Center as the World War II Rumor Project
Collection. High school students provided a ready source of
rumors, jokes, and anecdotes about the war.
Marechal Sabóia, Lampiões.
Lampiaõ is a
historical / mythical figure in northeast Brazil whose exploits
are reminiscent of Robin Hood.
(Brazilian Chapbook Collection)
Teodoro Dos Santos, Maria Bonita: A Mulher Cangaço.
(Brazilian Chapbook Collection)
trace their origin to the poetry of medieval Europe that was
transmitted orally by troubadours and minstrels. As written
communication spread, this oral poetry was set to music and
reproduced in handwritten chapbooks, often featuring a cover
illustrated with wood-block prints. Brought to Brazil by the
Portuguese in the sixteenth century, chapbooks took on the
function of grassroots newspapers. Because the chapbooks were
displayed outdoors, at weekly fairs, hanging form a string
(cordel), they are called "literatura de
cordel." The American Folklife Center's chapbook
collection, the largest in the world, includes more than five
thousand items, the earliest dating from the 1930s.
Jackie Torrence, a former
reference librarian from High Point, North Carolina, now
a professional storyteller, at the 1986 National Storytelling
Festival, Jonesborough, Tennessee.
(International Storytelling Collection. Photo by Tom
A western North Carolina
farmer and storyteller, Ray Hicks tells a tale at the 1983
National Storytelling Festival, Jonesborough, Tennessee.
(International Storytelling Collection. Photo by Tom
|The National Storytelling
Festival, co-sponsored by the International Storytelling Center
and the National Storytelling Network, has taken place each
October in Jonesborough, Tennessee, since 1973, stimulating
a revival in the art of storytelling. Traditionalists such
as Ray Hicks tell tales alongside performers with inclinations
toward social activism or experimental theater. The revival
has supported, in many ways, a fledgling group of professional
storytellers, among them the former reference librarian Jackie
Torrence. In 2001, the American Folklife Center acquired the
International Storytelling Collection, with over a quarter
million items of value to both storytellers and scholars of
Color slide submitted
by Nicholas W. Phillips, who served as a marine in Korea,
1952-53 (select for full image).
(Veterans History Project Collection. Photographer unknown)
A Veterans History
Project assistant, Amanda Brown, sorts and arranges materials
sent to the Library of Congress that document the experiences
of America's war veterans.
(Photo by James Hardin)
|On October 27, 2000,
the U.S. Congress mandated a new national collection of oral-history
accounts of the experiences of America's war veterans ad civilians
who supported them. Congress unanimously passed legislation
that directed the American Folklife Center to collect and preserve
at the Library of Congress interviews on audio and video tape,
as well as other documents, such as letters, photographs, diaries,
and maps (Public Law 106-380). A searchable collections database
enables comprehensive tracking of all the documentary materials
received, as well as subject searching, and a National Registry
of Service recognizes and honors participants by listing the
names of those who contributed oral histories or other documentary
materials to the developing collection.
|Select this link to
go to the Veterans History
"They Were Heroes
But Now They're Angels." Posters attached to the wall
surrounding Arlington Cemetary, across the street from the
west side of the Pentagon, Septermber 19, 2001.
(September 11, 2001, Documentary Project Collection.
Photo by James Hardin )
|On September 11, 200, the American
Folklife Center sent an urgent message to folklorists and other
colleagues around the country asking them to make audio recordings
that documented the reactions of ordinary Americans to the
tragic events of September 11, when hijacked planes crashed
into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York
City; the Pentagon, in Arlington, Virginia; and a field in
rural Pennsylvania. Folklorists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists,
and students went out into their local communities and recorded
the reactions of their friends, neighbors, teachers, community
leaders, police officers, and others. The idea for the project
was suggested by the documentary project undertaken when Alan
Lomax called on folklorists to make audio recordings of ordinary
citizens commenting on their reactions to the bombing of Pearl
Harbor, December 7, 1941and the subsequent declaration of war
by President Franklin Roosevelt. The September 11, 2001, Documentary
Project Collection includes about six hundred taped interviews
and more than two hundred photographs of spontaneous memorials
from twenty-two states.
|Select this link to go to the American
Memory presentation September
11, 2001 Documentary Project.
Select this link to go to the American Memory presentation, After
the Day of Infamy: "Man on the Street" Interviews Following
the Attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.