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American Folklife Center



Women Collectors
American Folk Song
Ex-Slave Narratives
Folk Music Revival
Duncan Emrich Autograph Album Collection
The Local Legacies Project Collection
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Field Documentation Projects

The Folklife Center has conducted field documentation projects and cultural surveys in the following cities, states, and regions: Chicago, Illinois (1977); South Central Georgia (1977); the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia and North Carolina (1978); Nevada (1978-82); Rhode Island (1979); Montana (1979); the Pinelands National Reserve, New Jersey (1983); Utah (1985); Lowell, Massachusetts (1987-88); the western states of California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, and Washington (1989-91); Maine (1991-92); West Virginia (1991-92; 1994-98); and Paterson, New Jersey (1994).

These projects have resulted in large collections of documentary material: photographs, in black and white and in color; recordings; field notes; and ephemeral printed material pertaining to particular events, local customs, or family traditions studied. Several of the more recent projects can be searched through the Library of Congress Online Catalog. For others, there are logs created by the individual field-workers. The photographic materials from these projects of the past twenty-five years are extensive. Research tools include photographic logs for identifying particular subjects, contact sheets for surveying black-and-white images, and a light table for viewing color slides.

Researchers interested in the contemporary practice of women's folklore should consult Folklife Center reference librarians for information on pertinent material. Project collections frequently have accompanying publications, and most have been described in Folklife Center News. Even when the project or survey has a particular focus—such as land use, occupational culture, or ethnic traditions—the documentation covers a complex of cultural traditions that involve women in many ways.

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Mary Higeko Hamano teaches the traditional art of Japanese flower arranging, Chicago, June 1977. Photograph by Jonas Dovydenas. Chicago Ethnic Arts Project. American Folklife Center. (B50891-24)

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The Chicago Ethnic Arts Project (1977) documented traditions within the city's homes and informal neighborhood meeting places in about thirty ethnic communities. The collection includes material on women's musical performances, quiltmaking, and needlework. In one recorded interview, artist Faith Bickerstaff describes the important link between grandparents and grandchildren: “my grandmother, in her last days . . . her eyes were failing. So the lace, the handwork, was her art. . . . Which is why she taught me. She felt it was important. And if I can keep it alive, I believe, that if she were alive, she would be quite pleased.”

The South Central Georgia (1977) and Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Projects (1778) are rich in documentation of quiltmaking, foodways, religious practices, and other aspects of domestic and community life. For example, food-drying as a form of preservation along the Blue Ridge is documented in photographs and recorded interviews. In the past, a drying shed might have been used, but field-workers found contemporary practitioners using the automobile: thinly sliced apple wedges were arranged on dashboards or placed on rear shelves to dry in the sun shining through the windows. And field-worker Geraldine Johnson interviewed Ruth Newman, of Galax, Virginia, a locally known cook and poet. Both her poems and her recipes are included in the Blue Ridge collection. Blue Ridge Harvest: A Region's Folklife in Photographs, edited by Lyntha Scott Eiler, Terry Eiler, and Carl Fleischhauer (Washington: Library of Congress, 1981), offers a sampling of black-and-white photographs from the project. The online presentation Quilts and Quiltmaking in America includes photographs and interviews made during the Blue Ridge Project.

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Girls on a float in the Columbus Day parade, San Francisco, California, October 8, 1989. Photograph by Ken Light. Italian-Americans in the West Project. American Folklife Center. (IAW-KL-C115-4)

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The Lowell Folklife Project in Massachusetts (1987-88) examined the way successive ethnic communities established identity within particular urban neighborhoods and spaces. In the nineteenth century, huge textile mills were established in Lowell, which was known as “spindle city,” and many women migrated from surrounding rural areas to work in them. Since that time, waves of immigrants, from Irish to Southeast Asian, have sought to work and raise their families in Lowell. Project documentation includes, for example, Cambodian wedding traditions, women factory workers, and Hispanic festivals.

Adaptations to America was one of the themes examined by project field-workers. Narong Hul complained that the younger children of her community “have a tendency” to adopt American rather than Cambodian ways, which creates arguments in families. Children point out that “the American way” is often cheaper and faster than the traditional way. At home, the Huls eat both Cambodian and American foods. “We don't drink water anymore, we drink Coke,” says Narong (LFP MB-R008). Theresa Theobald was interviewed about the symbolic importance of food, and the French Canadian talked about variations in her family's recipes for pea soup. “I had some pea soup at the folk festival and as far as I'm concerned it was nothing like what I make. It was totally different. I like mine better” (LFP MBRO14). Maria Cunha reported that increasing numbers of women from the Portuguese community were choosing to enter professional careers, which is often difficult for the traditional community to accept—there is still prevalent the attitude that the wife belongs at home and should not be seen in public with any man but her husband. She says she is teaching her child to “wait on themselves,” even though her mother and her mother's generation waited on their husbands and children (LFP BF-AO13).

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Sister Mary Abdi talking over homework assignments with Rohymah Toulas and Lanya Abdul-jabbar at the Islamic School in Seattle, Washington, 1982. Photograph by Susan Dwyer-Shick. Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project. American Folklife Center. (ES82-197518-1-34A)
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The Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project (1982) surveyed the role of twenty ethnic schools around the country in language and culture preservation. Although folklife traditions are often learned in informal settings, many ethnic communities in the United States have found it necessary to establish formal language-training schools in order to ensure that children learn this most important component of their cultural heritage. Schools surveyed included a Cambodian school in Houston, Texas; an Islamic school in Seattle, Washington; a Korean school in Silver Spring, Maryland; a Polish school in Chicago; a German-Russian ethnic studies program in Strasburg, North Dakota; a Greek school in Buffalo, New York; a Czech school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and a Hupa language school in Hoopa Valley, California. Many of the classes were taught by women. See Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America, edited by Elena Bradunas and Brett Topping (Washington: Library of Congress, 1988).

The Maine Acadian Folklife Survey (1991-92) identified a wide range of ongoing Acadian traditions of French settlers in northern Maine and surveyed the organizations, institutions, and individuals engaged in conserving and celebrating Acadian cultural heritage. Collection materials include documentation of women's participation in Acadian music, dance, and storytelling; Acadian foodways; French language retention; farming; maple sugaring; religious beliefs; oral history; the annual Acadian festival; and the preservation of historic buildings and sites. One of the local legends documented by researchers tells the story of Tante Blanche. According to oral tradition, the harvest of 1796 was ruined in the fields by an early snow. By the turn of the year 1797, famine hit the Acadian communities along the St. John River. During this time of hardship, Marguerite-Blanche Thibodeau performed many remarkable acts of charity. Wearing snowshoes, she brought clothing and provisions to people suffering from hunger and cold. Tante Blanche, as she was known, became legendary for her selflessness. She is memorialized at the Tante Blanche Museum in St. David, which was created by the Madawaska Historical Society.

The Italian-Americans in the West Project, which began in 1989, was developed as part of the Library's contribution to the commemoration of the Columbus Quincentenary. The American Folklife Center conducted a study of Italian American life and culture in five western states: California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, and Washington. Field-workers focused on occupations such as fishing, farming, mining, and wine-making but also studied the way food traditions, celebration, and family and religious life shape community culture.

Field-worker Paula Manini documented the Saint Joseph's Day Table tradition in Pueblo, Colorado, a religious tradition brought from Sicily that has evolved into a celebration of food and community open house. Philip Notarianni interviewed the Nick family, of Price, Utah, about traditions brought from Italy, although some family members wanted to talk about the American ways they were eager to adopt. Helen D'Ambrosio and Kerry Nick Fister were the singing cowgirls “Tex and Ted” in the 1930s. “We were absolutely cowboy crazy. That is, cowboy music,” Kerry Fister told field-workers. Italian field-worker Paolo Tavarelli interviewed Jean Conrotto Burr of the A. Conrotto Winery, Gilroy, California. Jean and her sister Jermaine, along with their husbands, carry on their family's wine-making business. And project photographer Ken Light documented the 1989 Columbus Day celebration in San Francisco, during which the members of the Società de la Madonna del Lume march down Columbus Street ahead of a float carrying an image of the saint. For a collection of scholarly essays on the project, see Old Ties, New Attachments: Italian-American Folklife in the West, edited by David A. Taylor and John Alexander Williams (Washington: Library of Congress, 1992).

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Jelina Cubic at the Kalkstein Silk Mills, Paterson, New Jersey, 1994. Photograph by Martha Cooper. “Working in Paterson” Project. American Folklife Center. (WIP-MC-C021-7)

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In the 1900s, young girls worked in the silk mills in Paterson, New Jersey, the nation's first planned industrial area. In cooperation with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Office of the National Park Service, the Folklife Center developed the Working in Paterson folklife project to examine many aspects of occupational culture (see the online presentation: Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting). Project director David Taylor interviewed a number of former textile workers about their experiences, including labor union activist Marianna Costa. Costa recalled the long hours that her mother put in at her job at National Dye and Printing in East Paterson and that her father put in as a construction worker:

My mother left for work at 6:30 and she didn't come back until 6:00 at night. It was a long day between transportation and a ten-hour work day. She was away almost twelve hours. [My father] would leave at about 7:00, and he was doing construction. . . . And he would get back at 5:00—an hour before she did—because of the transportation. He had a bicycle, so he was able to do better time. And she had to walk to a bus and walk the distance back home. 3

Marianna Costa began working in a dye house in 1932, and she told David Taylor about her participation in a textile workers' strike in 1933, at a time when she knew practically nothing about organized labor:

I didn't even get the full comprehension, but I went with them. I wasn't going to stay alone in the plant. I went with them and we walked from the Riverside section to the Turn Hall, which was quite a walk. . . . And, anyway, when we got there, there were organizers that were trying to establish an organization to speak to the crowd and say, “You got to stay out. You have a right to organize. You can do better than what you're getting. And the idea is to be firm, stay together, and we'll see what we can do for you.”4

Field-worker Susan Levitas interviewed workers at Sweet Potato Pie, Inc., and Easter Benson, owner of the E and A Soul Food Restaurant. Benson had no idea of running a restaurant when she opened a candy store across the street from her house, a modest shop without a name, which she operated at odd hours in addition to working her regular job. She began to add items to her menu, increased her hours of operation, and soon found herself with a thriving restaurant business featuring African American “soul food.” In a city with few African American women who are business owners, says Susan Levitas, Easter Benson has turned a traditionally female skill into a successful enterprise.

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Mabel Brown, Jenny Bonds, and Peggy Gilfillen, cleaning ramps. Terry Eiler, photographer. 1995. Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center. AFC 1999/008 CRF-TE-C006-14

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Center folklorist Mary Hufford visited southern West Virginia over a period of several years, from 1991 to 1998, and has assembled a large collection of documentary material for the Appalachian Forest Folklife Project and the Coal River Folklife Project. Hufford was interested in the relationship between land use and local customs, and, in particular, the idea of the commons—forested areas open to all for the practice of traditional ways. Hufford has organized an American Memory online collection based on her research. The Appalachian Forest and Coal River Collections include many interviews, with both men and women, individually and in groups, about the growing and harvesting of ginseng, home decoration for Halloween and Christmas, quilting, baby showers, women in the mines, canning, gardening, and the annual ramp supper.

Hufford also documented female camaraderie at a local gathering spot called the “Ramp House,” named for the wild, fragrant member of the onion family, native to the region, that is part of local culture and tradition. The women had come together to drink tea and coffee and prepare for the 1997 ramp supper at the Delbert Free Will Baptist Church: “We sit in a circle and clean ramps and talk,” said Delores Workman. “It's a lot of fun. I love my ramp circle.” See the online presentation: Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia.

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