About the the Folklore Project and the Life Histories

Within the Federal Writers' Project, material relating to folklore and social-ethnic studies was collected and shaped through the efforts of John A. Lomax, Benjamin A. Botkin, and Morton Royce. The activity documented in writing traditional statements, expressions, songs, essays, stories, and the like, with tilt toward accounts of frontier and pioneer life. The Folklore Project filed its material under the general headings "traditional" and "life histories."

The Writers' Project staff variously described the life histories as life sketches, living lore, industrial lore, and occupational lore. The narratives were meant to reflect the ordinary person's struggle with the vicissitudes of daily living.

This American Memory presentation is limited to the Folklore Project life histories. Similar accounts may be found in the Social-Ethnic portion of the WPA collection; these may be digitized in the future.

At the time, Botkin said, the collected lore and narratives were to be used as the basis for anthologies which would form a composite and comprehensive portrait of various groups of people in America. The entire body of material provides the raw content for a broad documentary of both rural and urban life, interspersed with accounts and traditions of ethnic group traditions, customs regarding planting, cooking, marriage, death, celebrations, recreation, and a wide variety of narratives. The quality of collecting and writing lore varies from state to state, reflecting the skills of the interviewer-writers and the supervision they received.

WPA Life Histories Home Page