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Public folklore is the term for the work done by folklorists in public settings in the United States and Canada outside of universities and colleges, such as arts councils, museums, folklife festivals, radio stations, etc. The term is actually short for "public sector folklore" and was first used by members of the American Folklore Society in the early 1970s. Archie Green is generally credited as the founder of the public folklore movement, although his work builds on that of Ben Botkin and Alan Lomax, going back as far as the 1930s. (They called their work "applied folklore," a related but distinct paradigm.)

The birth of public folklore can be traced back to the creation of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in 1970, by an act of Congress, sponsored by Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D-TX) and written by Green and then-Senate aide Jim Hightower. Other national programs were later established at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), where prominent folklorists such as Ralph Rinzler, Alan Jabbour, and Bess Lomax Hawes worked. Funding programs were also established in the 1970s and 1980s in over 40 state arts councils, and these facilitated the eventual creation or funding of major non-profit centers for folklife documentation and presentation, such as City Lore and the Center for Traditional Music and Dance in New York, Texas Folklife Resources, Northwest Folklife, the Western Folklife Center, and the Philadelphia Folklore Project.

Public folklorists are engaged with the documentation, preservation, and presentation of traditional forms of folk arts, craft, folk music, and other genres of traditional folklife. In later years, public folklorists have also become involved in economic and community development projects.

Each year, some 15 outstanding American folk artists and performers are awarded National Heritage Fellowships from the NEA for their lifetime achievement. Some more widely known awardees over the years have included John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Clifton Chenier, Earl Scruggs, Michael Flatley, Shirley Caesar, Albertina Walker, Janette Carter, Koko Taylor, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Jean Ritchie, Sunnyland Slim, Lydia Mendoza, Boozoo Chavis, Zakir Hussain, Helen Cordero, Margaret Tafoya, Santiago Jiménez, Jr., John Cephas, Bois Sec Ardoin, Mick Moloney, Clarence Fountain & the Blind Boys, Esther Martinez, and the Dixie Hummingbirds.

The Smithsonian Institution features the Smithsonian Folklife Festival every June and July which attracts upwards of two million people to hear live performances and view demonstrations of traditional crafts.

Public folklorists also work in "folk arts in the schools" programs, presenting master traditional artists to primary and secondary schools in demonstrations and residencies. They develop apprenticeship programs to foster the teaching of traditional arts by recognized masters. They also present traditional music on radio programs such as American Routes on Public Radio International. Occasionally they produce documentary films on aspects of traditional arts; Smithsonian folklorist Marjorie Hunt won an Academy Award for her 1984 short documentary film The Stone Carvers about the carvers at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Sources and further readingEdit

  • Baron, Robert; Spitzer, Nicholas R., eds. (1992). Public Folklore. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 9781934110409.
  • Feintuch, Burt, ed. (1988). Conservation of Culture: Folklorists and the Public Sector. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. hdl:2027/heb.05637.0001.001.
  • Green, Archie (2001). Torching the Fink Books: And Other Essays on Vernacular Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0807849200.
  • Hufford, Mary, ed. (1994). Conserving Culture: A New Discourse on Heritage. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0252063541.

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