Fathers of Folklore

FATHERS OF FOLKLORE : Library of Congress Honors Song Collectors
Originally published in FOLKWORKS, Jan.-Feb. 2002

“Where have all the folksongs gone, long time passing? /Where have all the folksongs gone, long time ago?/Where have all the folksongs gone?/ Gone to collectors, every one!/ When will they ever learn … /Where have the collections gone? …Gone to archives, every one /Where have all the archives gone? …/Pop stars raid them, every one /Where have all the pop songs gone? …/Gone to records, every one Where have all the records gone? …/Folks have bought them, every one /Where have all the pop songs gone? …Folks are singing them, every one!”

Joe Hickerson, retired head of the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress, wrote this parody to illustrate the circular interweaving of raw folklore, scholarship, and popular culture. He sang it at the Library on November 16, 2001, during a two-day conference celebrating the legacy and centenary of Benjamin Botkin, who followed Alan Lomax as head of the Archive, in the early 1940s.

Botkin may be best known for his 1944 Treasury of American Folklore, still in print. His preferred term “folklife” united “folklore and the life from which it springs,” and he urged historians and sociologists to honor public folklore: common people’s leisure activities and workplace traditions, as well as the music, dance, and literature that are more commonly thought of as “culture.”

The conference closed with a panel discussion of a unique children’s  camp in upstate New York— Camp Woodland—whose involvement with the folklife of NY’s Catskill Mountain region embodied Botkin’s ideas (and predated the better-known Foxfire center, in Georgia.) My father, Norman Cazden, was the camp’s music director from 1945 to 1960, and his long immersion in Lomax-style musicology brought me to folk music.

Norman and his colleague, Herbert Haufrecht, collected hundreds of oral-tradition songs from aging singers in small Catskill villages, helped by a generation of mostly-urban children who quickly learned to respect these rural elders, draw out their stories, and transcribe their songs. This music collection, with detailed scholarship linking the lyrics and melodies with wider Anglo-American sources, was nearly ready for publication when Norman died in 1980; Haufrecht saw the project to completion. The fully annotated Folk Songs of the Catskills, which includes a Forward by Catskill neighbor and frequent camp visitor Pete Seeger, was published in 1982.

When Haufrecht died in 1998, his widow decided to honor him with a CD of music from the collection. So, in the spring of 2000, I was thrilled to join Seeger, Eric Weissberg, Jay Unger and Molly Mason,Ronnie Gilbert, Bob and Louise DeCormier, Hickerson, and Catskills-raised singer/producer Geoff Kaufman, in recording songs I had known and loved all my life. This CD—Folk Songs of the Catskills: A Celebration of Camp Woodland—was released at the Botkin conference.

I also spoke briefly at the Camp Woodland panel about my experiences there as a little kid. The final sing-along included both Pete and Peggy Seeger, whose father, musicologist Charles Seeger, had mentored both Botkin and my father. So the personal roots and branches felt profoundly intertwined.

Naturally, Washington DC—just two months after 9/11/ 2001—made a bittersweet background for this generational reunion. IDs were redundantly checked at the airport; the city was thick with roadblocks and police. Security screeners at the Library politely insisted that an impatient, semi-famous musician toting several instruments, wait his turn in line with the anonymous public. Yet the marble halls of government still gleamed against the pale blue sky, with rusty autumn leaves as counterpoint; and Union Station still housed a crafts boutique named for Aaron Copland’s promise-filled Appalachian Spring.

The events of September 11 quickly entered American folklife via oral history, photojournalism, concerts, and essays both in print and online—multi-faceted responses that matched Botkin’s faith in the “freshness and nobility” of ordinary people. The rich variety of “folklife” projects that continue to nourish our country’s soul, reflect Botkin’s enduring vision of democracy.

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