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Voices Fall-Winter, 2001:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the profile of “Benjamin Botkin” by Michael L. Murray here.
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Volume 27

Benjamin Botkin
Photo of Benjamin A. Botkin: Jerry Rosenthal

Although Benjamin A. Botkin (1901–1975) referred to himself as a "writer" and "regionalist" more often than as a folklorist, he was one of American folklore scholarship’s most important influences. Botkin recognized that counter to prevailing sentiments in folklore, modernity was not a threat to traditional life; rather, the inhabitants of a modern world drew on their modern experiences to both shape existing traditions and craft new expressions. Although folklorists today may take this for granted, Botkin was one of few proclaiming the folk voices of the modern world to be as important as the "survivals" studied by many of his peers. In 1928 he coined the term folk-say to express his theory that folklore floats through the modern experience, finding a home in different expressions. This broader field of expression freed Botkin to assert that the dialogue spoken on a street corner is equal in value to dialogue heard in a movie or read in an essay.

Botkin is perhaps best known for his popular anthologies of regional folklore drawn, in the folk-say vein, from archival sources, his own fieldwork, and published materials. This work attracted criticism from the defenders of "academic" folkloristics, who considered Botkin’s anthologies and his publications in the New York Folklore Quarterly to be critically shallow and a disservice to the discipline. Botkin, a pioneer in applied folklore, believed that folklore needed to serve a higher end than scholarly dialogue. He and the New York Folklore Society, as Bruce Buckley has written, had two goals: to research and to restore. Botkin believed that scholars must leave room for people to speak in their own voices, and return those voices to them in a form they could gain something from.

Raised in Boston, Botkin first came to New York City to study for a master’s degree at Columbia University. After teaching English at the University of Oklahoma for two years, he returned to New York City to work at settlement houses and to teach Americanization and English to new immigrants. Later he studied English and folklore with Louise Pound at the University of Nebraska and began his career doing research at the Library of Congress in Southern folk and regional literature. In 1938 Botkin became the national folklore editor of the Federal Writers’ Project, later cofounding and chairing the Joint Committee on Folk Arts of the Works Progress Administration and finally, in 1941, becoming chief editor of the Writers’ Unit of the Library of Congress Project. In 1945, the year after his Treasury of American Folklore was published, Botkin returned to New York to focus on his career as a writer and to look closely at the urban folklore of New York City. He saw in the city a new range of traditions and expressions emerging from the urban experience.

In his government positions Botkin revolutionized the discipline through his recognition that a people’s folklore has great political and social significance and that federal institutions can play a role in its collection and dissemination. Horrified by the rise of fascism in Europe and disheartened by the Depression in America, Botkin directed the field workers of the Writers’ Project and the WPA to assemble the folklore and folklife of all ethnic groups and classes to ensure that America would not neglect their histories or the voices they used to tell them. In his book, Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (University of Chicago, 1945), Botkin crafted an oral history from the voices of exslaves interviewed by the WPA. This work was a realization of his dedication to listening closely to his sources and using their voices to write history from the bottom up. He defined this application of folklore and all others as "folklore for understanding and creating understanding"—a need as important today as it was then.

—Michael L. Murray       


Botkin believed that scholars must leave room for people to speak in their own voices, and return those voices to them in a form they could gain something from.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 27, Fall-Winter 2001. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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