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Voices Fall-Winter, 2001:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the reprint of “We Called It Living Lore” by B. A. Botkin here.
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Volume 27

We Called It Living Lore by B. A. Botkin

Now I sing all these songs
     for Mr. Halpert and Hatch.
I been singin’ an hour;
     I guess I’ve sang a batch.
They seem quite appreciative,
     And I enjoyed it, too.
If nobody else don’t like ’em,
     They know what they can do.
Mr. Hatch asked me to sing ’em
     For the WPA.
So when you hear them,
     Just swing and sway.
Don’t fuss and don’t fight,
     ’Cause the jive is right,
And if you wanna,
     You can jump all night.
So Clyde (Kingfish) Smith, singing fish man of East One Hundredth Street, closed a recording session with two members of the New York City Writers’ Project. In an interview he said of his street cries and song:
     In the street anything goes. Slap a word in there. ... On the street whatever comes to my mind I say it, if I think it will be good. The main ideas is when I got something I want to put over I just find something to rhyme with it. And the main requirement for that is mood. You gotta be in the mood.
We called it “living lore,” and like the living speech in which it was couched, it was responsive to the mood of the moment, though it had behind it the accumulated mother wit and wisdom of generations. The interviewer had to put his informant in the mood, and to do this successfully the former had to be in the mood. And what was conveyed was the mood, the feeling and attitude of the worker (for we interviewed people in various occupations as well as neighborhoods and ethnic groups) toward his work, his fellow workers, and his boss.

Take this Jewish garment worker recalling an experience in piecework:
     Three years ago I come to a place. From the pinking machine is dirt up to your neck. If I’m not lifting up my feet, would drag up to my neck.
     "All right. Sit down to work."
     In the dirt. The foreman gives me a small bundle. When I finish, he says: "That’s all. There’s no more work."
     I look at the others. By them is bundles big like a house.
     "When is pay day?"
     He says next week. I come Thursday. He says Friday. Friday, is Saturday. Saturday I say: "Make out my name and give me the pay."
     You know how it is Saturday. A little different. I am wearing the same suit, but my shoes, I have a shine. I walk into the place. I never seen the boss before. I am dealing only with the foreman, so I don’t know him. You see so many dogs running around, you don’t know which is the right dog.
     I wait a couple of minutes. Till the door is opening up. A man walks out. I walk in there.
     "My name is So-and-So. I came for my pay. Thursday, is Friday. Friday, is Saturday. So here I am."
     He looks me up and down. "Oh," he says, "some workers look very prosperous."
     "Sure," I answer. "Some workers look prosperous and some bosses look like rotten cockroaches."
Out of the conditions of the job comes the humor of the worker, in the jargon of the job. Among sandhogs, as elsewhere, the new hand is a favorite butt of jokes.
     Thirty-five pounds of pressure is high, and after fifty it’s your own risk, and then you only work about half an hour.
     A greenhorn started on the job. He worked on a cylinder job. There was about thirty-seven pounds of air on it. When he went in the lock they slammed the door and they put the pressure on. He got blocked about three times, so he had to come out for that shift. The next time he went in, one of his friends was with him and he told the lock tender, "Take it easy," he said. "There’s a new man in the lock."
     So he got the bends. He happened to be a Catholic and he went to confession the next night. He wasn’t there before for about two years. He figured he was going to have it pretty tough from the priest. So he pulled the door back very sudden, put up his hand, and he says, "There’s a new man in the lock. Take it easy!"
“You gotta be in the mood.” And in the groove. How?

The key to living lore was the relating of the foreground, lore, to its background in life. This living relationship was expressed or implied on almost every page of the nineteen-page mimeographed Manual for Folklore Studies, which was my first formal assignment as national folklore editor and which was issued in July, 1938, shortly before my first visit to the New York City Writers’ Project. "The emphasis," I wrote, "is on ways of living." Ways of living, of earning a living and looking at life, were also part of the companion social-ethnic studies. But whereas the folklore studies dealt with "a body of lore in relation to the life of a group or community," the social-ethnic studies dealt with "the whole life of a group or community," including its folklore.

Inevitably, the two sets of studies had to be closely correlated, since they fed each other, were carried on often by the same workers, and were planned jointly by Morton W. Royse, social-ethnic editor, and myself. We made field trips together to New York, Pennsylvania, and New England, and derived a great deal from our association. Most of all, we learned not only how to work together, but how to work with people. And we learned that working with people is more important than working with things (including books and book-say), just as the great lesson and achievement of the New Deal was, as I once heard Aubrey Williams put it, that "people are more important than things." In connection with immigrant and foreign-language groups we learned, specifically, that their true measure, as components of "composite America," is in their participation in, rather than in their "contributions" (outmoded work) to, our cultural diversity. This was a conviction, amounting to a faith, which I had developed earlier in connection with my work as a consultant to the committee on Population Problems of the National Resources Committee. Such studies in the dynamics of cultural diversity were in line with the theory of American culture expressed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his oft-quoted letter to Paul Green, president of the National Folk Festival:
     We, in the United States, are amazingly rich in the elements from which to weave a culture. We have the best of man’s past on which to draw, brought to us by our native folk and folk from all parts of the world. In binding these elements into a national fabric of beauty and strength, let us keep the original fibers so intact that the fineness of each will show in the complete handiwork.
One of the first things I did, on my first visit to the New York City project on July 25, 1938, was to discuss with Gordon Kingman, supervisor of the Racial Group Survey (the old name for Social-Ethnic Studies) and his Yiddish and Negro editors, respectively, Isaac E. Rontch and Roi Ottley, my plans for the New York City folklore studies. As a result of their suggestions and the availability of their personnel in these areas, we agreed to start with Harlem and the needle trades as part of a cross section of occupational lore correlated with neighborhoods and ethnic groups. As a regionalist, who had come to the Library of Congress in 1937 to make a study of southern folk and regional life and literature, I was interested in the neighborhood as a metropolitan region. And the threefold breakdown into occupation, neighborhood, and ethnic group was an application of the Le Play formula of place-work-folk.

The neighborhood approach, however, soon proved less effective than the occupational approach. Not only did we learn that work is basic to the triad, work-place-folk, but we found out quickly that in order to penetrate the complicated overlay of social and economic life in the metropolis to the folk beneath, we had to work through workers’ organizations, especially unions. "If you want to get taxi stories," as one supervisor put it, "you can get much better coverage from the inside than if you hang around waiting to get hold of some particular taxi driver." We learned early in the game that you cannot collect folklore by simply walking the streets of the city. Folklore is not on the surface. You gather folklore between shifts or during the lunch hour, from members of Compressed Air Local No. 147, in the hoghouse or locker rooms of the construction company engaged in building the Queens Mid-town tunnel. Or in the hiring hall of the National Maritime Union, with the windows overlooking the piers and the ships’ funnels. Or on the picket line. "You gotta be in the mood."

What we were after was folk fantasy, rather than folk knowledge, and we were fortunate in having on the New York City Living Lore Unit writers (many of them borrowed from the Creative Writing Unit) who could ask the right questions, or use just the right leads to get the informant talking; who excelled in what one of our writers, Hyde Partnow, called the "technique of questioning which brings out fantasy."

In this way the workers more than made up for their deficiencies in folklore training by their imaginative insight—too often lacking in the scholar. We were fortunate, too, in having supervisors who shared my enthusiasm and knew not only what I was after, but where and how to get it and how to get the most out of the staff. I in turn was immensely stimulated by the response, and because New York was fairly close to Washington, I was able to give the work the time and personal attention it required in frequent (weekly or monthly) staff meetings and criticism of copy.

Fortunately, too, the free flow of material and ideas was not impeded by red tape. In the Washington office, as in the regions, states, and districts, we had writers and editors who knew the value of folklore as cultural data for the state Guides. Many of them—too many to list here—were folklorists in their own right. Joseph Gaer, later Chief Field Supervisor, a student of Jewish folklore, and Roland P. Gray, first state director for New York, and author of Songs and Ballads of the Maine Lumberjacks, both submitted proposals for folklore projects in the first year (1935) of the Federal Writers’ Project. In October of that year the American Guide Manual included questions concerning folk customs, annual festivals, famous ballads and stories, and folk songs and dances, in the district. In Supplement No. 9 to the American Guide Manual, March 12, 1936, the Federal Writers’ Project put itself on record as being on the side of collectors who believe that "creative activity is still functioning [in folklore]; [who] recognize the European origins of American culture but are interested in the mutations and developments wrought by transfer to a new and pioneer land," and thereby declared itself out of sympathy with the "antiquarians" who value "only what can be traced back to a past for which they have a nostalgia."

The same liberal point of view extended to definitions and methods. In spite of questionnaires, indexes of subjects, classifications, instructions on interviewing, and the like, there was a feeling that definition should not be too hard and fast and that coverage should be as broad and full as possible, erring on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion. In a letter to Charles Ernest White, state director for New Hampshire, August 12, 1936, Henry G. Alsberg, director of the Federal Writers’ Projects, wrote:
     I wish to point out again that continuing the work of making as full a collection of folk material as possible in each State is important. ... It is difficult to tell any field worker precisely when and where and through what sources he may discover interesting material. ... We have found that a number of State Directors have tried to limit material collected to that typical of their states. This, of course, is an impossible standard.
Some academic folklorists would have gone even further and limited collection to material typical of Europe. Reed Smith, ballad scholar of the University of South Carolina and consultant for the South Carolina Folklore Studies, set himself squarely against those who would straitjacket American folklore in European-inspired classifications. As he wrote me on December 21, 1938:
     I suggest ... that you think carefully over all phases of the American situation before adopting the European categories and criteria. What would be admirable for a small cohesive country like Denmark, Finland, or Scotland would not suit what Whitman called "these United States" in which the East, South, the Middle West, and the Far West are almost separate countries. Nor should I think it wise to instruct too definitely the WPA collectors what to look for and to ask for. No small part of the value of the WPA work in the folklore field is the discovering and recording of new and diverse material.
Though we may not have fully realized it at the time, what we did in Living Lore was to effect a compromise between folklore as a creative expression and folklore as a cultural record. The struggle between art and research was inherent in the very nature of the Federal Writers’ Project. Designed as a means of giving jobs to unemployed writers, newspaper men, research workers, and other qualified persons, the project had to utilize all degrees of writing talent and all varieties of literary skills in a cooperative undertaking which would make an important contribution to public life. A series of state and local Guides, which, more than guides, would be a collective and composite portrait of America, was the logical solution. Unfortunately, the Writers’ Project could not (with few exceptions) subsidize the writing of novels, plays and poems on project time. But it could, by providing the creative writer with subsistence, make it possible for him to do his own writing on his own time. An example of such an "off-time" folklore book was Bowleg Bill, in 1938, by Josef Berger (Jeremiah Digges).

Folklore, especially living lore, had a special appeal for the creative writer, just as it had a special importance for the Guides. To both it supplied imaginative color and flavor, human interest and human fantasy. It also gave the writer a social and cultural consciousness too often lacking in ivory-tower writing. Finally, it also gave the writer a new subject matter and a new technique.

This subject matter and technique were made to order in the life history that was an essential part of the folklore interview. The Manual for Folklore Studies included, in Form B, "Personal History of Informant," questions on ancestry, place and date of birth, family, places lived in, education, community and religious activities, description of informant. Form A, "Circumstances of Interview," called for a description of the room, house, surroundings, and so forth. Routine questions, which too often were given routine answers. But if the informant happened to be particularly colorful and articulate, with a story to tell and a knack for telling it, his life history became an independent production which not only contained folklore but was folk-say. In my original conception of the latter term, which I coined in 1928 as an extension of (not a substitute for) the word "folklore," I had in mind what the folk-sayer has to say for himself in his own way and in his own words. But largely as a result of my work with folkways and life history on the Federal Writers’ Project, I gradually moved away from folk-say as folk literature to folk-say as folk history.

The life history—a bridge between individual and group or community history—played a part in the Relief research projects almost from the start. In 1934 an Emergency Relief Administration project for collecting "interviews with ex-slaves for the purpose of compiling a history of their experiences during slavery and the period of Reconstruction" was set up under the direction of Lawrence D. Reddick, of Kentucky State Industrial College, Frankfort. In 1936 this work was continued and extended by the Federal Writers’ Project in eighteen southern and border states. "The best of the slave narratives," I wrote in Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (1945), "belong to literature." Oral literature. "They have the forthrightness, tang, and tone of people talking, the immediacy and concreteness of the participant and the eyewitness, and the salty irony and mother wit which, like the gift of memory, are kept alive by the bookless world." They are also a kind of folk history and folklore.
     As a mixture of fact and fiction..., colored by the fantasy and idealization of old people recalling the past, the narratives constitute a kind of collective saga of slavery. In it the characters themselves are the narrators, revealing themselves as natural story-tellers, who draw, for both their material and their expression, upon group experience and traditional symbols, upon the folklore of slavery, which outlives slavery. Thus the narratives, as they develop certain common and traditional patterns of their own, may be said to be on their way to becoming folklore—the folklore of ex-slaves.
Life-history collections multiplied in the Writers’ Project—from the range life histories of Texas to the southern life histories developed by W.T. Couch (regional director of Region 4). While he was primarily interested in the life history as a sociological document—albeit a "readable document"—"revealing the life of a people ... through ... different types"—in which "people speak for themselves"—I was interested in a kind of folkloristic life history, in which the emphasis was on fantasy and idiom, the two being inseparable in folk-say. For in moving away from folk-say as literature to folk-say as history, I had not forgotten its "oral, linguistic, and story-telling aspects." And wherever we set up "living lore" units—in New York City, in Chicago (Chicago Industrial Lore), in New England (Living Lore in New England), it was imaginative and speech values of "own stories" that interested and impressed the workers most. To this end the informant was hand-picked, through a local intermediary, and he was given a creative role in the interview, not so much being questioned as being encouraged to talk freely about himself, following the natural association of ideas and memories. The heart of his interview might be a story or a number of stories. Or it might be a monologue, in which he speaks his mind uninhibitedly.

Looking back upon the living lore of New York City, Chicago, and New England, I feel now that this imaginative approach to folk life, thought, and fantasy was perhaps the most important achievement of the Folklore Studies of the Federal Writers’ Project. In New York City alone, 27 workers in 88 working days from September through December, 1938, produced 355,000 words of copy, out of a national total of some 50,000,000 words reported by 176 workers in 33 states from 1936 to 1939. Not all of this wordage was of great folklore value. It was necessarily uneven, and a good deal of it was unreliable. But as a record of folklore as a living culture and living literature, and for the understanding of the meaning and function of folklore in a democratic society, it is invaluable. It has been of value especially to writers, whom it taught to "talk American" and "think American." But, ironically, it has also been of value to folklorists in ways unsuspected and unacknowledged (except grudgingly) by them. For one thing, it has taught folklorists that they can work together; that folklore collection and editing can be a cooperative undertaking, not only on a group basis but on a nationwide scale. It has also taught folklorists that there is an art as well as a science of folklore—that the art consists in selecting and presenting aesthetically as well as socially valid expressions by folk-sayers—the individual creative geniuses and transmitters of the folk group or community. And it has taught folklorists that folklore is, as I have written elsewhere,* "an activity or experience ... an interchange between cultural groups or levels, between the folk and the student of folklore," bringing together the disciplines of literature, history, and anthropology, for the understanding of the science and art of society. Folklore is not only of, for, and by people; it is with people.

If the folklorist would only content himself with being a listener, he might be able to hear the folk voices speak more clearly and more truly. The living-lore writers may have erred in what Hyde Partnow calls "creative listening." But as I listen once more to the words he spoke (pure folk-say) at a New York City writers’ conference, in 1939, about what he learned from the folklore project (and, by implication, what the project—and I—learned from him), I cannot help feeling that the more "creative" the listening, the better for the folk, if not for the folklorist.
     The streets are full of people, some of them talking. You walk into a park and sit down on a bench. What do you listen for among the afternoon voices?...
     Next to you sits a kid. You perceive him picking you out by secret signs, but you say nothing. Nor does he. Then you hear: "Can you spare a cigarette?" In a few minutes he’s spilling his heart. Why? ... Another case. A smashup in the street. A crowd collects, looks, a man talks. About accidents, life, sudden death. He looks around for somebody to talk to. He spots you. For a few minutes he talks out to anybody. Then, little by little, his eye begins returning to you. Then he’s talking to you only. Why? ... Or a man, drunk for the moment, is stumbling along the sidewalk. He goes for you, attaches himself, talks. You give him your ear. He keeps talking, won’t let you go. ... Why
     Well, other things considered, maybe it’s because you’re a good listener. You give them plenty of time, you never laugh at the wrong time, you leave yourself out and, for the time being, you’re willing to give in to them and, sitting or standing, look out, see, hear and—be silent. They may talk to you for hours. All the time you feel that tomorrow you may not see them again, or tomorrow they may die—that’s the way you listen.
     We, on the folklore work, listen that way. One of our writers goes out with a shorthand pad, another with a typewriter. Both get lots of good folk-say.
     I, myself, go out most of the time without any of the writer’s firearms but my ears. After a while you get so sharp even your mother begins sounding like folk-say. Then you’re all right, you’re beginning to hear things right.
     Each time I listen I know I’m watching a more or less submerged person coming to the top. All I know is he’s living in hard times, he’s enduring change and violence and conflict, and he’s got notions and ways of looking at these things that are his own and yet not wholly his own, because they are also his folks’.
     In the course of a few hours I may be listening to as many words as go into a short novel. I can’t use them all or half, or half of that. "I help myself to material and immaterial," as Walt Whitman has said, "And fly the flight of the fluid and swallowing soul," but all the time I’m selecting.
     This selecting process ends when I record what I’ve heard on my typewriter. What I attempt to do is: 1, build up a unique person; 2, relate that person to the group in which I found him, or in which he found himself; 3, use his own idiom and lyric.
     It’s a tough job and I do it by trying hard to leave myself out of it. I do it by trying hard to leave out of it what was not this person’s. I only know that if I listen long enough I’ll be able to put down what I never could put down myself in my words or any words I could possibly get out of myself.
     I only know the best of today’s writing must be "in the present, it is this earth today." It is the life of one man or one woman today—the average man of today, any man. I only know that to write well today you’ve got to go out to the people and hear what they’re saying, and in so doing believe as Walt Whitman did, that "not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you." And this, I believe, is what we on the folklore project are trying to do.**
Out of the life, the lore, and out of both, the literature. You’ve got to live, or live with, the lore before it can become “living.” Or, as Clyde (Kingfish) Smith put it, “You gotta be in the mood. You got to put yourself in it. You got to feel it. It’s got to be more an expression than a routine.”

* "Applied Folklore: Creating Understanding Through Folklore," Southern Folklore Quarterly, XVII (September, 1953), 201.
** Donald Ogden Stewart, ed., Fighting Words (New York, 1940), pp. 7-9.


Reprinted from the New York Folklore Quarterly 14(3), Fall 1958.

Though we may not have realized it at the time, what we did in Living Lore was to effect a compromise between folklore as a creative expression and folklore as a cultural record.

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