What kind of knowledge are we addressing when we talk about folk culture? What can we extract from work songs, ballads, lullabies, and reels? What do stories of various kinds, relayed by word of mouth, tell us about the communities they sprang from? What do they reveal about how migrants organized themselves, how they navigated the socioeconomic and political currents affecting their lives?
Such questions speak not only to a history of knowledge in our own time but were important to WPA fieldworkers during the Great Depression. Under the auspices of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, or WPA, sometimes with additional local funding, these men and women collected folk music and other oral traditions for the library, which supplied the requisite recording equipment and disks. The materials they collected went into the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, now the Archive of Folk Culture and part of the library’s American Folklife Center. The resulting collection comprises field recordings, photographs, drawings, and written documentation by the fieldworkers. But the Archive of American Folk Song did not just gather and preserve such material. It also enabled the dissemination of some of the songs and stories via songbooks, anthologies, and radio broadcasts.