New Online: Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection

This is a guest post by folklife specialist Ann Hoog.

A Rhode Island woman puts the finishing touch on a Ukrainian Easter egg, or “pysanky,” demonstrating one of the traditions documented in the Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection.

The American Folklife Center is pleased to announce the online release of the Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection.

Between 1977 and 1997, the AFC conducted 25 ethnographic field projects and cultural surveys in various parts of the United States, resulting in a rich body of visual and aural documentation of our nation’s cultural heritage. In celebration of its 40th anniversary in 2016, the AFC set the goal of making all the survey collections available online.

So far, in addition to the Rhode Island project, the AFC has released the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection, the Montana Folklife Survey Collection and the South-Central Georgia Folklife Project Collection. By the time all the collections are online, over a quarter-million new items will have been added to the Library’s digital collections.

The Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection resulted from an ethnographic field project conducted from July 15 to December 31, 1979, by the American Folklife Center in cooperation with the Rhode Island Heritage Commission, the Rhode Island Council on the Arts and the Rhode Island Historical Society.

The collection consists of approximately six linear feet of manuscripts and ephemera, 200 sound recordings and 17,000 photographs documenting the ethnic, regional and occupational traditions of Rhode Island, especially the ethnic arts of the African-American, French-Canadian, Greek, Irish, Italian, Jamaican, Lithuanian, Narragansett, Polish, Portuguese and Ukrainian communities.

Fieldworkers for the American Folklife Center created the documentation. Longtime AFC staffer (and native Rhode Islander!) Peter Bartis took initial photos before the survey started. The other fieldworkers were Michael E. Bell, Thomas A. Burns, Carl Fleischhauer, Henry Horenstein, Geraldine Niva Johnson and Kenneth S. Goldstein, the project’s director.

The collection’s photographs cover subjects such as houses, barns, beaches, yards, gardens, orchards, churches, cemeteries, street scenes, landscapes, seascapes and religious processions. Many photos document occupational culture, including photos of textile mills, sawmills, markets, restaurants, Jamaican migrant workers, woodworking, boat building, fishing, clamming, gunsmithing and taxidermy. Others feature recreational subjects, including baseball, horseshoes, sailing, picnics, arts and crafts, sand sculptures, music and dance.

Two boys at a French-Canadian family picnic in Cumberland, Rhode Island. Photo by Henry Horenstein.

Among the photographs are more than 9,000 by photographer Henry Horenstein, one of the fieldworkers. From occupational settings to picnics to Pawtucket Red Sox games, Horenstein’s wonderfully framed photos are a highlight of the collection.

Sound recordings include interviews, plays, music, dance and church services, such as a September 16, 1979, service at Mother Key’s Memorial Church of God in Christ in Newport, Rhode Island. Listen to it here:

In addition to this church service recording, the collection includes an interview with Mother Key (Reverend Margie Key), a radio broadcast of one of her sermons and more than 300 related photographs.

Additional Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection manuscripts, small publications, ephemera, planning documents and more are available in the American Folklife Center’s reading room at the Library of Congress.

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