The American Folklife Center is very sad to report the death of our longtime staff member, Peter Bartis. Peter died on December 25, 2017, from cancer. He had been in hospice for several days, with his spouse Ben, his brother Jim, and several AFC staff members visiting him daily.
At the time of his retirement earlier this year, Peter was the longest-serving employee in the American Folklife Center’s history, a record that will probably go unchallenged for a long time. In many ways, Peter’s presence and diligent work has defined the Center for over 40 years. All of us at AFC, in addition to his colleagues throughout the Library, will miss him profoundly.
AFC director Betsy Peterson said:
Because Peter’s contributions are so much a part of the American Folklife Center’s history, it is difficult to imagine the AFC without his presence. He worked on the AFC field research surveys in the 70s and 80s, he wrote Folklife and Fieldwork—undoubtedly our most popular publication—and he was actively involved in the development and growth of the Veterans History Project. The Library is a poorer place without Peter, and all of us will miss him.
Peter Bartis was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to Thomas James and Penelope (Economou) Bartis, in 1949. He grew up in a multiethnic neighborhood because, he said, his parents wanted him to be a part of the “melting pot” of diversity, which was their understanding of America in the 1950s. From his parents and family, Peter gained an appreciation for cultural diversity which remained with him all his life.
Peter received his Bachelor of Arts from Boston University in 1972. His interests in the arts and cultural history sparked a desire to look into the deeper roots of the cultural materials around him, whether they were ethnic holiday observances or Bob Dylan songs. To satisfy this curiosity, he went on for an MA degree in folklore at the University North Carolina, which he completed in in 1974. For his thesis, he studied the tradition of “hollers,” loud, often wordless musical cries which were a common part of rural American culture. Best known as one ingredient of early African American blues, hollers were also known among white farmers, and Peter’s work was an attempt to classify the documented forms of hollering. His work on the genre made him a well-known figure in the small subculture that follows hollering; he has judged hollering contests and was made an honorary citizen of Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina, where one such contest is held.
After completing his Master’s degree, Peter attended courses for his PhD in Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. Studying under folklorists Tristram Coffin and Kenneth S. Goldstein, he intended to continue his work on hollering. By the time he finished his PhD in 1982, however, the American Folklife Center had changed the course of his research.
Shortly after Peter began his PhD work, the American Folklife Center was founded. Its enabling legislation makes it clear that encouraging and studying American cultural diversity were the principal reasons for the Center’s existence. This made AFC an expression of the same values that motivated Peter to study folklore. He was quick to apply for a temporary job on AFC’s 1977 Chicago Ethnic Arts Project, which documented traditional arts in a wide range of ethnic communities in Chicago. When the project ended he applied for a permanent job at AFC, and entered on duty on June 22, 1977.
Although the American Folklife Center was founded in 1976, the archive that makes up the Center’s holdings was founded in 1928 within the Library of Congress Music Division. In 1978, the Library transferred the archive to its new home at AFC, and held a series of events commemorating the archive’s 50th anniversary. One of those events was an exhibit about the archive, jointly curated by Gerald Parsons and Peter Bartis. “From the day I first discovered the extraordinary history of the Archive charted in memoranda, reports, correspondence, sound recordings, and photographs,” Peter later wrote, “it became evident that I would redirect my dissertation research.” Peter earned his PhD in 1982 with a dissertation about the history of the American Folklife Center’s archive. It’s a crucial account of the archive’s first 50 years, and AFC keeps a copy in the Folklife Reading Room so that researchers can have easy access to Peter’s scholarship.
Peter remained a staff member at AFC for a little over 40 years, which makes it difficult to summarize his many accomplishments at the Center. As a fieldworker and project manager, Peter participated in several of the early field collecting projects and surveys, including the extensive field collections made in Chicago (1977) and Rhode Island (1979) (which are now online), as well as Lowell, Massachusetts (1987-1988) (which should be online soon). He prepared many resource guides and manuals for the Center, including Maritime Folklife Resources (1980), Activities of the American Folklife Center (1981), Rhode Island Folklife Resources (1983), and Folklife Resources in New Jersey (1985). He was a co-compiler of the Folklife Sourcebook in all its incarnations. The online version, co-compiled with Stephanie Hall, was a database of folklife organizations, publishers, and educational programs, and was used as a source for the current Folklore Wiki maintained by the American Folklore Society.
Perhaps Peter’s most important publication for the Center was Folklife and Fieldwork, AFC’s pioneering fieldwork manual, which originally came out in 1979. For decades, this handy small book has offered guidance to people interested in documenting folklife who don’t have advanced training in an ethnographic discipline. It was among the first publications AFC put online, and is now available in its fourth edition, which I was privileged to co-author with Peter.
Peter was also involved in the Center’s educational and training programs. He helped to conceive of the Montana Heritage Project, which worked with schools throughout the state, and compiled the Center’s first Teacher’s Guide to Folklife Resources with Paddy Bowman. Peter was also proud of having managed the Center’s equipment loan program, which made high-quality recording equipment available to many folklorists across the country in the days when recording equipment was prohibitively expensive for independent scholars.
In 1999-2000, Peter coordinated the Local Legacies project, in which members of Congress and their constituents submitted documentation of important cultural events in their communities. The project served as a way for AFC to ensure that it reached the whole country, to work with the offices of Congress members, and to create a snapshot of community culture near the turn of the century. It was also one of the Center’s early efforts to create an online exhibition based on one of its projects. Local Legacies gave back to the communities by Highlighting their cultural events on the Library’s website and making selected materials widely available.
In 2001, Peter became part of AFC’s most successful oral history program, the Veterans History Project, which collects firsthand narratives from wartime veterans. Peter served at VHP as a senior program officer for seven years. During that time, he worked with the offices of Congress members to raise awareness of the program, as well as with oral history associations, veterans’ groups, and universities across the country. He helped build VHP into one of the largest oral history programs in the world before returning to his position as senior folklife specialist in 2008. Peter’s longtime VHP colleague Rachel Mears recalled:
Peter was instrumental to the formation of the Veterans History Project. His experience managing the Library’s bicentennial Local Legacies project uniquely qualified him to help build VHP by creating policies that met Congress’s goals and, at the same time, fit with the Folklife Center’s collecting standards. His professionalism combined with humor and healthy irreverence also made him a very fun colleague.
In his last decade at AFC, Peter continued to be a leader on the Center’s programming team. He spearheaded our participation in Library-wide efforts such as The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America. He worked on the National Sampler Project, getting materials from across the country online. He worked particularly hard on the series of events commemorating AFC’s 40th anniversary, making them a great success. He did all these things in the spirit of contributing to what he saw as a great and important institution.
Upon his retirement from the Center, Peter continued to support AFC by making a generous gift to establish the American Folklife Center Internship Fund. In making his donation, Peter noted:
AFC has provided me with so many rich opportunities. Now I want to give back to an institution that has given me so much through the years. To do that, I decided that making some of those same learning opportunities possible for someone else was the best thing I could do.
The Internship Fund will provide educational opportunities at the AFC for emerging scholars (undergraduate and graduate) and community practitioners interested in cultural heritage materials. (For more information see The American Folklife Center Internship Fund.)
Peter Bartis will be missed by his spouse George Benjamin Zuras, his brother Jim Bartis, his sister Elizabeth Ann Goyer, and their families; by his friends and colleagues throughout the Library of Congress; and by the many folklorists, oral historians, archivists, and tradition bearers he worked with over the years. He’ll be missed particularly here at the American Folklife Center, where we have never before had to operate without his guidance, his cooperation, and his friendship. We’ll be presenting more remembrances of Peter at Folklife Today as time goes on, and we’ll do our best to build on his remarkable legacy during the Center’s next 40 years.
[Note: This blog post was updated on January 2, 2018.]