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Botkin Lectures to Go!

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The following is a guest post from AFC Folklife Specialist Nancy Groce.

Botkin Lectures to Go! Learn More About Folklife, Ethnomusicology, and Oral History through the American Folklife Center’s Online Resources

Billy Bragg discusses his book, “Roots, Radicals and Rockers” during a Botkin Lecture Series event hosted by the American Folklife Center, July 21, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Have you always wanted to know more about folklore? Do you regret not taking that ethnomusicology course in college? Does finding out more about oral history sound like fun?

Are you a teacher looking for resources to enrich your students’ understanding of folklife, traditional music, or regional culture? Or perhaps a librarian or community programmer seeking interesting, rich, and free-of-charge content  for cultural presentations or public screenings?

If any of those are true, you’ve come to the right place! The American Folklife Center now offers online visitors a huge number of informative talks and engaging performances that are easily accessible online.

If you already read Folklife Today, you probably know that since 2003, the American Folklife Center has sponsored the prestigious Benjamin A. Botkin Lecture Series. Curated by AFC staff, the Botkin Lecture Series annually invites 10-12 prominent scholars, researchers, authors, and experts from across the United States and around the world to the Library to present public talks on a wide variety of folklife related topics.

David Bromberg (center) speaks with Carol Lynn Ward Bamford (left) and Nancy Groce (right) on March 21, 2014. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Botkin Lectures usually take place on weekdays before a general audience of 50-75 people and are videotaped by the Library to enrich our archival holdings. The talks are 45-60 minutes in length and speakers are specifically asked not to present a dry “academic paper,” but instead to prepare an engaging public presentation. In the past few years, we have also expanded the lecture format to include several “Open Mic” Botkins, an informal interview during which well-known performers like David Bromberg and Billy Bragg talk about their careers and influences, as well as “mini-symposium” Botkins on topics such as “Coffeehouses: Folk Music, Culture, and Counterculture” or what it is like to work for StoryCorps traveling the country in an iconic Airstream trailer recording studio and collecting oral histories.

Botkin Lectures are designed for non-specialist audiences, and many include images discovered during the speaker’s research, fieldwork videos, or rare musical examples. If you are a teacher, you might consider using one or more Botkin Lectures in your classroom or as a watch-at-home assignment. Used individually or bundled as a series to supplement your course curricula, Boktins are suitable for high school students and would provide ideal enrichment material for post-secondary and adult education courses. And, of course, they also would be of equal interest to non-students, individuals who just want to learn more about folklore in general and specific folklife topics. Before they are posted to our website, they are captioned to meet ADA requirements.

Rob Hinkal, Jocelyn Arem, and Betsy Siggins at AFC’s Coffeehouse Symposium on April 11, 2014. Photo by Stephen Winick.


Although we are delighted that the Botkin Lectures are attracting substantial live audiences to the Library on the day of the event, the series is also important as an ongoing “acquisitions and presentation project” – an open documentation session in front of an audience, which is intended to create content to enrich our archival holdings. By recording and accessioning today’s eminent scholars, fieldworkers, and collectors, the series is generating documentation that will serve as valuable reference materials for tomorrow’s researchers.

Interestingly, AFC’s approach to the Botkin Lecture Series as an “open documentation session” can be traced back to 1938 when the legendary ragtime performer, composer, and raconteur Jelly Roll Morton (born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, 1890-1941) came to the Library of Congress to record a series of interviews with an enthusiastic young staff folklorist named Alan Lomax. Lomax (1915-2002), who went on to become a renowned folk music scholar and collector, encouraged Morton not only to play, but also to talk about his early life in New Orleans’ evolving jazz scene.  Lomax’s oral history interviews with Morton were done over the course of several days on the stage of the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium, which is immediately next door to the room where many of today’s Botkins are recorded. They have been released several times on CD, and are still a benchmark resource for anyone interested in the history of jazz.  We hope the open documentation sessions being done as part of today’s Botkin Lectures will also prove valuable to future researchers.

In the past, recordings like the Jelly Roll Morton sessions could only be heard by people able to trek to Washington and visit the Library, but today there are other options. In the past few years, as the Library’s online presence has grown more robust and easier to use, it has become possible for us to record Botkin Lectures and post them to the Library’s website soon after they take place. (Because Botkin Lectures must be edited and ADA captioned before being webcast, it usually takes a few months following the live event for a Botkin to be posted to the website.)  So, if you are interested in a Botkin Lecture, you can now find it online and listen to it in the comfort of your own home, your local coffee shop, or your classroom.

Rutgers University musicologist Nancy Yunhwa Rao gave a Botkin Lecture on August 9, 2017, about Chinatown Opera Theater in North America. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Today, the Library of Congress website features more than 100 Botkins on a remarkable diversity of topics: Online visitors can listen to engaging presentations on everything from the lives of notable folklorists such as Alan Lomax and Sidney Robertson Cowell or learn about the careers of legendary performers such as Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. They can explore early recording technologies, hear about the surprisingly political history of home canning, find out about traditional dance in early New England and the cultural impact of Yiddish radio, or listen to talks on Mexican American corridos, storytelling, Sacred Harp singing, the Civil Rights Movement, Chinese opera theatre in North America (video coming soon!), and the blues in Mississippi.  The scope of Botkin topics available online is as diverse as it is impressive.

Online Botkin Lectures can be accessed individually by visiting the AFC’s website, where past lectures are listed in chronological order. However, to assist patrons and educators interested in exploring specific topics in greater depth, a series of upcoming Folklife Today blogs will curate and “bundle” past Botkin Lectures by several major topics, beginning later this month with “African American Culture and Folklife.”

Selecting a Botkin title will take you to a page where you can watch a video of the lecture. Many lectures also have an additional link called “Read the Flyer Essay,” which will take you to a page containing more information about the topic and biographical information about the speaker. (Visit a list of upcoming Botkin Lectures here.)

The original “Botkin Lecture?” Benjamin A. Botkin reads from one of his books at the Library of Congress in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of the Botkin family.

The Benjamin A. Botkin Lecture series honors Benjamin Botkin (1901-1975), a pioneering folklorist who headed the American Folklife Center’s archive (then known as the Archive of Folk Song) from 1942 to 1945. What distinguished Botkin as a scholar was the breath, diversity, and innovative perspective he brought to his research. He was one of the first folklorists to document urban America and to view folklife as an ever evolving cultural phenomenon. He was also the moving force behind the historic WPA “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938,” which collected more than 2,300 first-person oral history accounts of pre-Civil War slavery from formerly enslaved Americans. Botkin was also known as the author of popular books of folklore which he called “treasuries,” through which many thousands of Americans first learned about the importance of folklore. Each year, we try to identify and invite Botkin Lecturers whose work reflects and honors Botkin’s legacy of outstanding scholarship and intellectual inquiry.

Benjamin Botkin has inspired the Botkin Lecture series in a number of ways.  There was a Botkin Lecture by his son Daniel Botkin way back in 2006, and a Botkin Lecture about Benjamin Botkin himself, presented by Roger Abrahams in 2007. Roger, a great friend of the American Folklife Center, recently passed away, which brings up another reason to document contemporary folklore scholarship: through the Library of Congress, ideas can survive individuals and lectures will outlive lecturers.

In addition to the Botkin Lectures, upcoming Folklife Today blogs will also highlight exciting performances by traditional and ethnic musical groups from across the United States that have been  presented as part of AFC’s outstanding Homegrown Concert Series, as well as more in-depth, scholarly discussions of folklife topics addressed by AFC’s semi-annual symposia.  Like the Botkin Lectures, AFC Homegrown Concerts and AFC symposia also can be accessed online.



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