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New online collection: Lowell Folklife Project

The American Folklife Center is excited to announce the launch of a new collection on the Library’s web site: the Lowell Folklife Project Collection.

Color photograph depicting a recording session of Cambodian musicans in the home of Sorn Veuk. Lowell, Massachusetts in 1987. Photo by David Taylor.

Cambodian musicians at the home of Sorn Veuk, Lowell, Massachusetts. Photo by David Taylor, 1987 (AFC 1987/042: LFP-DT-C002). Audio from this session is embedded further down in the blog post.

As a cooperative project of the American Folklife Center and the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, the Lowell Folklife Project spanned August 1987 through mid-April 1988. The primary focus was on documenting ethnic neighborhoods, occupations, and community life related to the history of industrialization in Lowell, Massachusetts. Support from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities helped see the project to completion.

During the year-long field research period in Lowell, a team of fieldworkers produced ethnographic documentation consisting of close to 200 hours of sound recordings, around 10,000 black and white negatives (35mm, 120mm, and 4×5 inch), and about 3500 color slides. These audio-visual materials are now online, alongside almost 24 hours of sound recordings made by Lowell residents, which were copied during the project, and which feature musical events and oral history interviews. Other collection materials also online include field notes, reports, interview transcripts, and logs for audio recordings and photographs. Ultimately, all of the fieldwork documentation supported the central theme of the project: the creation and maintenance of community space.

The sound recordings and photographs cover a diverse range of subjects and activities, including: oral history interviews, religious services and festivals (Catholic and Greek Orthodox holy week and Easter services and religious processions; a Cambodian Buddhist wedding ceremony; Cambodian and Laotian New Year’s celebrations; Puerto Rican festivals), musical events, parades, ethnic restaurants, and neighborhood tours. Below you can stream a 32 minute portion of the recording session depicted in the photograph above (slide forward to 00:47 to find the start of the first full song):

The team of fieldworkers involved in the project featured AFC staff as well as contracted specialists, and included: Peter Bartis, Michael E. Bell, Douglas DeNatale, Barbara Fertig, Carl Fleischhauer, John Lueders-Booth, Mario Montaño, Martha K. Norkunas, Tom Rankin, David Alan Taylor, Eleanor F. Wachs, and members of the Refugee Arts Group (a non-profit based in Lowell).

At the time of the project’s conceptualization, planning centered on a primary objective: to create a “nucleus” for a folklife archive to be housed in the Patrick Morgan Cultural Center at the Lowell National Historic Park. In support of this objective, the principle partners designing the project opted to conduct fieldwork with a small selection of ethnic cultural groups that represent Lowell’s diverse history rather than attempting to document a wide range of groups. The rational, as outlined in the final report, was to do in-depth documentation on a few groups so as to maximize limited resources. This was a different approach than AFC took with the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project in 1977, an effort that investigated over 20 ethnic groups!

Image depicting a group of 13 teenage boys and their skateboards posing in front of a brick wall. Photo by Douglas DeNatale, taken in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1987.

Skateboarding in Merrimack St. parking lot, Lowell, Massachusetts. Photo by Douglas DeNatale, 1987. (AFC 1987/042: LFP-DD-C015 )

Fieldwork in Lowell focused on residents of Irish, French, Greek, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, and Cambodian descent. But, as the final report noted, “It was also decided, in agreement with current theoretical understandings, that ethnicity should be considered only one dimension through which expressive culture is generated. In order to gain a sample that cut across considerations of ethnicity, it was decided to investigate Lowell’s neighborhoods as both artifacts of cultural process and as arenas for cultural expression.” So fieldworkers also fanned out through several neighborhoods of Lowell: Centralville, Pawtucketville, Belvidere, Back Central, the Acre, and the Highlands. Photographs, field notes, and interviews from these neighborhoods help paint a picture of their place in the history of Lowell as well as the contemporary scenes and activities in the late 1980s.

Additionally, the start of fieldwork for the project in August 1987 just preceded the opening of the National Folk Festival in Lowell. This was the first of a three-year run for the National (as per their standard process). In n 1990, the National Folk Festival moved on to Pennsylvania, but the infrastructure and organization built up in Lowell went on to produce the Lowell Folklife Festival, which is still running today.

Image showing Doc Poulin's Jazz band leading a "jazz march" in the strees of Lowell during the National Folk Festival in 1987. Photo taken by Douglas DeNatale..

National Folk Festival, Lowell Massachusetts. Photo by Douglas DeNatale, 1987. (AFC 1987/042: LFP-DD-C005). This scene is from a series of images showing the “jazz parade” with Doc Poulin’s Jazz Band.

Skateboarding, candle making, boxing, marching in parades–all this and more features in the Lowell Folklife Project collection. We invite you to explore this rich and exciting online collection!

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