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Elderly woman sitting next to three children in the shade of several trees.
Agnes Vanderburg with children attending her outdoor school in 1979. Kay Young, photographer. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Montana Folklife Survey collection (AFC 1981/005; MT9-KY1)

This Is Your Brain on Folklife: Upcoming Event Featuring Connections Between Longevity and Traditional Culture

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On Wednesday, February 7, the American Folklife Center will be co-hosting an event that explores some of the science and perspectives on longevity, working with our colleagues in the Library’s Health Services Division and an external partner, the Longevity Science Foundation. A panel will discuss issues informing work on longevity, including ethics, neural health, and the ways in which arts engagement impacts the health of our brains and bodies. The event will be hybrid, with both in-person and online options for attending. Head over to the LOC Events listing to register and learn more about the panel.

What is the concept of longevity about? While there are many elements at play with this concept, it’s important to emphasize that longevity is not just about length of life, but also general wellness and quality of life. And, you might be wondering, what’s the folklife angle on this event? Folklife and traditional culture intertwine with longevity in many ways, especially when it comes to culture bearers operating as transmitters of knowledge and practices that have to do with overall well-being. Health or well-being can take many forms, and often flows through inter-generational sharing of culture. One great example found in our collections is Agnes Vanderburg, a Salish elder who ran an outdoor school on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana for many years. You can read more about Agnes, her school, and her motivations in this post by Stephanie Hall from 2016.

Additionally, the notion of “elder” has resonance across many cultural communities represented in our collections, with diverse manifestations of the concept and materials illuminating the roles that elders play in specific settings. In a general sense we might also understand longevity as a facet of lived experience, and documenting lived experience–especially the expressive cultural components– is a core interest of the folklore discipline. Exploring ways in which culturally grounded notions of longevity appear in the ethnographic documentation preserved in our archive could be beneficial to emerging science and medical practice around the concept.

A few AFC collections with materials that engage the wisdom of elders come to mind. For example, the National Visionary Leadership Project (sponsored by AARP) was a cross-generational oral history project aimed at having elders share their knowledge with college student ‘fellows’ who conducted the interviews. There are about 300 interviews in this collection containing a wealth of lived experience, wisdom, and perspectives. The Alan Lomax collection also includes materials that speak to the topic of longevity. A television series produced by Alan called American Patchwork featured a 1991 episode called “Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old.” In this episode, Lomax examined “the talents and wisdom of elderly musicians, singers, and story-tellers, who perform not for fame or fortune but to preserve and share their culture.” You can watch the episode over at Folkstreams. All the source material for this episode is in our Archive of Folk Culture.

One of the panelists for the upcoming event, folklorist Jon Kay, has been a speaker in our Benjamin Botkin folklife lecture series. We invited him in 2019 to give a talk called “Traditional Arts & Resilience in Later Life” based on his work with older adults and expressive practices. Watch the video of his presentation below:

We hope you’ll join us on February 7 for what promises to be an engaging discussion!

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