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John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax papers now online

This is a guest blog post by Todd Harvey, a Reference Librarian and curator of the Lomax collections at the American Folklife Center. The American Folklife Center announces long-awaited digital access to a tranche of Lomax family correspondence. It follows similar treatment for the Bess Lomax Hawes collection and the Alan Lomax collection. Most of […]

Festivus and Family Lore

This time of year many people celebrate Festivus, an alternative holiday that is based on a single episode of the television show Seinfeld, “The Strike,” which aired on December 18, 1997. It is most commonly celebrated on December 23 or another date in December, but it can be celebrated at other times of the year. […]

2020 AFC Mummers’ Play Podcast: The Peaceful Transfer of Mumming

In the week or two before Christmas, staff members of the American Folklife Center engage in a dramatic, comedic, and musical performance that tours the halls of the Library of Congress. The performance is based on traditional mummers’ plays, and allows us to put our research skills into play alongside our more playful impulses. This year, we realized we couldn’t perform our mummers’ play live, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We didn’t want to let the pandemic defeat us, though, so we decided to do our play anyway–just in a different way. We’ve been recording our podcast, Folklife Today, remotely throughout the pandemic, we reasoned. So why not do the mummers’ play as a podcast episode, sort of like an old-time radio play? The audio, play script, and photos are all here in this blog!

Masking and Mumming for the Holidays, Thanksgiving Style!

Happy Thanksgiving! In this post, we’ll take a look at a set of interesting photos from the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division. They depict a custom most people nowadays don’t know much about: Thanksgiving masking. Thanksgiving maskers, like trick-or-treaters on contemporary Halloween, used to go door to door, begging for handouts. They also […]

Songs of the Harvest

Thanksgiving days were declared by United States Presidents at various times in American history, beginning with George Washington making November  26, 1789, a day of thanksgiving, but Thanksgiving was not established as a regular yearly Federal holiday until 1870. So there are not a great many songs specifically for American Thanksgiving, and these were composed […]

Devil Songs for Halloween

In his book The Folk Songs of North America, in an introduction to one of the American Folklife Center’s finest songs about the Devil, Alan Lomax wrote:

Early America saw the Devil as a real and living personage. Rocks in New England were scarred by his hoofprints, as he carried off maidens, screaming and howling, over the hills, or came after the men who had sold their souls to him in return for money or success. […] A mountain woman tells of the last moments of her mean old husband…’I knowed he war goin’, because all the dogs from fur and nigh come around and howled. Hit wur a dark night. But plain as day, comin’ down yon side the mountain, through the bresh so thickety a butcher knife couldn’t cut hit, I seen the Devil a-comin’. He war ridin’ a coal-black cart, drivin’ a coal-black oxen. The cart come down to the door and stopped. When it come, it come empty. But when it went away, hit had a big black ball in it that war Arzy’s soul. […] Lomax’s passage serves as a fine and atmospheric introduction to our own Halloween exploration of the Devil in folksongs from the American Folklife Center archive!

Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project Now Available

The Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project was conducted in the summer of 1982 by the American Folklife Center to survey selected religious and secular ethnic community-based schools conducted, at least in part, in a language other than English to document the continued ethnolinguistic and cultural diversity of the United States. This collection […]

Chicago Blues and Jazz: A New Story Map on the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection

In May, I wrote about a project that was keeping me busy, and providing a nice escape from the mental confines of my well-worn, Baltimore couch. While I cannot believe it is already August, I am happy to announce that the project is all set and ready to share! Chicago Blues and Jazz: Selections from […]