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America’s Folklorist: B. A. Botkin and American Culture by Lawrence Rodgers (review)

From: Western American Literature
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 410-411 | 10.1353/wal.2013.0008

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In an alternative history of mid-twentieth-century folklore, the materials and aims of the discipline would have been collegially discussed by academic and applied folklorists to forge a strong discipline whose relevance to literature and history made it a robust part of American humanities. In this alternative history, B. A. Botkin would have been a major figure, and there would then be no need for an early twenty-first-century rehabilitation of his reputation among scholars of folklore, literature, and history.

Rehabilitation is the aim of Lawrence Rodgers and Jerrold Hirsch’s book America’s Folklorist: B. A. Botkin and American Culture. Following Rodgers and Hirsch’s introduction, which provides an excellent overview of Botkin’s life and career, the book has three sections: (1) biographies and considerations of Botkin’s role in folkloristics; (2) articles considering Botkin’s interactions with contemporaries Sterling A. Brown and Ruth Crawford and Charles Seeger; and (3) essays and poems by Botkin.

If your introduction to Botkin was through the vitriolic attacks by Richard M. Dorson of Indiana University’s Folklore Institute, then America’s Folklorist is mandatory reading. Dorson’s reviews of Botkin’s series of A Treasury of … books took the famous folklorist to task for using materials culled from mass media and for lacking references to folklore classification systems. While these points were accurate, the value of the Treasury series was debatable—a debate that would have been fruitful. As Hirsch points out, “Dorson’s attack on Botkin … [recognized] that these volumes were works of synthesis that provided an agenda that Dorson found unacceptable” (69). It is not surprising to see Botkin quoted as saying in a letter to Ruth Crawford Seeger, “I don’t like Dr. Dorson” (111). What is surprising, and touching, is his mild tone, representative of his character as described by folklorists who knew him, notably Bruce Jackson and Ellen J. Stekert. Rodgers and Hirsch agree with Stekert’s characterization of Botkin as a humanist. Synthesizing the “lore” of folklore with literature, Botkin saw folklore as a means of understanding human history and as a source for literary writing.

America’s Folklorist makes a good case for Botkin’s contributions to the field of folklore, many of which are aligned with twenty-first-century folkloristics. Botkin used the term “applied folklore” for sharing folklore with public audiences through such means as folk festivals. He was part of efforts to establish national collecting and archiving, first with the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project and later with the Archive of American Folk Song. He was interested in traditional vernacular materials wherever they could be found and hence saw early on that the interplay between oral transmission and popular media was dynamic, not a barrier between modes of culture. One can imagine him enthusiastic about the emergence of YouTube and other media-enabled vernacular communications. As a regionalist who had grown up in a poor, ethnic, urban culture, he was sensitive to America’s cultural diversity and to the presence of folklore in the city. Before folklore was described as “emergent,” Botkin’s study of the play party in Oklahoma treated play party songs not as survivals of older forms but as responses to regional social changes. Politically a liberal, Botkin built relationships with important liberal intellectuals of his era, especially Sterling A. Brown, whose significant blues-influenced “Ma Rainey” Botkin first edited and published, and Crawford Seeger, whose second career as a transcriber of American folksong Botkin encouraged.

America’s Folklorist is uniformly a well-researched and highly readable book about a folklorist who has received less credit than deserved. The book would have benefitted from cutting the repetition of biographical details in favor of one or two additional essays by Botkin, but perhaps the editors are planning an edition gathering his key works. The appearance of America’s Folklorist is a reminder that folklore underwent significant changes as a field of study during the mid-twentieth-century. Additional works considering the roles of Dorson, Herbert Halpert, Wayland D. Hand, and others active in this era should join this volume on the shelves of university libraries.

Copyright © 2013 Western Literature Association
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