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Radical History Review 84 (2002) 125-136

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Historians at Work

The Folklorist As "Cultural Activist":
An Interview with Steve Zeitlin

Adina Back and Sally Charnow


We interviewed Steve Zeitlin, the founder and executive director of City Lore in New York City, as he and managing director Marci Reaven were in the midst of organizing a museum exhibition on the memorial shrines that emerged in the City in the days and weeks after September 11, 2001. Ever attentive to the art of storytelling, Steve narrates the story of his own emergence as a folklorist and the 1986 founding of City Lore, a not-for-profit organization with the mission of documenting and presenting the diverse folk cultures of New York City. References to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett dotted our conversation. A longtime colleague and pioneer of the urban folklore movement, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has challenged nostalgic tendencies among folklorists, influencing City Lore's orientation toward the documentation of present-day practices of folk culture. As a proud "cultural activist," Steve talked of the ways that folklorists have influenced mainstream popular and media culture in the process of uncovering and preserving American traditions that have often gone ignored.

Steve Zeitlin: In my recent days, I've actually thought of trying to get a group of folklorists together to write a piece about how folklorists have changed the world, because I really do think that we have changed the world and that the ideas that were once thought to be folkloric ideas are really pervasive throughout American [End Page 125] culture and through all the disciplines right now. So I do think we have had an enormous impact way beyond our size.

To give you an example, when September 11 happened, a week later, City Lore started to photograph the memorials and to chronicle the response. But a few days after September 11, there was already a booth in Union Square, started by two artists, called "Tell Us Your Story"—actually, they're now working with us on this exhibit. They're not folklorists, it's just that ideas about the importance of stories and the importance of folk culture have pervaded the culture sufficiently so that even after 9-11, everybody was interested in collecting stories and photographing the memorials. It's made doing this exhibit easy, because we've been able to draw on many different photographers and cultural chroniclers. We're documenting the shrines, but the television cameras are out there documenting the shrines at the same time, realizing the importance of them. We're oftentimes working alongside them. They call us to go visit sites that they may have heard of before we do, and they're bringing us along with them. This can be irritating, needless to say, but the attention paid across the board to folk culture has to be considered a positive development.

As for my own history as a folklorist, I sometimes use a story to sum up how I went into the field. I start off, when I give lectures, with a narrative—and as a folklorist, I'm very conscious of narrative—and I realize that I've embellished the truth, though only slightly. But the way I tell it is: I was studying Old English poetry at Bucknell, and I was actually working in Philadelphia, so I was at the University of Pennsylvania library doing my master's thesis, and I was wandering through the shelves one night when I came across a book called The Folklore of New York City. And I opened it up to a random page, and I came across a group of children's rhymes that were collected by Ralph Ellison for the WPA. And when I do this lecture I recall one of the children's rhymes, which went, "I should worry, I should care / I should marry a millionaire. / He should die, I should cry / I should marry another guy." So if you ever hear me talk in lecture, I'll probably tell that very same story. I looked at the spine of...


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pp. 125-136
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2004
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