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Radical History Review 84 (2002) 119-122

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Patrolling the Boundaries

Daniel Walkowitz

My present research on folk dance (and especially English country dance) in the twentieth-century United States has encountered little that is unique or especially problematic in research in folk collections. Indeed, the research questions at the archives I have used in both the United States and the United Kingdom resemble those at many other archives where elites collect information about subordinates (subalterns). Rather, where I have encountered distinct questions has been in the building of an archive itself—the historian as folklorist—and the historian's relationship with allied disciplines in such projects where questions, methods, and agenda sometimes differ. To be sure, during the last decade in particular, in the embrace of multidisciplinarity, old boundaries have shifted and overlapped, and many have found welcomes in other disciplinary homes. However, the penetration of these changes remains at best uneven and, in some professional quarters, unwelcome. At the same time, professional training—including differences in how questions are framed and evidence mustered—remain. Even as boundaries have become permeable, then, I want to reflect on the persistence of the border guards.

Let me begin with my experience with the traditional folk collections I have used. In England, I have relied heavily on the collection at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House in London; in the United States, to date my research has focused on the Country Dance and Song Society collection (CDSS) and related holdings in the Dance Library of the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center. And, as suggested above, research questions raised for me by sources at these sites—the authenticity of documents, the range of voices, and so forth—have not struck me as very different from those I have encountered writing the history of [End Page 119] working people: voices of leaders predominate; minutes and records, as always, are constructed documents; and the documents substantively reflect the voices and purviews of outside "experts," though such collectors are now constituted as "folklorists" rather than "historians." But others have long pointed out the questionable role and authority vested in folklorists rather than in their respondents in the construction of the folk.

The peculiarities of my study—that I am focusing on how the twentieth-century revivalists interpreted and used a received tradition, not on any "authentic" tradition—obviates for me many of the concerns about the intervention of the folklorist in my written research archives. Instead, much of the similarity between my current research and past studies of the working class stems from some distinctive aspects of the history of English Country Dance (ECD) as a history of revival communities and their own imaginings. First, ECD is a revival tradition with multiple social origins on which the twentieth-century folk dancer can draw: the tradition is rooted in the recovery of dances done variously by villagers and the gentry from the medieval era and seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and ECD in its modern revival became associated with the gentry as much as, if not more than, village folk. Second, the revival dance community was and is constituted as a relatively white, elite, and middle-class folk whose social composition does not differ (and never has) appreciably from that of the collectors/revivalists. Unlike other studies of folklore, then, the ECD collaborative project has been less likely to raise questions about our speaking for the folk as a class other than about our relationship to what is constituted as the stuff of folklore. As noted earlier, this is a project about the contemporary dance community as folk and its imagining of the historical folk, not a presumption that there is an essential folk to be captured. In addition, the present community is represented by CDSS, which remains our funding sponsor. And a representative group of leading dancers, choreographers, and musicians constitutes our advisory board.

The construction of a contemporary archive based on oral histories filmed on video tape and the collaborative process involved in that work have raised a more unique set of methodological and ethical problems for me...


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pp. 119-122
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Archived 2004
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