[Access article in PDF]
Looking Back, Moving Forward:
The Development of Folklore as a Public Profession (AFS Presidential Plenary Address, 2002)
PERHAPS BECAUSE THIS YEAR has been so catastrophic for all of us—for me, with the events of 9-11 and the death of AFS members who were my friends and contemporaries such as Vaughn Ward, David Shuldiner, Beverly Robinson, as well as legendary pioneers of folklore, Alan Lomax, Lauri Honko, and others—I have come to view the American Folklore Society as one family that is important to who I am and that I care deeply about. With "family" in mind, I hope to offer a few insights and some personal experience narratives, arrived at after being thrust into the political maelstrom that is Washington, D.C. My goal in doing this is to suggest ways that folklore as a discipline and profession might advance to gain the stature and power it deserves.
I want to offer a story for starters, to offer an example of the potential I see for our field. But first, listen to this. [At this point a musical excerpt from the traditional tune "More Pretty Girls Than One" is played, featuring a lone fiddle.] Does anyone recognize that old-time fiddler? It is the distinguished senior senator from West Virginia, current head of the appropriations committee, and power broker par excellence on Capitol Hill—Robert C. Byrd. No matter whether you agree with this grandee of the Senate, he is a force to be reckoned with and a man to win over if you work in the legislative branch of government.
Fortuitously, the American Folklife Center holds more than twelve hours of Senator Byrd's fiddling in its archive, recorded back in 1977 by Alan Jabbour and Carl Fleischhauer. I was in my office one day when I got a call from Senator Byrd's personal secretary. "Dr. Bulger," she said, "Senator Byrd has some recordings that were done by your center of his fiddling, but they are on 'reel' tape, and he can't play them anymore. He was wondering if y'all could make him some cassette recordings of them?" Could we! This was during the height of the appropriations hearings, the year that the American Folklife Center was asking for a doubling of its budget and nine new positions.
While making arrangements to have the copies made, I learned that Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, would accompany me to Senator Byrd's office [End Page 377] and make the presentation of these tapes personally. Now those of you familiar with Dr. Billington know that he is a very distinguished scholar of Russian history and politics. In his seventies, he is a 6-foot 4-inch presence with a shock of white hair and a patrician bearing, a Princeton man, and a power broker himself on Capitol Hill. Senator Byrd, who is in his eighties, is short in stature—about 5 foot 4 inches—but has an enormous personality and a shock of white hair to match Billington's. If we were to think in avian terms, Dr. Billington would be a tall, distinguished stork, whereas Senator Byrd would be a bantam rooster. A meeting of these two promised to be memorable.
Dr. Billington was extraordinary in remembering the talking points I had prepared for him, engaging Byrd in a discussion of the importance of old-time fiddling and referring to Byrd's rendition of "More Pretty Girls Than One" as one of his favorites. Byrd and Billington participated in a lively dialogue for more than thirty minutes while I looked on in some degree of awe, jumping in occasionally to provide a tidbit of old-time music trivia or to extol the value of the collections at the American Folklife Center. We played portions of Byrd's tapes, to his delight, and then had the obligatory photo opportunity. During all of this, Byrd periodically called out to his staff, who...