- Folkstreams.net: A National Preserve of Documentary Films about American Roots Cultures
Folkstreams.net was created in 2000 as an independent nonprofit organization by filmmaker Tom Davenport; from its very beginning, the organization had a dual mission: to serve as an online outlet for independent cultural documentarians who had limited access to the promotional and distribution mechanisms of the mass market, as well as to serve as a cultural repository and promotional tool for the creativity and skills of tradition-bearers whose stories are an integral part of the US cultural fabric.
Just as the Folk and Traditional Arts division at the National Endowment for the Arts was created as the result of the passion and care of folklorists and culture brokers—notably Bess Lomax Hawes—Folkstreams.net is the result of Tom Davenport’s efforts to honor the art of the documentary and to celebrate the contributions of ordinary citizens to our shared cultural heritage. One of Davenport’s early partners and principal collaborator is folklorist Dan Patterson, whose love for the field of traditional culture and knowledge about documentary film formed the basis for Folkstreams’ collection. Both Dan and Beverly Patterson had been reviewing films—or soliciting reviews—for the Journal of American Folklore, and organizing screenings for the American Folklore Society’s annual meetings; these activities kept them informed about current films centered on folk and traditional life in the United States.
The large and ongoing collection of films (currently close to 200) is curated by Davenport (himself a filmmaker and the first recipient of The American Folklore Society’s Archie Green Public Folklore Advocacy Awards, 2009) and Patterson, with the advice of a number of colleagues; it grows incrementally through filmmakers’ inquiries and the founder’s and advisors’ input. Among the advisors is Sharon Sherman, whose book Documenting Ourselves: Film, Video and Culture (The University Press of Kentucky, 1998) was the first scholarly study of the films that Folkstreams now makes accessible to both scholars and the general public; it is based on extensive interviews by the author with Tom Davenport and many others who were making folklife films.
One of the early debates about the format for these visual archives was whether to build the collection as a commercial venture or to give it an institutional base (Tom Davenport, personal communication). The respective fragility and constraints of both were evident; the decision to build a nonprofit with institutional partnerships resulted in an affiliation with the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Sciences and the Southern Folklife Collection, which houses preservation copies of all the films. The nonprofit status of Folkstreams.net, coupled with its partnership with the university, gives it both stability and independence. It undoubtedly also facilitated funding from such sources as the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Liberated from the constraints of commercial and public TV channels and commercial movie theaters, the films range widely in length as well as in visual aesthetics and content. Many of the works were produced by dedicated fieldworkers who saw the opportunity to preserve and share the fabric of life in a particular community, and documented the everyday life, work, and creativity of ordinary citizens with extraordinary talent. The films are accompanied by interviews by or with the filmmaker (such as Bruce Jackson’s and Pete and Toshi Seeger’s comments on the making of Afro-American [End Page 375] Work Songs in a Texas Prison, 1966, Daniel Seeger, editor); by reviews and commentaries as well as by a list of films on the same subject (such as Dance for a Chicken: The Cajun Mardi Gras, 1993, produced by Cajun Filmmaker Pat Mire, accompanied by a list of films on the same topic and the filmmaker’s comments); and by interviews with folklore giants such as those with Archie Green that accompany the film Pilebutts: Working Under the Hammer 2003, by Maria Brooks and Archie Green. Brooks and Green’s film, as well...