- America’s Folklorist: B. A. Botkin and American Culture edited by Lawrence Rodgers and Jerrold Hirsch
Lawrence Rodgers (Oregon State University) and Jerrold Hirsch (Truman State University) have pulled together a wide range of explorations, all previously published, into the career of the pioneering and influential folklorist Benjamin A. Botkin (1901–75). Botkin began his folklore studies while teaching at the University of Oklahoma in the 1920s, worked with the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the New Deal, then served as head of the Archives of American Folk Song in World War II. For the remainder of his life, he was a freelance writer promoting his folklife studies. The book’s editors provide a helpful introduction that gives context for insightful essays on Botkin’s work. Readers discover that Botkin left a literary [End Page 481] legacy as a poet who introduced many Oklahoma writers to a national audience. The editors then present essays on his role in the development of folklore scholarship, and Hirsch’s account of Botkin’s pathbreaking A Treasury of American Folklore (1944). Bruce Jackson’s obituary, first published in the Journal of American Folklore (January–March 1976), presents a personal discussion of Botkin’s life. His role as a father is explored in interviews with his children Dorothy Rosenthal and Daniel Botkin.
Botkin worked closely with a number of scholars and folklorists, deftly explored in the essays by Judith Tick, Nancy Cassell McEntire, Taylor Greer, Steven Shively, and John Edgar Tidwell. Tick, the biographer of Ruth Crawford Seeger, captures the relationship between Botkin and Seeger beginning in the late 1930s in Washington, DC, when Ruth’s husband, Charles, worked for the Resettlement Administration and Botkin studied there with a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship. Crawford Seeger and Botkin shared a love for folk music, particularly when he worked for the Library of Congress. Crawford Seeger had transcribed the songs for John and Alan Lomax’s Our Singing Country (1941), which Botkin depended on for the music section in A Treasury of American Folklore. Botkin worked directly with Crawford Seeger on her American Folk Songs for Children (1948). He then hired her as his music consultant on A Treasury of Western Folklore (1951), for which she transcribed 33 of the 44 songs while her daughter Peggy completed a few more. Botkin depended on Crawford Seeger, and vice versa, as she used his broad views on cultural and social history for her American Folk Songs for Christmas (1953). Crawford Seeger died the year of publication, ending a close and most fruitful relationship. Taylor Greer presents a general discussion of Botkin’s mostly theoretical relationship with Charles Seeger.
Nancy Cassell McEntire explores Botkin’s work on play-party songs, the subject of his 1931 University of Nebraska doctoral dissertation, published in 1937. Botkin explores the history of play-party dances. This genre intrigued him because of its grassroots cultural and social origins. Steven Shively’s and John Edgar Tidwell’s concluding essays connect Botkin with the influential African American writer Sterling Brown, who submitted his well-known poem “Ma Rainey” for the 1930 issue of Folk-Say, Botkin’s influential anthology, which lasted from 1929–32. Botkin and Brown had already connected through the African American journal Opportunity, where both published poems. Shively unravels the explosive meaning of “Ma Rainey,” which Botkin had a hand in rewriting. Tidwell, in “Reading Sterling A. Brown through the Alembic of Benjamin A. Botkin and Folk-Say,” goes into depth regarding their personal relationship, with both sharing an expansive view of folklore. Botkin’s Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (1945) depended on Brown’s intellectual assistance. Twenty years later, Brown suggested to Botkin that they work together on an African American anthology, but it didn’t happen.
The editors conclude with a slight compilation of Botkin’s writings, beginning with a 1934 essay, “Intimate Notebook: City Summer,” that appeared in Botkin’s short-lived magazine Space. This is followed by his 1935 detailed article in the...