[This essay was delivered by Alan Jabbour as a paper
at the conference honoring Benjamin A. Botkin at the Library of Congress,
I’ll begin by warning that I am not a proper
biographer of Ben Botkin. Jerrold Hirsch
has pored attentively over his published and unpublished corpus and has done
extensive interviewing with Botkin’s family and friends. Jerrold’s publications have provided
important insights into the intellectual milieu into which Botkin’s life and
work fit – both the influences on him, and also his many contributions to the
intellectual and cultural life of America. I can add only a handful of miscellaneous
observations. But I knew Ben Botkin,
knew his co-workers, and was hired by the same man who hired him at the Library
of Congress, Harold Spivacke. I’ve been
a denizen of the same Federal world that he inhabited, though in a quite
different generation. Thus I hope that
my thoughts about his Washington
career, seen through the eyes of a successor who likes to read bureaucratic tea
leaves, may provide some stimulation as we reflect on Botkin’s legacy.
Ben Botkin’s Washington
period encompasses the years 1937 through 1945, an eight-year span that can
fairly be called a seminal stage in his life.
His years in Washington DC
were quite comparable in personal and intellectual consequence to his years in Oklahoma and Nebraska
– that earlier Plains period that also clearly influenced his life and
worldview. The Plains period was longer
– roughly 1921 through 1937 -- and came at a more formative early stage of his
life. But it was interrupted by a return
to New York City for a few years, and by shifts
back and forth between Oklahoma and Nebraska. Those Washington
years, coming when he was in his later 30s and early 40s, were equally formative,
for during this period he contributed to and was in turn shaped by the
intellectual ferment of the New Deal and the challenges of the War years in Washington.
One might be tempted to subdivide Botkin’s Washington years into
the Federal Writers Project period followed by the Library of Congress
period. But in fact he arrived in Washington in 1937 as a
Julius Rosenwald Fellow to do research at the Library of Congress in southern
folk and regional literature. Rosenwald
was a Library benefactor, and the fellowship for Botkin may have been upon the
suggestion of John Lomax, who was already ensconced at the Library as Honorary
Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song.
Lomax, as a Harvard-educated Texan and an effective lobbyist and
networker, might well have supported Botkin as a fellow folklorist with Harvard
ties and Oklahoma
I can’t chart the exact sequence that led Botkin
from being a Library of Congress research fellow to joining the Federal Writers
Project. Suffice it to say that he was
soon infected by the excitement of New Deal Washington and, as a writer and student of
literature, joined the Federal Writers Project in 1938. His position was as national folklore editor,
and he quickly set about creating and coordinating national initiatives to
collect folklore throughout the United
By the end of 1938 he became chair of a newly reorganized, WPA-wide
Joint Committee on Folk Arts.
Federal Relief Administration and the Arts describes that first meeting
of the WPA Joint Committee on Folk Arts.
Botkin, representing the Federal Writers Project, was elected
Chairman. Vice-Chairman was Charles
Seeger of the Federal Music Project.
Other representatives included Herbert Halpert of the Federal Theater
Project, C. Adolph Glassgold of the Federal Art Project, Ernestine Friedman of
the WPA Education Division, S.B. Child of the Historical Records Survey, and
Nicholas Ray of the WPA Recreation Division.
The meeting was at the offices of the American Council of Learned Societies,
which had encouraged the meeting – perhaps at the suggestion of Charles
Seeger. Nick Ray later interacted with
Alan Lomax and the Archive of American Folk Song. Halpert was a folklorist who made an
important field trip through the South in 1939 under joint WPA and Folk Archive
auspices. Seeger was the famed
musicologist who had previously worked for the Resettlement Administration and
later headed the Music Division of the Pan-American Union. Child’s Historical Records Survey had John
Lomax on its payroll for a while, during which Lomax also worked as Honorary
Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song.
What am I getting at here? In the 1960s some student radicals used to
denounce the “interlocking directorates” in American business. It is fair to say that the same sort of
intricate networking occurred in the cultural sector during the WPA era in Washington. This was a kind of club of mostly men who
shared many social and intellectual interests and often university ties, and
who had in common a social vision that related powerfully to their New Deal
mission. Many of them were relatively
young, and the burgeoning of New Deal programs attracted them to Washington and placed
them in positions of surprising authority in the Federal infrastructure. This made for heady times, and we still can
feel today the reverberations of their excitement and commitment.
This cozy club of cultural cohorts was not simply
agreeable socially; it also yielded important results. A cogent illustration is Herbert Halpert’s
1939 field recording trip through the South.
The Joint Committee on Folk Arts sponsored the trip; Ben Botkin planned
and coordinated it in his role as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Folk Arts,
and Herbert Halpert of the Federal Theater Project did the actual
fieldwork. He used the Library of
Congress recording equipment as his field equipment and the Federal Theater
Committee truck as transportation, and he coordinated with WPA workers in
various states for local contacts and documentary photography along the
way. The trip ranged from Virginia to Mississippi,
then to Florida and back into Georgia and the Carolinas. It lasted several months and garnered 419
field-recorded discs with an enormous geographical and cultural range: ballad
singing from Appalachian Virginia, Jack tales from Cade’s Cove, Tennessee,
White fiddlers and Black lining-out hymns from northern Mississippi, and a
Florida recording session with author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Thus one of the most productive field trips
in the Archive, which has fed numerous documentary publications over the years,
was also a poster for the buddy network that propelled the cultural
accomplishments of the New Deal.
Anther cooperative project led to Ben Botkin’s next
assignment in Washington. The Federal Writers Project had developed an
important project, the Ex-Slave Narrative Project, under John Lomax’s
enthusiastic guidance before Botkin’s arrival in Washington.
The project, originally proposed by Lawrence D. Reddick of Kentucky State
Industrial College, sought to interview former slaves about their first-hand
recollections of the experience of slavery.
In fall of 1939, when the Federal Writers Project was being devolved
from federal to state control, Botkin received a new assignment that thrust him
back into a more intimate relationship with the Library of Congress. A special Library of Congress project of the
Federal Writers Project, which he spearheaded, undertook editing a set of the
ex-slave narrative manuscripts for permanent deposit at the Library. The finished results of his editorial work
are a multi-volume research compendium now reposing in the Library’s Rare Books
and Special Collections Division. The
project was perhaps the first major oral history project ever, and certainly
one of the most significant ever. For
many years the additional manuscripts from the ex-slave narrative project were
in the Folk Archive; they are now in the Library’s Manuscript Division.
In 1942 Washington
was rapidly changing, as the Federal agencies of the New Deal era dissolved and
wartime agencies burgeoned. Alan Lomax
decided to move from his position as Assistant in Charge at the Archive to the
new Office of War Information. John
Lomax remained the titular head as Honorary Curator, but he spent his part-time
energies on fieldwork and lecturing, so someone was needed to run the
office. Ben Botkin took the position as
Assistant in Charge.
Botkin’s tenure with the Archive of American Folk
Song lasted less than three years. They
were the war years, and nearly all federal spending had to be linked to the
war. Supplies for fieldwork – not only
gasoline and tires but also discs for field recording -- were hard to obtain. Aluminum was reserved for the war effort, so
those discs that could be obtained for field recording and laboratory
duplication were glass-based instead of aluminum-based and proved fragile and
hard to work with. Botkin’s annual
report for the Archive in 1943-44 expresses frustration at the difficulties in
furthering the work of the Archive:
“Another year of war has continued to restrict the Archive of American
Folk Song from its peacetime activity of collecting folk songs in this
country. It is impossible to arrange for
recording expeditions without an uninterrupted supply of gasoline and tires.”
But acquisitions for the Archive continued unabated,
often involving duplication of private collections by the Library’s Recording
Laboratory. There was a lively program
of exchanges with various Latin American countries, apparently stimulated by
wartime concerns to keep the Western Hemisphere closely allied with the United States. Other collections grew out of direct studio
recordings of visiting musicians by the Recording Laboratory. All in all, the annual list of acquisitions
is surprisingly strong for a small office in a cultural agency smothered by
major initiative of Alan Lomax before his departure was the experimental new
series of documentary albums of folk music.
Lomax had produced six albums in 1942 before his departure, and they had
proved a critical and popular success as well as a useful tool for
institutional and international exchange.
So Botkin pressed ahead to expand the series, and he was able to edit
five new albums that were finally released in 1945. The new releases included field recordings
from the Lomaxes – notably from the African American project done in
collaboration with Fisk University in Coahoma County, Mississippi -- but also a
generous portion of recordings from Halpert’s 1939 trip, and the fruits of some
other collectors as well. Two of the
albums Botkin edited are personal favorites of mine: Negro Religious Songs
and Services and Sacred Harp Singing (albums number 10 and 11).
Botkin began his position with the Library as Assistant
in Charge, inheriting Alan Lomax’s title in the shadow of John Lomax’s title
Honorary Curator. But at some point he
became “Chief of the Archive of American Folk Song.” He no longer worked under the shadow of John
Lomax, and the title “Chief” suggests an independent stature for the Archive,
though he still reported administratively to the Chief of the Music Division,
It is interesting to note that Botkin’s Washington career
constantly interacted with John Lomax’s.
The two seem to have evolved a complementary relationship – John Lomax
the older, more assertive, more political; Ben Botkin the younger, more
reserved, more scholarly. Lomax clearly
offered Botkin important help and support throughout Botkin’s Washington years. On the other hand, John Lomax was not nearly
so well accepted as Botkin in the scholarly world. There had been an embarrassing incident in
1937 when the American Folklore Society had failed to lend its support for the Federal
Writers Project. There was the implication
that a more scientifically trained folklorist was needed, and John Lomax seemed
by implication not to fit the bill to the Society's satisfaction. Federal Writers Project administrator Henry
Alsberg had responded by hiring Ben Botkin.
So Botkin as a close colleague clearly provided Lomax with an academic
insurance policy of sorts – an academic respectability and ease of access that
Lomax could not count on by himself.
Thus was born a tacit complementarity uniting them.
1944 and 1945 there were signs of a shift in energies on Botkin’s part. He made public appearances around the country
reading papers at scholarly conferences.
And he returned to his first love: writing and editing for
publication. In 1944 the Treasury of
American Folklore appeared and became such an enormous popular success that
one can still easily locate copies in used bookstores. And in 1945 Botkin produced a selected volume
drawn from the ex-slave narratives he had gathered for the Library of Congress,
entitled Lay My Burden Down. It
was the first of a distinguished line of publications drawn from the ex-slave
narrative project that continue to appear right up till today.
The Archive’s annual report for 1944-45
concludes: “The Chief of the Archive of
American Folk Song resigned on June 1, 1945, to devote full time to writing and
lecturing in his field.” Ben Botkin
moved from Washington to New York State. His Washington
period was over, and he returned to the life that seemed finally most
compelling to him: the life of writing
and reflection. Neither his personal
accounts nor those of others suggest any deep unhappiness with the tensions of
administrative life in the federal maw.
And though life in wartime Washington
must have had its frustrations, he must have anticipated that peace was at
hand, and he might have hoped for a fresh start after the war was over. But I believe he didn’t go FROM the Archive
so much as he went TO the world of writing.
Emboldened by the success of the Treasury, he simply chose a way
of life that seemed closer to his dreams as a writer and intellectual. He continued to be a public folklorist – but
now in a private capacity.
Ben Botkin’s Washington
years were intertwined deeply with the Archive of American Folk Song. Even when he was with the Federal Writers
Project, his work intersected closely with the Archive. The alliance with John Lomax united two men
of differing perspective and temperament, but of a similar inclination to look
comprehensively at the grassroots creative underpinnings of the American
experience. The larger network of
collegial cooperation proved a key element in the success of many of the
cultural enterprises of the New Deal, despite political opposition and the
inefficiencies of working with a multi-agency federal and state coalition. It was a triumphant period in the American
cultural enterprise, and both Ben Botkin as an individual and the Archive of
American Folk Song as a cultural institution were at the very epicenter of the