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Advisors / Selected Films / Rights

Folkstreams Mission has two goals. One is to build a national preserve of hard-to-find documentary films about American folk or roots cultures. The other is to give them renewed life by streaming them on the internet. The films were produced by independent filmmakers in a golden age that began in the 1960s and was made possible by the development first of portable cameras and then capacity for synch sound. Their films focus on the culture, struggles, and arts of unnoticed Americans from many different regions and communities.

The filmmakers were driven more by sheer engagement with the people and their traditions than by commercial hopes. Their films have unusual subjects, odd lengths, and talkers who do not speak "broadcast English." Although they won prizes at film festivals, were used in college classes, and occasionally were shown on PBS, they found few outlets in venues like theaters, video shops or commercial television. But they have permanent value. They come from the same intellectual movement that gave rise to American studies, regional and ethnic studies, the "new history," "performance theory," and investigation of tenacious cultural styles in phenomena like song, dance, storytelling, visual designs, and ceremonies.They also respond to the intense political and social ferment of the period.

The filmmakers and the researchers they collaborated with explored performances situated in a community's customary work, worship, and play. Beneath their colorful surfaces often lie serious issues of physical, psychic, and social survival under duress. For understanding what they saw the filmmakers relied more heavily on observant and knowledgeable community members than on outside "experts." They conveyed understanding through action and symbol as often as by "talking heads." See Selected Films.

Many of the films, however, are linked to significant published research. Folkstreams draws on this material to accompany and illuminate both the subjects and the filmmaking. And the films themselves add powerful dimensions to print scholarship. They offer a direct experience of unfamiliar worlds. Many of these are now receding into the historical past, but we hope the example of these films may stimulate alternative filmmaking with subjects and approaches still ignored by mainstream corporate media.


The idea for Folkstreams grew from attempts by those who made these documentaries to gain greater exposure for their films. As independent filmmakers they did not have access to standard advertising and distribution systems. Neither movie theatres nor commercial television networks would show them. Video stores, when they spread across the country, wanted the Hollywood blockbuster hit. Public television sometimes broadcast the films, particularly in early years, but its programmers were uneasy with several characteristics of these documentaries. The films often ran in odd lengths that did not fit into the time slots crystallized for television. They lacked the stars to draw an immediate audience. The language of the subjects was a barrier. They spoke dialects colored by race and region and class or even languages like Cajun French. Audiences might lack the background to understand the social worlds that the films showed. The documentaries to which public-television programmers instead gravitated typically had national historical subjects presented through scripted narration intercut with archival photographs, newsreel footage, and talking heads of scholars. If independent filmmakers could not work through existing media institutions, they also found that they had no good way to advertise and sell to the general public. They therefore targeted libraries and schools but had no effective way to acquaint them with their films or to make a living vending them at prices that would promote purchases.

Unable to make a living solely from his documentaries Tom Davenport developed From the Brothers Grimm, a successful series of dramatized adaptations of fairy tales translated into American settings. This led him and his wife and partner Mimi Davenport in 1999 to construct a website for their feature-length film Willa: An American Snow White. They quickly saw that the Internet had the potential also to connect documentary filmmakers with niche audiences. A website streaming major films on American vernacular culture could introduce audiences worldwide to important works they would otherwise never learn of or see. Bringing awareness to hard-to-find films could benefit viewers and also increase video and stock footage sales for the filmmakers and their distributors. The films themselves and the prospect of a viable career might also encourage a new generation of filmmakers to take up documentary work.

Tom Davenport also saw that the website could also include contextual information along with the films. Documentary filmmakers have often been or collaborated with musicians, folklorists, anthropologists, Americanists, or other scholars in choosing subjects and approaches and in filming and editing. They have learned that the information supplied in a classroom often made their films better understood and appreciated. So filmmakers began to collaborate with researchers to create materials to accompany their films. Folklorist Daniel Patterson, working with historian/folklorist Allen Tullos and filmmaker Tom Davenport, produced some of the earliest, a 16-page booklet of "background, transcription, and commentary" to accompany their film Born for Hard Luck in 1972. Their similar 44-page booklet for Being a Joines (1980), gained strength from the collaboration of Joyce Joines Newman, a daughter of the central figures in the film, who participated in the production of both the film and the study materials. She combined an insider's understanding with the perspective of a professional folklorist. Two subsequent Davenport films, A Singing Stream and The Ballad of Frankie Silver, had their booklets published as special issues of The North Carolina Folklore Journal. The interlinking of documentary films with print scholarship has come to be extensive. A dozen of the films already or soon to be mounted on the Folkstreams website have parallels in books written by persons who collaborated in the making of the films.

Working with folklorist Daniel Patterson and other scholars, filmmakers, archivists, and computer specialists whom he recruited for a Folkstreams advisory committee, Davenport created a proposal which has been the basis of successful grant applications to both of the National Endowments, and to the Institute for Museum and Library Services as well as state Arts and Humanities organizations for the contextual development of single films from a state. Guided by computer programmer Steve Knoblock, he constructed a database and a prototype of the website and began streaming in 2002. In addition to grants for developing the website, he has found many other documentary filmmakers and their original collaborators enthusiastic supporters of the project. They have been helpful in supplying copies of their prints for use and background information to accompany the films. One valuable by-product of the work has been the rescuing of some films in danger of being lost and the making of preservation copies on digital betacam tape of every film included. These tapes as well as 16mm prints of the films will be stored in the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and available for any use that the future may have for them. See Rights.

In sum, as Tom and Mimi Davenport have written, "The idea of creating grew out of our love of filmmaking, a respect for the traditional culture of ordinary Americans, and a desire to get our work to the general public. Heretofore, much good independent film work was like the tree falling in the wilderness with no one to hear. With the Internet and video streaming, we will be able to make a 'national park' from this wilderness where everyone can come and freely hear and see what we and others have labored on for so long and with such enjoyment. The idea of a 'cultural preserve' as a kind of national park of intellectual property is an important one for our times."

Institutional Partners

FOLKSTREAMS INC is a 501c3 non-profit organization set up as a non-stock corporation in the state of Virginia by Diara Holmes and Felix Laughlin of the Dewey Ballantine Law firm in Washington, DC in 2002. The purpose of the organization includes: (i) preserving significant documentary films and videos about American traditional culture; (ii) videostreaming such films, along with explanatory material about their cultural, historical, and artistic significance, thereby making them available to the general public via the Internet; and (iii) encouraging and aiding in the production of documentary films and the development of contextual materials regarding traditional subjects. See Advisors.

IBIBLIO.ORG at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a diverse and expansive collection of information on the Internet, created and maintained by the public, for the public. Dubbed "The Public's Library," ibiblio is home to one of the largest "collections of collections" on the Internet. is a contributor-driven and author-managed conservancy of freely available information, including software, music, literature, art, history, science, politics, and cultural studies. ibiblio also offers streaming audio and video. Paul Jones, one of the members of the Folkstreams committee, directs

THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science (SILS), established in 1931, is home to a dynamic interdisciplinary educational and research environment. SILS was ranked first in the nation for overall excellence in the latest U.S. News & World Report survey of 50 accredited graduate schools of information and library science. The School strives to achieve excellence and leadership as it conducts inquiry devoted to information and its role in society; fosters effective access to information; prepares reflective, adaptive information professionals for action in the present and the future; and inspires in its students an uncompromising advocacy for knowledge.

THE SOUTHERN FOLKLIFE COLLECTION in the library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of the nation’s foremost archival resources for the study of American folk music and popular culture. SFC holdings extensively document all forms of Southern musical and oral traditions and their related traditions in the rest of the United States. The Southern Folklife Collection contains nearly 200,000 sound recordings including cylinders, acetate discs, wire recordings, 78-rpm and 45-rpm discs, LPs, cassettes, CDs, and open reel tapes. Moving-image materials include over 4,000 video recordings and 18 million feet of motion picture film. Paper-based materials include thousands of photographs, song folios, posters, manuscripts, and ephemeral items. Steve Weiss, the Sound and Image Librarian for this collection, is also a member of the Folkstreams committee.