Folkstreams logo - A National Preserve of Documentary Films about American Roots Cultures

1. Abstract
2. Introduction to the Subject
3. History of the Project


The purpose of Folkstreams is to make available to the general public significant, high-quality documentary films and videos produced since the 1960s about American traditional or “roots” culture. It will do this by videostreaming excerpts and/or complete films and accompanying them with explanatory materials about their history and their artistic, social, and cultural meaning. Carried out by a group that includes filmmakers, humanities scholars, documentarians, archivists, and computer specialists, the project  will stream works that form a valuable record of our regional, ethnic, religious, and occupational cultures, and they address many issues recurrent in American life and many themes of concern to the humanities. Most often the result of collaboration between independent filmmakers, Americanists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, folklorists, musicians, historians and oral historians, and students of work and religion), the documentaries are linked to significant published scholarship. As films, they also add an important dimension to print scholarship: they give the viewer a direct, personal impression of places, people, performances, and events, and convey understanding through powerful, condensed, symbols. Folkstreams will make this important but not widely known body of films easy to find and to explore interactively, giving renewed exposure to work originally funded in large part by the two National Endowments and their state counterparts. 


A central and recurrent issue in America is the relationship of the holders of power and prestige to the other groups in our society. The issue arises from discrepancies between our founding political philosophy and the social realities that normally characterize a nation. These creative tensions pervade our economic and political life but are equally dramatic in our cultural life, for the mainstream is in constant interaction with our many regional, ethnic, religious, and occupational folk cultures. Major writers—Emerson, Melville, Whitman, Faulkner, and Ellison, to cite but a few—have idealized, satirized, or drawn upon American folklife. In their classical compositions musicians like Charles Ives and Aaron Copland have used our vernacular music, and it has for better and for worse repeatedly rejuvenated American popular music from the time of the antebellum minstrel show to the latest trends in rock. Traditional music served as a tool and symbol of the Civil Rights movement several decades ago. The issue of cultural tensions underlay recent disputes in scholarly circles over directions in American Studies, African American studies, Southern studies, women’s studies, oral history programs, and the “new history.”

The films we propose to feature in the Folkstreams website are at many levels interwoven with this American issue and with another one: the social uses to which Americans put their constantly evolving technologies. As Professor Sharon R. Sherman ably recounts in her recent study Documenting Ourselves: Film, Video, and Culture (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1998), around 1960 a number of people began to use newly invented portable 16mm movie cameras to film folk traditions and produce documentary films. Folklorists and independent filmmakers, often working in collaboration, did this more out of sheer engagement with the people and the material than for commercial reasons. They were particularly interested in music, convinced that much of the creativity for which our country was respected welled up in the honky-tonk, the country or storefront church, the mining town, the mill village, and the urban ethnic center. It was in such places that Americans created the blues, work songs, spirituals, gospel music, bluegrass, conjunto, salsa, zydeco, country music, jazz, rock and roll, and urban rap—distinctively American music that has won the attention of the world. This filmmaking and music collecting was spearheaded by people like Alan Lomax, John Cohen, and Pete Seeger—all of whom were active in the American “folk music revival.” Others were located on university campuses where the study of traditional culture was growing, stimulated by the same social, political, and psychic energy that found expression in the revivalist movement. Folklorists, musicians, and filmmakers took field trips looking for new undiscovered material. Disoriented by the Vietnam War and inspired by such things as the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the Appalachian Volunteers, they were in search of an America they could respect, an America they could identify with. With funding from the newly established National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and their state counterparts, this impulse to document folklore bore most fruit in the 1970s and 1980s, a golden age of the folklife documentary film.

Another aspect of the underlying American cultural dynamic manifested itself, however, when these independent filmmakers tried to disseminate their films. They did not have access to standard advertising and distribution systems for films. Neither movie theatres nor commercial television networks would show them. Video stores, when they spread across the country, wanted the Hollywood blockbuster hit. The filmmakers had no good way to advertise and sell to the general public. They therefore targeted libraries, schools, and public television. But they found it difficult to acquaint libraries and schools with their products or to make a living vending them at prices that would promote purchases. 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, lacked “big names,” and had subjects who spoke with regional voices and dialects. Audiences might need background knowledge to appreciate them. The documentaries to which public-television programmers instead gravitated typically had national historical subjects presented through scripted narration intercut with talking heads of scholars.

The folklife documentary films instead most often had contemporary subjects and grew from a different aesthetic. Until the 1960s the model for the documentary film had been the Hollywood-style non-fiction film, with actors and a script. Even famous anthropological films such as Nanook of the North, which give the appearance of presenting events in real time, were in fact staged. But in the 1950s the new portable movie equipment enabled documentary filmmakers to begin to film people in the midst of their normal activities. Through the pioneering efforts of Jean Rouch (Chronique d’un été) and other ethnographic filmmakers, a new documentary film was born, united behind the claim of truth, vérité. These films tend to deal with a single person, family, or community, church, job, event, or issue, and let the subjects speak in their own voices. Some of these films focus on American icons such as blues singer Lightnin’ Hopkins, Appalachian guitarist and singer Doc Watson, bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, Tex-Mex vocalist Lydia Mendoza, or African American gospel founder Thomas A. Dorsey. Other films highlight the arts, work skills, customs, history, and values of such groups as Louisiana Cajuns and Isleños, Micmac Indians in Maine, the Irish in New York, Finns in Michigan, Hispanics in New Mexico, or even recent Sikh immigrants in California. They feature the songs, practices, and beliefs of Appalachian Freewill or Old Regular Baptists, the Amish in Pennsylvania, the Shakers in New England, or Black Baptist congregations in Mississippi, Washington, D.C., or Connecticut, Sioux Indian traditionalists in the Dakotas, or Italian American Roman Catholics in Boston or New York. They show the occupational skills and the stories and ballads of Maine lumberjacks and Michigan woodsmen, the work chants of African American railroad spike drivers and track liners, the poems of Nevada cowboys, or the design inventions of women quilters from a variety of ethnic and regional traditions. They explore the old dance traditions of Appalachia and New England or the dances of more recently arrived Serbian or Polish immigrants in the Midwest and the new powwow dancing that grew from certain American Indian traditions and has spread through their communities across the nation. They explore the evolution of other old song traditions into commercial country music and gospel.

Many of our folklife documentary filmmakers such as John Cohen in New York, Les Blank and Pat Ferrero in California, Judy Peiser in Memphis, the Appalshop group in Kentucky, and Tom Davenport in Virginia could not get wide public exposure for their films, but they gained reputations among folklorists, filmmakers, and Americanists. Their films were reviewed in professional journals, screened in meetings and on college campuses, and studied in film courses. They have in fact typically had great success in two settings: the communities in which they were made and the university. For example, the Tom Davenport/UNC Curriculum in Folklore film Being a Joines (1980) has been shown only twice by the state’s public television station, but in two different years it got multiple back-to-back showings at The Brushy Mountain Apple Festival in its home community. Furthermore, for many years it has been shown annually at the University of North Carolina, both in folklore courses and in a large film-criticism course, where it has been highly popular with a broad cross-section of university students.

From such experiences (and we could cite many similar ones with other films) we have learned two lessons: that the films succeed when the audience has sufficient background to understand them, and that the films can reach their large potential audience only if free from the mass-market pressures on broadcast television. Happily, two circumstances now make this possible. One is that for most of these films we have a wealth of available scholarship. As many of these films were made with support from the NEH, the NEA, or state humanities and arts councils, humanities-oriented documents are often already available for dissemination, in the form of study guides and background material for various curricular levels to help the viewer contextualize and interpret the films. There are furthermore a number of full-length scholarly studies linked to specific films. The following are some examples: Elaine Hedges, Pat Ferrero, and Julie Silber, Hearts and Hands: The Influence of Women and Quilts on American Society (San Francisco: Quilt Digest Press, 1987) with Pat Ferrero’s film Hearts and Hands; Bruce Jackson’s Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs from Texas Prisons (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972) with Pete Seeger’s film Afro-American Worksongs From Texas Prisons; Alan Lomax’s The Land Where The Blues Began (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993) with his film bearing the same title; Carl Lindahl and Carolyn Ware’s Cajun Mardi Gras Masks (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997) with Pat Mire’s film Dance for a Chicken; two unpublished UNC master’s theses by Joyce Joines Newman and James E. Wise with Tom Davenport’s film Being a Joines; Daniel W. Patterson’s The Shaker Spiritual (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979; rpt. Dover Publications, 2000) with Tom Davenport’s The Shakers, and his book A Tree Accursed: Bobby McMillon and Stories of Frankie Silver (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000) with Tom Davenport’s video The Ballad of Frankie Silver; Jeff T. Titon’s book Powerhouse For God (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988) with his film of the same title; and Sharon Sherman’s book Chainsaw Sculptor: The Art of J. Chester “Skip” Armstrong (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995) with her video Spirits in the Wood.

The second circumstance that promises to connect potentially very large audiences with this body of films is the development of websites and video streaming. Combining these technologies offers us an unparalleled opportunity to solve both problems: showing the documentaries on a medium not constrained by mass-market paradigms and providing humanistic scholarship to help the general public understand what the films show. Video streaming functions more like a library than a conventional broadcast medium. In an ordinary broadcast (regardless whether it is delivered through the air or by cable) programming flows outward from a single source to multiple viewers during fixed time slots. The audience has to tune in at a certain time or it will miss the show entirely. With video streaming, as with books in a library, the films are waiting to be checked out and watched, in part or in full, at any time, regardless of length. Moreover, because they are available to anyone at any time and reside more or less permanently on a server, they do not have to have a high Neilsen rating to keep them on the air. At the present stage of development of video streaming only the most committed viewers will probably choose to see more than highlights from the films, but we anticipate that within a few years the spread of broadband capability will make watching entire films on the internet a common and popular activity.

Another advantage of the Folkstreams website is that it will present the streamed videos within a context that fosters understanding and encourages further investigation of a subject. The website design will encourage the viewer pause, look again at an interesting scene, call out a transcription of statements hard to hear, look up unusual terms, and then to explore accompanying materials that help place the film within the framework of large humanities themes of the project: continuity and change in art and society, the communication of social values from one generation to the next, cultural exchanges between ethnic groups, local responses to the stresses created by modernization and technology, and survival strategies created by individuals, families, and communities. Users will find a film accompanied by such materials as a transcript of the audio track with notes about the subject, related audio clips (e.g., songs and stories), maps and still photos, brief biographies of the persons and histories of the communities and traditions featured in the film, accounts of the beliefs and aesthetic systems shaping performances filmed, information about the filmmaker and the making of the film, suggestions for further reading, listening, and links to distributor and vendor sites. A bulletin board message will be included so that users can interact with each other and the filmmakers, comment on or ask questions about the film, and recommend new titles and links for the site.

The site will be designed to appeal to users of all interest levels and backgrounds. The general user will find well-selected films with brief, easy-to-read accounts of important aspects and implications of the films. The enthusiast will find more in-depth discussions of the topic and links to other relevant material. The scholar will find bibliographical references, excerpts from academic articles and books, and a bulletin board system to compare notes and exchange ideas with others

The interpretative elements of the web page will help reconnect American audiences to their nation’s heritage and validate the importance of the history, experience, and creativity of ordinary citizens. These elements will also enable worldwide audiences to discover and explore attractive dimensions of American culture that they do not see in the products of Hollywood and commercial television.

In sum, the Folkstreams website will give people the opportunity to view and appreciate films that they could rarely see before, and additionally:

A. Present alternatives to popular commercial culture (both in approaches to filmmaking—which will appeal to film aficionados and filmmakers—and in the subject material),

B. Become a significant academic resource for the teaching of both the arts and the humanities in elementary, secondary, and higher education: local, state, and national history, American studies, anthropology, art, ethnomusicology, filmmaking, folklore, and music.

C. Acquaint worldwide users with attractive and unsensationalized sides of American life.

D. Stimulate the creation of other such films by a new generation of filmmakers using inexpensive digital camcorders and simple computer editing technologies.

E. Be a model site for the traditional culture films of other nations.

F. Be a model for other sites planning to video stream special-interest documentaries.

The chief value of the website, however, will be that it will assemble the major products of the continuing American folklife documentary movement in one place, where they can easily be found by the general public as well as the specialist and where along with these films and videos, the viewer will find a distillation of the scholarship that illuminates these works and shows their significance. The Folkstreams website will in fact make these films cultural seeds that undoubtedly will bear fruit that no one can now foresee.


“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 filmwork 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 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.”
—Folkstreams Project Director Tom Davenport and Mimi Davenport

This project actually has its origins in many years of efforts by Tom Davenport and other makers of folklife documentaries to get their films known to the public. Davenport, Les Blank of Flower Films, Judy Peiser of The Center for Southern Folklore, and the Appalshop group have all explored a series of ways to reach an audience:
A. Mailing out flyers for each new film to targeted audiences,
B. Gradually building substantial series of documentary films to give weight to their catalogs,
C. Getting the films reviewed in appropriate journals,
D. Getting their academic collaborators to show new productions at annual meetings of such organizations as the American Anthropological Association, American Folklore Society, the American Studies Association, the Modern Language Association and the South Atlantic Modern Language Association, the Society for Ethnomusicology, and the Women’s Studies Association,
E. Using academic contacts to arrange screenings and lectures on college campuses.
F. Trying to get the films broadcast on public television,
G. Arranging for screenings and video sales in the communities where the film subjects live.
H. Submitting the works to festivals featuring documentary and independent film.

Although many of these films won festival awards and critical acclaim, it was clear that they often were even better appreciated when contextual information was supplied, as in a classroom situation. This led a number of filmmakers to print study-guide leaflets to mail out with their 16mm film prints or videocassettes. Tom Davenport and his collaborators wrote and printed a 16-page booklet of “background, transcription, and commentary” to accompany their film Born for Hard Luck and a similar 44-page booklet for Being a Joines. 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, which served both to provide the commentary to users and also to attract users, since in North Carolina schools, libraries, and private citizens all subscribe widely to the journal. 

As the number of folklife documentaries grew, a number of filmmakers began to see the importance of calling public attention to the range of material becoming available on film. The first attempt to do this was the publication of American Folklore Films and Videotapes (Memphis: Center for Southern Folklore, 1976; 2nd ed., New York: Bowker, 1982). This catalog did not, however, distinguish documentaries from cartoons or other films drawing on folklore. Many of the filmmakers got their films broadcast on public television, but afterwards the films quickly dropped out of sight. In the mid 1990s Tom Davenport began to project a revival of the best of the documentaries by Southern filmmakers as a public television series and discussed the project with a number of them, with Georgia public television, and with funding agencies. His conception was to try to interest a personable figure like Bill Moyers to serve as the program host to introduce and frame each film in the series.

While this project was still under discussion, however, Tom and his wife and partner Mimi Davenport turned their attention in a new direction. They had occasion to construct their first website, one for their feature-length fairy-tale film Willa: An American Snow White and discovered its potential for publicizing the work. Then in 1999 Davenport was approached by two independent feature filmmakers who wanted to put his films on the site of a video “streaming” company they had founded, The arrangement required resigning certain rights to his films, but Davenport suddenly realized that a website that included most major films on American vernacular culture could be set up to protect the filmmakers’ rights and also to provide rich contextual information along with the videostreaming.

Davenport saw this as the best solution to the problem of taking folklife documentary films to the general public. In March 2000 he discussed his idea with staff members at the NEH, who encouraged him to pull together a group of filmmakers, scholars, computer specialists, and others to think with him about such a project. The group that Davenport assembled began to share ideas by telephone and email, and together worked out an application for a $10,000 consultation grant from the Public Programs Division of the National Endowment for the Arts. Notified of the approval of this grant in early December 2000, the group began to prepare a proposal for a production grant from the Public Programs Division. A number of the members (Joey Brackner, Beverly and Daniel Patterson, Sharon Sherman, and Bill Wiggins) in fact had already held the first face-to-face planning session for the project in October 2000 at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society. By emailing queries and blocks of material back and forth for comment, the group produced a draft for review and criticism at a meeting in Chapel Hill on January 11, 2001, (those attending were Joey Brackner as chair, Tom Davenport, Paul Jones, the two Pattersons, Jeff Titon, and Steve Weiss). This process enabled them to think through and gather information about key issues such as copyright, webstreaming procedures and designs, future funding sources, and predicted technological developments that could increase options for the website. It also enabled them to nail down affiliations with the hosting and technology site at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). The grant application was completed shortly after the January meeting and was submitted to the NEH. Davenport received notification of a Planning Grant ($50,000) to address issues raised by the NEH panel and reviewers.