Folkstreams | About

A National Preserve of American Folklore Films

Folkstreams' mission is to find, preserve, contextualize, and stream documentary films on American folklife.

The films on Folkstreams were produced by independent filmmakers. These documentaries focus on the culture, struggles, and arts of unnoticed Americans from many different kinds of 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 the films won prizes at festivals, were used in college classes, and occasionally were shown on PBS, they found few outlets in video shops, commercial theaters, or television. But they have permanent value.

They come from the same intellectual movements that gave rise to American studies, regional and ethnic studies, the "new history," "performance theory," and investigations of tenacious cultural styles in phenomena like song, dance, storytelling, visual arts, worship, and ceremonies. They also respond to the intense political and social ferment of the last century and this one.

Many of the films 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 direct experience of unfamiliar worlds. Many of these worlds are now receding into the historical past. The mission of Folkstreams is to preserve these films and their records of these worlds and make them available to the widest possible audience.

FOLKSTREAMS INC is a 501c3 non-profit organization.

Rights and Permissions

Information on rights and permissions.

Our History

The idea of creating Folkstreams grew out of a love of filmmaking and a respect for the traditional culture of ordinary Americans.

Unable to make a living solely from his documentaries Tom Davenport developed From the Brothers Grimm, a series of dramatized adaptations of fairy tales translated into American settings. These were broadcast on public television in the last half of the 20th Century. This led him and his wife and partner Mimi Davenport in 1999 to construct a PBS website for their feature-length film Willa: An American Snow White. They quickly saw that the Internet had the potential to connect documentary filmmakers with niche audiences. A website streaming major films on American vernacular cultures 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.

Before the development of the Internet, independent filmmakers did not have access to mass market advertising and distribution systems. Neither movie theatres nor commercial television networks would show their work. 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 people filmed 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, talking heads of scholars, and period music scored for modern ensembles. 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.

Partners of Folkstreams

IBIBLIO.ORG at UNC, 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 and Digital Archive,” 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 Jones is a faculty member in the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS), established in 1931, 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

THE SOUTHERN FOLKLIFE COLLECTION is one of the nation's foremost archival resources for the study of American folk and popular music and 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 over 250,000 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 3,000 video recordings and 8 million feet of motion picture film. Paper-based materials include tens of thousands of photographs, song folios, posters, manuscripts, and ephemeral items. Steve Weiss, the Sound and Image Librarian for this collection, is a member of the Folkstreams committee.