Archie Green


March 29, 2009
Archie Green, 91, Union Activist and Folklorist, Dies

Archie Green, a shipwright turned folklorist whose interest in union workers and their culture transformed the study of American folklore and who single-handedly persuaded Congress to create the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, died last Sunday at his home in San Francisco. He was 91.

The cause was kidney failure, his son Derek said.

Mr. Green, a shipwright and carpenter by trade, drew on a childhood enthusiasm for cowboy songs and a devotion to the union movement to construct a singular academic career. Returning to college at 40, he began studying what he called laborlore: the work songs, slang, craft techniques and tales that helped to define the trade unions and create a sense of group identity.

“He countered the prevailing, somewhat romantic notion that folklore was isolated in remote, marginal groups,” said Simon Bronner, who teaches folklore at Pennsylvania State University. “He showed that each of us, in our own work lives, have a folklore that we not only perform but that we need.”

At the same time, Mr. Green energetically promoted the idea of public folklore — that is, that folklorists should work outside the academy to gather, preserve and publicize local cultures through government agencies, museums, folk festivals and radio stations. His signal achievement in this area was the lonely lobbying campaign he conducted for nearly six years to create a national folklife center, which became a reality when Congress, by a unanimous vote, passed the American Folklife Preservation Act, signed into law by President Gerald R. Ford in January 1976.

“By his energy, determination and enthusiasm he was able to impart his passion to members of Congress,” said Peggy Bulger, the director of the American Folklife Center in Washington. “Without Archie, there would be no American Folklife Center.”

Mr. Green was born Aaron Green in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His father had fled Chernigov, in present-day Ukraine, after taking part in the failed 1905 revolution in Russia. When he was a small boy, the family moved to Los Angeles, where he listened to cowboy songs on the radio, absorbed socialist politics from his father and developed a passionate dedication to the labor union movement and the New Deal.

After earning a degree in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, Mr. Green decided to throw in his lot with the working class. He joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, working as a road builder and firefighter along the Klamath River and became a shipwright and union activist on the San Francisco waterfront. For the rest of his life, he identified himself first and foremost as a worker and a union member.

Besides his son Derek, of Montara, Calif., he is survived by his wife, Louanne Bartlett, whom he married in 1944; another son, David, of San Francisco; his daughter, Debra Morris of Boone, Iowa; a sister, Mitzi Zeman of Tarzana, Calif.; and four grandchildren.

After serving as a Navy Seabee during World War II, Mr. Green returned to the waterfront and later switched to carpentry. But as the union movement lost some of its energy, he went back to academia, enrolling at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, to become a labor historian. There, as an adviser to the campus folk music club, he sent students out into the field to record the indigenous music of central and southern Illinois and wrote a seminal article, “Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol.”

He went on to earn a doctorate in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation, on the songs of Kentucky coal miners, was published in 1972 as “Only a Miner.”

Mr. Green wrote for academic publications like The Journal of American Folklore, but starting in the late 1960s he spent much of his time lobbying Congress for the folklife center, dressed in a T-shirt and sneakers.

“He looked like a hobo, and carried everything around in a paper bag,” said Roger D. Abrahams, a retired folklore professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “He would just sit in the corridors of Congress and wait until people let him in to talk.”

Persuasion was his strong suit, in the Capitol and on campuses. With gusto, Mr. Green orchestrated the activities of a widening circle of professional acquaintances. He was a notorious academic matchmaker and connector, issuing orders to at least two generations of folklore students, directing their attention to this or that neglected topic in labor studies or folk music, on occasion steering them to the large musical archive that he had deposited at the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

His approach to occupational folklore was not far short of revolutionary. “Before Archie, the field did not have a clear vision of what occupational folklore was,” Ms. Bulger said. “There was a huge disconnect between academics, who took a literary, almost 19th-century, view of what folklore was, and someone like Archie, who wanted to tell the pile driver, or the auto worker, ‘You have your own culture that is unique, that no other occupation has.’ ”

After teaching at the University of Texas, where he spent quality time in Austin’s honky-tonks and analyzed the “cosmic cowboy” phenomenon, he returned to San Francisco and wrote a series of highly regarded books. “Wobblies, Pile Butts and Other Heroes” (1993) and “Torching of the Fink Books and Other Essays on Vernacular Culture” (2001) included many of the word studies that were among his most captivating essays. “Tin Men” (2002), a description and analysis of tinsmith artistry; “Millwrights of Northern California, 1901-2002” (2003); and “Harry Lundeberg’s Stetson and Other Nautical Treasures” (2006), about the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, reflected a lifelong commitment to the writing of labor history.

In 2007, Mr. Green completed a project nearly 50 years in the making, “The Big Red Songbook,” which he helped to edit. It included the lyrics to more than 250 songs in the various editions of the Little Red Songbooks published from 1909 to 1973 by the Industrial Workers of the World, best known as the Wobblies. They were gathered by John Neuhaus, an I.W.W. machinist, who left his collection to Mr. Green when he died in 1958.

In his final months, Mr. Green continued to organize and agitate, issuing directives from his deathbed to colleagues and friends. His pet project was to convince Congress that it should, as in the days of the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration, set aside money for artists, filmmakers, photographers, writers and, yes, folklorists, to document the projects put into motion by the stimulus bill. The last letter he wrote, his son Derek said, was addressed to Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, telling her exactly what she needed to do.