Folklorist Celebrated Working Americans

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009

Archie Green, 91, a former shipwright and carpenter who became one of the most influential folklorists of the past half-century and who was acknowledged as the founding father of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, died of renal failure March 22 at his home in San Francisco.

While teaching labor folklore and other subjects at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Green began a 10-year lobbying effort to persuade Congress to officially recognize America's folk heritage.

The effort culminated on Jan. 2, 1976, when President Gerald R. Ford signed the American Folklife Preservation Act, establishing the American Folklife Center to preserve, collect and present the vast diversity of cultural offerings from ordinary people living everyday lives.

The center's collections include Native American song and dance, tales of Br'er Rabbit told in the Gullah dialect of the Georgia and Carolina sea islands, and songs and stories from the lives of cowboys, farmers, fishermen and other working people, among many other expressions of folk culture from all 50 states.

In addition, Dr. Green began organizing programs featuring workers' traditions at the Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife on the Mall. Those programs continue.

A gregarious man and an engaging storyteller in the tradition of Studs Terkel, he was Archie to all who knew him, never Dr. Green. A shipwright's apprentice in the San Francisco area in the 1930s, he served as a carpenter's mate in the Navy during World War II. Returning to San Francisco after the war, he worked in the building trades for 15 more years. He was a 68-year member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

He developed the habit of listening, observing and asking questions of laborers and craftspeople, and he eventually realized that he had a passion for "laborlore," a term he coined to describe the expressive culture of working people.

He went back to school and received a master's degree in library science from the University of Illinois in 1960 and a doctorate in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968. (He had received his undergraduate degree in political science from the University of California at Berkeley in 1939.)

He began collecting songs, stories, customs, beliefs and craft traditions -- laborlore -- of sheet metal workers and sailors, millworkers and miners. He explored how work gave texture and meaning to working-class Americans and to the culture as a whole. He contended, for example, that the origins of rock-and-roll can be traced to the rhythmic, coordinated sounds of 19th-century steel-drivin' men laying rail with hammer and drill. His first book was "Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs" (1972).

In 2007, the Library of Congress awarded him its Living Legend medal for devoting his life to "studying the creativity of ordinary, working Americans" and for his role in forming the American Folklife Center.

He was born Aaron Green on June 20, 1917, in Winnipeg, Canada, to Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. His father was a harnessmaker by trade who escaped czarist Russia after participating in the 1905 Revolution. In about 1922, the family moved to Los Angeles, where "Archie" discovered working people and radical politics.

After graduating from Berkeley, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and then became a shipwright on the San Francisco waterfront -- primarily, he told historian Kieran Taylor, because he hoped to impress a young woman who admired waterfront labor organizers.

Leaving the trade, he told Taylor, "was the most dramatic thing in my life. I felt like a traitor. . . . I revered being a shipwright."

Teaching, unlike the dangerous, physically demanding shipwright's life, "was like taking candy from a baby." His academic career included a stint at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was fascinated by the live music scene, which he referred to as a musical coming together of what he called "goat ropers and liberated freaks, of superkickers and isolated intellectuals."

At his death, he was working on a collection of essays, tentatively titled "Been on the Job Too Long."

He also was lobbying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to include a cultural component in the economic stimulus legislation before Congress. The cultural component would document the work the stimulus package funds, in the spirit of the Federal Writers' Project of the New Deal.

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Louanne Green of San Francisco; three children, David Green of San Francisco, Derek Green of Montara, Calif., and Deborah Green of Boone, Iowa; a sister; and four grandchildren.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company