In Room G108 at the Library of Congress, bureaucratic words such as "mandate," "policy" and "legislation" mix with the lingual likes of "buckaroos," "cranberries" and "harmonicas." This has been going on since 1976, when Congress passed Public Law 94-201 and established the American Folklife Center.
"People used to ask, when the center was first created, 'Oh, is this a bicentennial project?' " director Alan Jabbour recalls. "My heart would sink a little bit and I would reply bravely, 'Well, we certainly intend to outlast the bicentennial.' "
Indeed, the center is getting ready to celebrate its 10th anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, the Folklife Center will throw a birthday party Thursday from noon to 2 at the Neptune Plaza of the Jefferson Library. The music will be Armenian and bluegrass, and the craft demonstrations will include decoy carving and Hmong needlework. The cake will be the birthday variety.
Those who doubted that the interest in folklore was anything more than fleeting stand corrected. "Now, 10 years later, it isn't a passing phenomenon. People remain interested. They now see, I think, a permanent place in their view of the world for this part of culture, and I find that very heartening," Jabbour says.
From a "Folklife and the Elderly" conference to a "Dough Ornaments and Festive Cookies" workshop, from a "Buckaroos in Paradise" exhibit to the "South-Central Georgia Folklife Project," the center has heeded its congressional decree "to preserve and present American folklife." Its activities and concerns -- surveys, field projects, workshops, demonstrations, concerts and publications -- span the library's documentary spectrum and the country.
"Perhaps there are people who think of us as interested in folk singers like Peter, Paul & Mary," Jabbour says.
Perhaps. But that's not the center's mission. Jabbour suggests that "you could think of the word 'folklife' as a device to help us pay attention to a certain part of the cultural spectrum that we don't necessarily pay attention to . . . In this sense, using the term amounts to shining the spotlight down at that end of the spectrum and making everybody look at it."
Jabbour hasn't asked for any birthday presents, despite the recent cuts in the library's budget. But one gift might delight him and the 14 other Folklife Center staffers -- to have a few misconceptions laid to rest.
Foremost among these is the disconcerting notion that the center's work has to do with history. On this point Jabbour is insistent. "Many people assume that our role is documenting the past, or that cultural traditions we're involved in have a certain past tense to them," he says. "One of our roles, in public education about folklife, is to remind people about its presentness. It's not just far away, and it's not just in the past. It's something that is everywhere and present . . . operative in people's minds today."
Consider the Manhattan alligator. When conversation turns to modern urban legends, Jabbour brings up alligators in the sewers of New York. This is a "classic bit of folklore," he says. "Nothing could be more folkloristic than that . . . The same story bears a striking resemblance to all those ancient myths about chthonian monsters, the dragons in caves and other kinds of strange monsters underground that you see in all sorts of classical mythology."
Some folklore dies hard.
"Culture doesn't die out ever as dramatically and as rapidly as people fear it will," Jabbour says. "You can say that cultural traditions are never dead until the last grandmother dies. Though they may disappear from visible and active use for a while, it so often is the case that it works cyclically, and things go out for a generation and then they sort of get recycled back in."
To imagine that the Folklife Center simply documents old storytellers or fiddlers or craftsmen in the Appalachians, to imagine that the center shows only how life used to be back in the good old pioneer days, is to distance oneself from one's own folk culture. "We've succeeded best when we help Americans realize that grass-roots traditional culture is part of America today, and a crucial ingredient in our total cultural life as a nation," Jabbour says. "Whenever we bring that moral home, I feel like we've accomplished our mission."