Botkin Changed the World

I was thinking for no particular reason this morning about how my generation benefited from the efforts of folklorist Benjamin Botkin, whose books including Treasury of American Folklore provided the curricular materials for folk music in the schools from the Baby Boomers.Other than a prize from the American Folklore Society, few know his name today.

Publishing from the mid-1940s on, Botkin’s influence on educators made it possible – along with the summer camps – for the Boomer generation to be exposed to folk music and singing together in a context other than the church, home, or local community. The timing was perfect for both contributing to and benefiting from the Folk Scare, which was the third folk revival of the four during the middle half of the 20th Century.

Poor Ben Botkin ended up sliced and diced for these revolutionary efforts that changed the lives of many of us on this board. Because he had been – along with Pete Seeger and many others – in People’s Songs, the radical forerunner of Sing Out!, the FBI hassled him off and on for the last 30 years of his life.

Meanwhile, academic folklorist Richard Dorson at Michigan State and IU, reacting against the second folk revival right after WWII – Weavers, Woody, Josh White), denounced Botkin as a promoter of “Fakelore” in a 1950 essay that had a profound and lasting influence on folklorists of my generation. Dorson, who began his career studying Davy Crockett, lumped Botkin in with Paul Bunyan. Dorson was correct about many things, but the sustained attack on Botkin crossed a line.

Dorson trained more American folklorists from 1945 until 1980 than any other academic – even more than affable Kenny Goldstein at Penn who worked in both the commercial recording and scholarly worlds – and these students have taught the next generation.

More people my age wanted to be a loser with a gun than a fakelorist.


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