The Folklorist

Sat, 03/01/2014 - 2:08pm


Peter Bartis was my next door neighbor when we were kids growing up in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He got me reading books, taught me stuff on the guitar, and nudged me forward academically. Peter always wanted to know where things originated. We were talking about a Bob Dylan song once. “But where did Dylan get his ideas, who influenced him, what musical styles,” Peter asked, “You need to look back to where trends and things started, it tells you about the culture.” (Dylan was known to use traditional melodies for some of his songs; he loved traditional songs. He also spent lots of time in the New York Public Library, ahem, researching.) It’s no surprise to me that Peter ended up as a Senior Folklore Specialist at the Library of Congress. He is an engaging guy and very inquisitive.

After graduating from Pawtucket’s Tolman High School in ‘67, Peter received a B.A. from Boston University. He studied literature and Boston’s history. From there, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and received a master’s in Folklore. The University of Pennsylvania is where he earned his PhD in Folklore and Folklife studies. “The American Folk Life Center,” at the Library of Congress, was created by an act of Congress. Bartis was hired on there in 1977.

Peter is an aggressive guy regarding his research. While at UNC, his Master’s thesis involved studying the Hollerin’ tradition in eastern North Carolina, at a place called Spivey’s Corner. This was an intricate form of communication used between farmers — before the invention of the telephone. In 2000 he was asked to judge a Hollerin’ contest; he was made an honorary citizen of Spivey’s Corner. Additionally, in 1979, Bartis prepared a book, “Folklife and Fieldwork: an introduction to field techniques.” This was a “How to,” guide for collecting local Folklore. Moreover, Peter directed the Library’s, “Local Legacies Project,” to celebrate the Library of Congress’ Bicentennial, in 2000. Currently, he is doing research on a Mr. Champlin, a former Point Judith Coastguardsman, who went into the fishing business in 1934. Mr. Champlin’s oral history is part of a project called the National Sampler.

The Library of Congress was founded in 1800. It’s the country’s oldest federal cultural center. The Library, like all of our nation’s libraries, contains collections of the good, the bad and the ugly of the history of the United States. Peter was part of the “Veterans History Project.” This contains manuscripts, photos and oral histories, from World War I, 1914, to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, 2001 to the present. “When I was a senior Program Officer, I told groups of Veterans, that their oral histories will sit on shelves alongside papers of a farmer named Thomas Jefferson, and a surveyor named George Washington. It felt good, and it felt subversive,” said Bartis.

A few years ago, Peter told me his dad wanted to raise his kids in a diverse neighborhood; on our street there were Irish, Greek, Polish, Scottish and French stock. His mom and dad wanted their 3 children to be part of the post-war American cultural “melting pot” of the 50’s. This observation led me to ask why he liked collecting things for the Library; there is a link. “Ya know, raw field data and primary source materials illuminate history and broaden the appreciation of our diverse cultural heritage of our nation’s complicated history,” he said. This quote is also a perfect segue, for what the Library currently launched on Feb. 5, 2014; “Songs of America,” and his involvement with this massive undertaking, which took two years to complete.

“Songs of America,” which is embarking on a year-long celebration of concerts, special events and educational opportunities, was an ambitious effort. Peter was the team leader of seven people who selected items and wrote or snatched text from other Library of Congress sites. The team included: two from the American Folklife Center, two from the Music Division, and two from the Motion Picture and Recorded Sound Division. The Library of Congress contains the world’s largest music collection. It has over twenty-one million items.

The “Songs of America,” site contains 80,000 online items. (If you like music and history, it’s a very hard site to leave.) Similar to the philosophy of the “Veterans History Project,” Bartis says, “We’re kind of doing the same thing. We’re giving folk, traditional, ethnic songs, hip hop and rockabilly, blues and jazz, opera and pop songs, the same value.” Upon entering the site, the first song I found, was a patriotic song: “Over There,” by George M. Cohan. Cohan hailed from Providence — his folks were vaudevillians. Here I found the dust jacket cover, original sheet music, and a recording of the song. Furthermore, there were links to other songs by Cohan and other composers. Also, there is a timeline one can follow, which gives a clear perspective where our nation’s music came from and how it evolved. The timeline took me to the “Weavers,” with whom the recently deceased Pete Seeger performed. The next noteworthy moment, was 1969, when “Woodstock” happened. The timeline gives a cultural roadmap for each period.

With the help of the digital age, we now have the capability of having our nation’s musical heritage at our fingertips. Those who visit this site will gain an overview for what was, and is germane to their own life experience. It’s a chart to study from whence we came, and where we are going musically. In 1884, New England composer Henry Ward Clay said, “Know the songs of a country, and you will know its history. For the true feeling of a people speaks through what they sing.”

It is the mission of Peter Bartis, the Folklorist, and the Library of Congress, to continue Clay’s vision in perpetuity.

For more information go to: The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America, or,