Sunday, June 27, 2010

"The American Folklife Center"

I’m Steve Ember. And I’m Barbara Klein with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

We continue our series of reports about efforts to keep alive some traditional ways of doing things. Today we tell about preserving stories, experiences and beliefs of everyday people.


In the largest library in the world is a collection of voices. Voices of people telling the stories about important events in their lives. Singing songs they sang as children. Explaining the ceremonies and celebrations of their families and communities. This unusual collection is in the American Folklife Center, which is part of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C

The Folklife Center was created to collect and preserve the traditional knowledge that is passed on to others by spoken word and custom. The folklife collections include the folklore, cultural activities, traditional arts and personal histories of everyday people from the end of the 19th century to the present.

Peggy Bulger is the director of the American Folklife Center. She says the songs people sing, the stories they tell, the things they make are an important part of history. So the Folklife Center contains a historical record of a people told in their own voices, not described by political leaders, professors or writers.

In 1976, the United States Congress passed a law that created the American Folklife Center to preserve and present the history of American folklife. The materials in the Center are available to researchers at the Library of Congress and at the library’s Web site. It also provides recordings, live performances, exhibits and publications. And it trains people to do the collecting

More than four million objects are now in the collections of the American Folklife Center. Most of them are in the biggest and oldest part of the Center, which is the Archive of Folk Culture. It was established at the Library of Congress almost 80 years ago and was known for years as the Archive of American Folk Song.


In 1928, the head of the Library of Congress decided that the library should collect American folk songs sung by people as they worked and played. Robert Gordon was chosen to lead this project. He had already decided his goal in life was to collect every American folk song. He traveled around the country, recording people in their homes or communities. The recordings were made on wax cylinders, a device that Thomas Edison invented in 1877.

When John and Alan Lomax took over the job in 1932, they began collecting more than music and song. They recorded and documented personal histories. These included what people cooked, the crafts they made, and the jokes and stories passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth. This is the kind of information about everyday life that often disappears through the years

Peggy Bulger says experts in folklore, music, or culture travel around the country and the world to record folklife. They work either as private individuals or for the Library of Congress or other federal and state agencies. Many of them use equipment lent to them by the Library of Congress. In return, the collectors give their sound and video recordings, research notes, papers, and photographs to the library’s collection

Through the years, the folklife collections have grown to include traditions and culture from every area of the United States. You can find almost anything in the collections, including Native American song and dance music, ancient English story songs and cowboy poetry. You can listen to the memories of ex-slaves, experiences of Italian-American wine makers and memories of boat makers in the state of Maine


Peggy Bulger says the materials in the Archive of Folk Culture are from almost every place in the world. People who come from other countries to settle in the United States bring their folklore with them. So the folklore and traditions of the immigrants become part of the collections – including those from Sudan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bosnia and Latin America. Ms. Bulger says the collections document the culture of the world as it exists today in the United States

The Archive of Folk Culture continues to grow. Individuals who have made a career of collecting folklore material want their collections to go to the Library of Congress when they retire. They want the materials to be preserved and made available to researchers in the future. For example, Ms. Bulger says that next year a folklorist who documented women’s traditions in Afghanistan in the 1960s is giving his collection to the Folklife Center.

Peggy Bulger is excited about helping native groups record and save their own traditions and folklore. Two members of the Masai tribe of Kenya will spend a week getting training at the Folklife Center. Ms. Bulger says the Masai do not want outsiders coming in to document their sacred ceremonies and songs. The Masai want to learn how to record and film themselves so they can be sure their traditions survive for future generations. And they want to have control over the use of the recordings, keeping ceremonial traditions secret, but making other information available to outsiders.


Bob Patrick is head of the Veterans History Project. The idea for the project began when United States Representative Ron Kind of Wisconsin was at a family gathering. His father and his uncle started talking about their experiences in war. Representative Kind decided to make a video recording of them telling their stories to save for his children when they were older. He decided then that the memories of all men and women who served in wars are important to record and preserve.

In the year 2000, Representative Kind introduced a bill in Congress to establish the Veterans History Project. The bill passed with no opposition and was signed into law. The main purpose of the project is to collect and preserve the remembrances of people who served in all wars.

Bob Patrick says the project now has more than 50,000 individual stories, including recordings or videos of veterans telling their stories about war. The collections also include photographs, letters, and other personal materials. All the materials are kept in the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. Some of them are available through the Web site.

Mr. Patrick says many organizations and individuals volunteer to make the recordings. Retirement communities, veterans’ organizations, historical societies, libraries, and high school and college students are part of the project. The most important volunteers are family members and friends who talk to the veterans about their lives and record their memories. Mr. Patrick says that today’s technology makes that easy to do. The Veterans History project Web site has suggestions to help people who do the recordings.


Most new recordings in the American Folklife Center are in digital form, especially those made for the Veterans History Project and StoryCorps. People being recorded now are asked to give permission for their information to be shared with others through the World Wide Web at Peggy Bulger hopes that in the future more older materials will be available to researchers around the world.

Ms. Bulger says efforts by the Library of Congress to record and preserve dances, songs and stories help support traditional cultures. These efforts help young people realize the knowledge of older people is valuable. Every year, she says, more people recognize that folklife is an important part of the historical record.

Peggy Bulger says the recordings in the Archive of Folk Culture prove that voices are very powerful. Listening to someone talk about his or her life gives you so much more information, she says, than just reading about it. The growing collections of voices that are part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress are a lasting record of social and cultural life. They are a record that is truly of, by and for the people.


This program was written by Marilyn Rice Christiano and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Barbara Klein.

And I’m Steve Ember. You can find out more about the American Folklife Center at our web site, Listen again next month to EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English for another program about keeping traditions alive.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

"Great American Labor Leaders" from VOA.


Welcome to PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. At the beginning of the twentieth century, American laborers often worked long hours for little pay. Many worked under extremely dangerous conditions. About five hundred thousand workers, however, had joined groups called labor unions, hoping to improve their situation.

Today, Rich Kleinfeldt and Sarah Long tell about five labor leaders who worked to improve conditions for American workers.


In nineteen hundred, the largest national organization of labor unions was the American Federation of Labor. Its head was Samuel Gompers. Gompers had moved to New York with his parents when he was thirteen years old. He was twenty-four when he began working for the local union of cigar makers. He worked for the labor movement for sixty years.

Samuel Gompers had helped create the A.F.L. in the late eighteen eighties. He led the organization for all but one year until his death in nineteen twenty-four. Gompers defined the purpose of the labor movement in America. He also established the method used to solve labor disputes.

Gompers thought unions should work only to increase wages, improve work conditions and stop unfair treatment of workers. He called his method pure and simple unionism.

Samuel Gompers sought immediate change for workers. He used group actions such as strikes as a way to try to force company owners to negotiate.

Gompers was criticized for going to social events with industry leaders, and for compromising too easily with employers. But Gompers believed such actions helped his main goal. He believed if workers were respected, their employers would want to make working conditions better.

Under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, the labor movement won its first small gains. For example, the federal government recognized the right of workers to organize. That happened when union representatives were part of the National War Labor Board during World War One.


John L. Lewis expanded the American labor movement with a campaign he called organizing the unorganized. Lewis was the head of the United Mine Workers of America. He also was the vice-president of the A.F.L.

In nineteen thirty-five, Lewis formed the Committee for Industrial Organization within the A.F.L. He wanted the C.I.O. to organize workers in mass production industries, such as automobile industry. The A.F.L. mainly organized unions of workers who had the same skills. But Lewis believed skilled and unskilled workers in the same industry should be organized into the same union.

Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in nineteen thirty-five. It gave workers the legal right to join unions and to negotiate with employers. John L. Lewis thought it was the right time to press the large industries to recognize workers' rights.

The A.F.L., however, decided not to support such action and expelled the unions that belonged to the C.I.O. In nineteen thirty-six, the C.I.O. began operating as another national labor organization. Lewis was its leader.

John L. Lewis was an extremely colorful and effective speaker. He had worked as a coal miner and could relate to the most terrible conditions workers faced. More than three million workers joined the C.I.O. in its first year as a separate organization. For the first time, labor won many strikes and permanent improvements in workers conditions.

For many years, presidents, members of Congress, and business leaders considered John L. Lewis the voice of labor. And, American workers saw Lewis as their hero. By the nineteen fifties, the labor movement an established part of American life.


Walter Reuther was the vice president of the C.I.O. under Lewis, and became its president in nineteen fifty-two. Reuther believed unions had a social responsibility. His ideas were partly influenced by his German father who was a socialist.

Walter Reuther was trained to make tools to cut metal. He joined the United Automobile Workers union when it first formed in nineteen thirty-five.

Walter Reuther was president of the United Auto Workers for twenty-three years beginning in nineteen forty-six. He shaped the U.A.W. into one of the most militant and forward-looking unions. He held strikes to gain increased wages for workers, but, at the same time, he expected workers to increase their rate of production. He was the first to link pay raises to productivity increases. Reuther also was greatly concerned about civil rights and the environment.

In nineteen fifty-five, Reuther helped the A.F.L. and C.I.O. re-join as one organization.

Reuther's ideas were recognized worldwide. But they also brought him enemies. He survived three murder attempts. He said: "You have to make up your mind whether you are willing to accept things as they are or whether you are willing to try to change them."


A. Philip Randolph is known for combining the labor and civil rights movements. Randolph became involved with unions in nineteen-twenty-five. A group of black workers on passenger trains asked him to organize a union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Randolph was not a laborer. He was the college educated son of a minister. He published a socialist magazine in New York City. He was known as a fighter for black rights. Randolph strongly believed that economic conditions affected rights and power for African Americans.

For twelve years, Randolph fought the Pullman Company that employed the passenger train workers. In nineteen thirty-five, Pullman finally agreed to negotiate with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Two years later, the porters' union signed the first labor agreement between a company and a black union.

A. Philip Randolph led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters for forty-three years. In nineteen fifty-seven he became vice president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

Randolph used large group protests to change work conditions. He planned marches on the capital in Washington to protest the unequal treatment of black workers by the government.

In nineteen sixty-three, Randolph planned the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At this huge peaceful gathering, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Junior made his famous "I have a dream" speech. Within a year the civil rights amendment passed guaranteeing equal rights for blacks and other minorities.


Cesar Chavez created the first farmers union in nineteen sixty-two. That union later became the United Farm Workers of America.

Farm workers had been considered too difficult to organize. They worked during growing seasons. Many farm workers did not speak English or were in the country illegally. Farm workers earned only a few dollars each hour. They often lived in mud shelters and had no waste removal systems. Many farm workers were children.

Cesar Chavez went to school for only eight years. But he read a lot. He was greatly influenced by the ideas of famous supporters of non-violence such as Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. Chavez led his workers on marches for better pay and conditions. Workers walked hundreds of miles carrying cloth banners with the Spanish words "Viva la Causa" -- long live our cause.

Cesar Chavez created a new strike method called a boycott. People refused to buy products of a company accused of treating farm workers badly. Chavez also publicized the dangers of some farm chemicals. Cesar Chavez improved the conditions of farm workers by making their mistreatment a national issue.

Union membership has dropped sharply since its highpoint in the nineteen forties. Yet conditions for American workers continue to improve as employers realize that treating their workers well is good for business. The efforts of leaders of the American labor movement during the past one hundred years continue to improve the lives of millions of workers.


This Special English program was written by Linda Burchill and produced by Paul Thompson. The announcers were Rich Kleinfeldt and Sarah Long. I'm Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program in VOA Special English.