benjamin botkin, tony schwartz, norman studer & the search for cultural renewal, panel @ the 2020-2021 society for us intellectual history virtual conference.
In the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, three pioneering American folklorists–Benjamin Botkin, Tony Schwartz, and Norman Studer–challenged existing definitions of “folk” culture along similar lines, expanding its boundaries to include new subjects and source material. Whereas folk collectors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century scoured the countryside for lingering traces of pre-modern Anglo-Saxon musical and oral traditions, these three figures regarded the American metropolis–and the disparate voices of immigrants, workers, ex-slaves, women, children, and outsiders–as a fresh and vital source of vernacular culture. By revisiting their underappreciated work and careers, which converged at several points in the 1940s and ‘50s, this panel elaborates a unique, revolutionary vision of the city and of the uses of folklore at midcentury. It will also address the following key themes: the tensions between cultural nationalist and internationalist dimensions of their work; the paradoxes of using technology and mass media for participatory, democratic ends; the place of the city and the country in American cultural identity; and the role of the non-professional in scholarship and cultural production. This panel will show that the capacious and eclectic conception of “folk” shared by Botkin, Schwartz, and Studer reflected a common commitment to the cultural pluralist and the democratic vision of the Popular Front. Panelists include Benjamin Jordan Serby and Rivka Maizlish.
Missed the panel? See the recorded video.