Monday, June 25, 2012

A Treasury of American Folklore by B. A. Botkin: A Book That Shaped America

The Library of Congress recently released a list of Books That Shaped America.

The Library of Congress, the world’s largest repository of knowledge and information, began a multiyear “Celebration of the Book” with an exhibition on “Books That Shaped America.” The initial books in the exhibition are displayed below.

“This list is a starting point,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.”

Well, imagine my surprise to find a folklore book on the list! That was unexpected. Folklore titles are so often overlooked on lists like these. It is A Treasury of American Folklore by B. A. Botkin. The book is currently out of print--although it has been reprinted a few times since its original 1944 publication.

From the Library of Congress:

Benjamin Botkin headed the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folksong (now the American Folklife Center) between 1943 and 1945 and previously served as national folklore editor of the Federal Writers’ Project (1938–39), a program of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Depression. Botkin was one of the New Deal folklorists who persuasively argued that folklore was relevant in the present and that it was not something that should be studied merely for its historical value. This book features illustrations by Andrew Wyeth, one of America’s foremost realist painters.
So is anyone here familiar with this title and do you think it belongs on the list? I have to admit my personal library doesn't have this particular title, although I own a few American folklore titles. I have ordered a copy so I can explore it since it certainly sounds like an excellent addition to my collection. With 500 tales and 100 songs, it is an excellent resource although I am sure most of the material is repeated in other books I own.

Someday I will focus a little more on American folklore beyond my somewhat cursory knowledge. Although it is much wider than the average person on the street, I couldn't necessarily teach an hour long class off the cuff--yes, that's rather my own litmus test for how well I know a subject. Nevermind a whole semester--could I stand up in front of a group of people and teach an hour long class with little or no preparation? And be accurate and entertaining?


  1. I have had a copy of this book for many years. I loved this as a teenager. The songs are particularly entertaining. I loved the various lyrics to the same tune. This book and the early Foxfire series (collected by high school students in the '70's)were my introduction to American folklore.

  2. Love that a book like this is even in existence. I write poetry myself and take much of my inspiration from folklore. Love this.