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Take a Walk Down Memory Lane

Maggie Holtzberg, Folklorist

Visit the Commonwealth Folk Arts & Heritage Digital Archive

What if you could go back in time and tag along with one of Boston’s Big Dig tunnel workers as he leads a small group underground near South Station, or drop in on a home cook in Lowell as she prepares Polish pierogi? What if you could listen in as rhythm tap dancer and National Heritage Fellow Jimmy Slyde mentors his apprentice Rocky Mendes or learn how women create ephemeral patterns using rice flour as they practice the daily ritual of South Indian kolam art? With the Commonwealth Folk Arts & Heritage Digital Archive, a partnership between the Mass Cultural Council and the Archives Division of the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office, you can do all that and more.

This important and unique collection of Massachusetts field-recorded interviews, images, fieldnotes, and audio transcriptions is now accessible online. Created in 1999, the Folk Arts & Heritage Collection is the repository for folklore fieldwork conducted by Mass Cultural Council staff, contracted folklorists and photographers, and interns. Recordings in sound, image, and writing document traditional music, dance, crafts, and material culture, as well as traditional arts associated with seasonal celebrations, occupational folklife, and religious practice in the Commonwealth. Fieldwork is essential to curating exhibitions and producing festivals, publications, and digital media — all ways of sharing our work with the public. Fieldwork helps us recruit grant applicants and evaluate the impact of our grant giving.

We first wrote about the challenges of safeguarding these archival holdings and ensuring they remain accessible as media and technology evolve in a 2016 blog post.

The collection was transferred to the Massachusetts State Archive in February of 2016. The physical transfer was the first tangible step in the process of ensuring these primary source materials are professionally preserved, digitized, and made accessible via a digital library. Archivists have been working diligently to get the collection fully digitized. As of December 2020, years 1999-2013 have been uploaded to the Massachusetts Archives Digital Repository. Subsequent years will continue to be processed.

Below are selected examples of what lies waiting to be discovered – listen to the voices of people talking about their craft traditions, occupations, music and dance traditions, and taking part in annual celebrations.

Traditional, Folk, and Ethnic Music

Joe Derrane’s button box accordion. Photo: Jason Dowdle.

  • Button accordion player Joe Derrane talking about the heyday of Irish music in the dance halls of Dudley Square, his hiatus, and historic comeback.
  • Country singer and yodeler Georgia Mae Harp
  • Rhythm tap dancer Jimmy Slyde & Rocky Mendes

Craft Traditions

Nantucket lightship baskets by Karol Lindquist. Photo: Jason Dowdle.

  • Mother Bear (Anita Peters Little) and Michelle Fernandes, Mashpee Wampanoag regalia apprenticeship
  • Karol Lindquist, Nantucket lightship basket making
  • Hand-wrought weathervanes, the late Travis Tuck and his very much alive apprentice Anthony Holland

Annual Celebrations

Caribbean Carnival, 2007. Photo: Maggie Holtzberg.

Art Associated with Religious Practice

Carlos Santiago Arroyo holding one of his santo carvings.
Carlos Santiago Arroyo holding one of his santo carvings. Photo: Jim Higgins.

Occupational Folklore

Glory Hole Big Dig Site. Photo: Maggie Holtzberg.

National Heritage Fellows

Yary Livan holding an unglazed bowl. Photo: Maggie Holtzberg.

Since 1999, six individuals from Massachusetts have been awarded National Heritage Fellowships, the country highest honor in folk and traditional arts. Explore the recorded interviews and photos that inspired us to nominate them for this award.

James Godbolt, aka Jimmy Slyde, dancer

Greek oud maker Peter Kyvelos, Greek oud maker

Joe Derrane, Irish button box accordion player

Harold A. Burnham, Essex wooden boat builder

Yary Livan, Cambodian ceramicist

Balla Kouyate, West African balafon player

Wondering how to find your way around the collection? Assistant Digital Archivist Alejandra Dean has prepared a guide to searching the collection. In addition to searching the digital collection, she offers this: “Anyone interested in doing research is welcome to use the materials at our facility in person, since the digital collection increases access and awareness of the materials but is not the entire collection. Our reference staff are available to assist researchers with any questions they have, either remotely or on-site.”

Visit the Massachusetts Archives Digital Repository

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