“Warren Roberts and the Changing Craft of Folklife Studies”
by Gary Stanton

If it seems I've got that lived-in look, it betrays that this past week I've been stalking the wild vernacular architecture of the Bluegrass Region in Kentucky along with Warren and Barbara Roberts and a couple hundred other friends of friendless buildings there.

This is a talk about Warren Roberts and where he has taken me. It is likely that everyone in the room could tell a story of the same title with perhaps the same structure but different motif numbers. There can be no doubt that Warren E. Roberts has played a large role in shaping the careers of most people in this room through his orientation to folklife, conception of what folklife would include as a research topic, his articulation of themes within folklife, appropriate dates and even the places that would be profitable to study in pursuit of information about folklife.

What seems important to say this morning is to affirm that we are the heirs to the study of folklife that Dr. Roberts, Henry Glassie and Don Yoder gave to us—it is good and proper that we thank them and acknowledge our great debts to them, both collectively and individually. But, from that starting point, it is important that my discussion move beyond anecdote and adulation to discuss changes in the world of research and of employment and relate some important areas that I feel we—that is the community of people who research and report on topics of folklife—must help shape future actions in public folklore programs, historic preservation offices, and environmental discussions of cultural conservation.

Certainly none here have been more affected than I by Dr. Roberts’ work and teaching. Even before I enrolled as a student at Indiana University, Tom and Betsy Adler had initiated me to the Saturday morning ritual of estate auctions, either at homes around southern Indiana or at the Armory down old highway 37. There, I recall, was the first time that I was introduced to Dr. Roberts, industriously sniffing out old tools and mentally cataloguing the other implements that were laid out for us by Colonel Gene Williams, Billy and their assistants.

Dr. Roberts would pick up a broad axe and quickly give a lesson in its use, showing that the eye of the blade and the bent of the haft produced an offset to allow one to stand beside the log and split off the slabs of wood, and he would remind whomever was listening that broadaxes were not used for chopping!

Soon the auction would start and Dr. Roberts would hone in on acquiring artifacts cheaply. Gathering in the instruments of his research, examples for presentation, or good bargains (as any Yankee Trader will do) but which might later be used in trade for more interesting objects of higher worth.


Warren Roberts is an artist at folklife study. He is the careful examiner of the material world, seeking clues that illuminate use and purpose. Observation is his forte and persistence is his strength, having spent the past thirty years searching for the broken pieces of the community fabric that he described for our class and published as the "old traditional way of life." Each artifact of research, whether it is the tools to build a log house, or the combination of dried and green timber to build a chair—excuse me “chir”--- is polished to show the care and skill with which crafts were practiced in the pre-industrial past.

He is, in his own way, one of the first preservationists to see beyond the grandeur of the social elites in an effort to save structures and things that illustrate middling and ordinary forms of architecture and artifact through the development of an outdoor museum. His efforts to establish this monument to the correct interpretation of traditional life was at times flawed, not by his vision but by the poor quality of help that students such as Blanton Owen and myself could offer him. Here, the Ketchum house, was perhaps the largest of the buildings to be removed from its site and stored at the farm for future restoration. At the height of the museum’s possibility, many of the students interested in folklife had the opportunity to work with him, in reconnaissance of other buildings, and preparing materials for the planning. Elizabeth Adler’s masters thesis was devoted to the possibility of the outdoor museum at Indiana University.

Ultimately the museum failed, not because of Dr. Roberts’ vision, but because as a group, universities have a very poor record of preservation. New buildings, expansion and growth are the altars where administrators prostrate themselves, and the death of the outdoor museum was ultimately a compromise that created the building in which we are confabing today.

But for students of the time, the importance of Warren Roberts efforts at identification and inspection of early buildings in southern Indiana was in the opportunity to go and see with him. In that way his research was accessible and involving of individual graduate students in a way more significant than Ireland, or Hungary, Japan, Korea or other important sites for faculty research. It was the involving experience that gives confidence and facility with concepts and observation. His enthusiasm was contagious for areas of southern Indiana, or Bethel Missouri, or half a hundred other sites that we visited together. Ultimately, articles and dissertations, mine included, grew directly or indirectly from his enthusiasm for fieldwork in artifacts of southern Indiana.

I relearned that important lesson this past fall. In the wake of Hurricane Hugo a colleague and I in the Historic Preservation Department where I teach took six students to Charleston South Carolina to document damage from the flooding, rain, and tornadoes spawned by the storm. Later these students finished survey projects as part of the senior seminar that I teach. The students with the Charleston experience were clearly superior in their recordation skills—why? I think it directly relates to the confidence they gained working with the faculty in Charleston.

Perhaps nothing better illustratesr. Roberts’ devotion to the careful observation of folklife than the summer fieldwork course in Dubois County, centered in Ferdinand. A generation of students visited with him the woodsman, Howard Taylor, upon whom Sylvia Grider would write an article, the substantial log barns with their unsupported forebays from which Egle Zygas and Sandy Rikoon would contribute an article, and the substantial log houses, whose importance for distinguishing German immigrant settlement regions would lead Tom Carter and me to examine the southeastern counties of Franklin, Dearborn and Ripley. Within these houses we observed the architectural fabric and rural landscapes, noted differences as we learned to “read” buildings for method of construction and sense of proportion. We then tried to create interpretations to explain all that had been seen.

Dr. Roberts not only early on saw the value of old buildings, he directly participated in the development of the initial surveys done for the state preservation office of Monroe County. As a direct result of the fieldwork course and the architecture classes Tom Carter and I were recommended to the Bloomington Restoration Inc, the preservation organization that had contracted to do the work. The survey that we created was considerably more comprehensive in coverage, but not in detail than anything the state office intended at the time. We documented the architectural statements of the social elites as well as documenting the dependencies and frankly quick and cheap buildings of the county. The churches and graveyards were all photographed, which raised at least my knowledge of the periods of funerary art in the regions of Monroe County. Lacking instructions from the state office every building found to have fabric from before 1940 was surveyed in the county. We viewed the survey as folklorists and admitted all evidence, not just those buildings whose exterior surfaces had not been covered. But I also paid a price; what was intended to be a two month project took ten months.

In all this Dr. Roberts supported the effort and continued to exercise influence with the local group and helped them withstand the onslaught of criticism that such a complete historical picture received in Indianapolis. It is ironic that fifteen years later, this kind of complete survey is precisely what the Preservation offices in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina are seeking from my students who do this work.

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Folklorists, led by Warren Roberts contributed to the expansion of the corpus of historic preservation research. Ormond Loomis, whose work with Dr. Roberts led to his dissertation on folklife and southern Indiana farm practices was the author for the American Folklife Center of the 1981 study of titled Cultural Conservation as mandated by the 1981 revision of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Tom Carter, whose dissertation on the immigrant communities of central Utah Dr. Roberts had directed, in cooperation with Carl Fleischhauer, of the American Folklife Center furthered this effort to expand or deepen the meaningfulness of historic preservation survey by combining a comprehensive folklife survey with a preservation study and published it as the Grouse Creek Cultural Survey.

Folklorists and other researchers of American cultures are now poised to further refine the concepts and methods through which the knowledge, skills, values and lifestyles that imbue buildings with importance are further included in the federally mandated descriptions and protections. On Wednesday, scholars from a broad range of disciplines and interests, both within the United States and internationally will gather at the Library of Congress to discuss the potential and significance of cultural conservation and the relationship that the stuff of folklife should have with the structures that now trigger federal and state responses for architectural and environmental sites and structures.

Many students of Warren Roberts will be there, arguing one expects, that the careful and close study of artifacts is essential for a proper understanding of cultural heritage. Yet one topic that folklorists must grapple with is the need to reassess and improve the training of its students for the new methods that must be outlined if the products of archaeology, historic preservation, architectural history, and folk cultural studies will mesh.

The strength of the IU fieldwork experience has lain in observation. The courses have never consciously or consistently developed a descriptive paradigm. In folk architectural studies we have relied upon photography without ever spending time discussing how it’s done, or when photographs are effective and when they are not. What are standards of documentation that one should consistently apply? Should an individual be pointedly queried about their ability to use a 35mm camera, or make a taped interview, if they have received an MA or Ph.d. in Folklore from Indiana University?

Many folklorists of my class were versed in these skills through their earlier association with the Cooperstown program. There, I understand, non-credit classes on skills and standards of documentation were provided and students expected to complete. The techniques and proficiency gained in these classes then were applied within the context of required and graded courses for the folklore major. A decade ago Cooperstown set the standards for proficient fieldworkers, today no one is teaching them.

Yet the standards are being raised for documentation in folk cultural studies. They are being explored, not in the Department, but in the many offices where graduates from this academic program work. The American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress is developing computer search programs that will index field notes making comparisons and comparability stronger and more effective. New technologies, in audio and visual recordation are looming on the horizon that will place increasing burdens on new graduates if they are neither informed nor exposed to these fieldwork methods in the studies.

Another equally important part of training folklorists for jobs today, not the jobs available a score of years ago, lies in articulating what ethical and responsible work and appropriate levels of compensation and worksite safety are currently and potentially present for folklorists. This would include not only what to expect from and be required by potential employers, but also what folklorists in public programs should advise their organizations, write into their grant applications, and spell out in their contracts to hire other folklorists. The diversity of organizations which now hire folklorists is too broad and too unfamiliar both with the pace and standards of performance of professional folklore conduct to allow the subject to be untended in a graduate education. Elements as seemingly mundane as personal safety for women doing survey are issues that can and should be confronted within the training of folklorists, so that we can look an employer in the eye and levelly tell him, no, we are not going to send individuals to conduct rural building surveys alone. It will be little comfort to anyone when (not if) a folklorist is physically injured abused or assaulted, under circumstances that could have been avoided through education.

Actually, the Indiana University Folklore Department may need not respond at all. The Library of Congress receiving increasing requests from folklorists working in public programs around the country is considering beginning fieldwork training programs at the national level. These would be at two tiers, one for students within graduate programs that do not offer such courses, another for professional folklorists seeking enhancement of their documentation and recordation skills. The Vernacular Architecture Forum has also experimented with a national summer program to train individuals in reading and recording vernacular and folk buildings. The first was held in conjunction with Old Sturbridge Village and was fully subscribed and well-received.

One could argue that Indiana University has no faculty whose skills and background equip them to teach such a field methods course. That I believe, could be a true, and not a disparaging comment. Consistent with the high standards as well as the intellectual and professional commitments of the tenured faculty of the Folklore Department, there may literally not be anyone available who could take this task on.

My sense is that there exists a multitude of skills, experiences and the knowledge of what is needed to conduct top quality documentation and presentation within public folklore present in the alumni of the Folklore Department here. An absolutely first-rate, nationally relevant fieldwork course could be devised employing the experience base of the alumni.

Two pieces must be in place before this or any other significant alumni interaction with the current in-residence students can exist. First, there must be a way for alumni to inform the faculty at IU what the significant skill needs are and are likely to be in the future for folklorists who work in public programs. It’s akin to “ask the man that holds the plough.” A forum needs to exist that creates a dialogue between those of us who teach about folklore—and I include myself in that number—and those whose principal day-to-day activity is researching folk, ethnic and regional cultures and disseminating that information to the public. Even more will this be important as the federal and state governments continue to seek ways to assist in conserving cultural heritages.

Second, there must be a way found to pay the expenses if alumni are to become involved with the folklore department. The fieldwork example that I am proposing could not be presented to students in a quick lecture. We already understand the importance of interaction with instruction in the process of fieldwork. The time requirements are more than the enhancement of a semester course by importing a visionary speaker for a late afternoon seminar. Many of the best fieldworkers today are not supported by academic appointments. To participate in any other fieldwork experiences would require a reasonable salary for the time.

Of the two, the first is much more important than the second. The alumni of Indiana University folklore department are some of the most successful grant getters in folklore today. There is unlikely to be a more informed group about the potential sources of outside funding for such programs than the alumni themselves. But the first is fraught with aspects of controversy and challenges to authority and responsibility for the quality of education that must remain firmly and visibly lodged with the faculty of the Department.

Important to this discussion should be a yeasty debate on the methods and paradigms appropriate to all levels of folklife identification, description, evaluation, analysis and interpretation. Why should we only now be debating the significant methodologies of the past century? Inherent within the discussion should be the methodological differences that affect fieldwork between artifactual, structural, contextual and performance based studies. I am not hearing that debate about fieldwork taking place, yet we have among our alumni and faculty proponents of all these and more schools of folklore. An even partially illuminating discussion of appropriate fieldwork method within these approaches would greatly assist folklorists and other field-based disciplines in recognizing points of articulation in analysis and interpretation. We might go even farther and questions should there be a national register of American folklife?

The world of folklife practice has changed over the past thirty years that Dr. Warren Roberts has been practicing and preaching the importance of the material world. He and others of vision from his generation have given us a questing sense to look for ways that knowledge about objects and the skills to make them shaped lives in the past and shape life today. Nothing about his contribution is diminished by recognizing the reordering and restructuring of our discipline and its mission, except to say that we must be willing to further elaborate our methodologies both in description and analysis if we hope to continue to be effective in interpreting and serving as a catalyst for improvements in the quality of life of the people of the world.

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