Folklorist and Ethnographer – Tom Carroll

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This past summer, I had the very great pleasure of sitting down to talk with Tom Carroll about his rich career as a folklorist and ethnographer, work which he has been doing for nearly 4 decades. In a series of 4 posts, we will explore the who, what, when, where, why, and how of his work over the course of the next four weeks.

The following is Part I of the interview with Tom

The WHAT and with WHOM – oral history professional practice

Tom got started out doing oral histories in the late 70’s as a project coordinator for the Retired Union Leadership Project with the Labor Education Center at Rutgers, as part of a project funded by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (legislation passed by Richard Nixon in 1973 – an extension of the Works Progress Administration program from the 1930s.) During this time, Tom had the opportunity to do oral histories with labor leaders who had organized workers in various labor sectors.  Also during that period Tom joined the New Jersey Folklore Society, which had been reorganized, subsequently serving as editor of the society’s newsletter, and later as president.  When other folklore society members suggested he seek formal training in folklore, he decided to pursue a PhD in folklore and folklife at Penn.

At that time, as Tom shared with me, there was “as I saw it, a clearly distinguished bipartite sort of activity in the field of folklore and folklife at Penn”.  According to Tom, folklorists could choose the academic route, or the public sector. The American Folklife Center had been established at the Library of Congress by that time, and had organized major field projects as a way of documenting local and regional cultures, often in parts of the country undergoing change processes that were disruptive of social and cultural continuity.  At their most ambitious these projects hoped to influence policy, but they at least they strove to positively affect the communities they engaged with through the fieldwork process. This orientation to the work resonated with Tom, who had been an undergrad in the 60’s and was active in the civil rights and anti-war movements, which nourished the seeds of social and political awareness in him. The fact that his father was a truck driver and his mother a seamstress also produced an affinity for working people, and more broadly, a sensitivity to the needs of subaltern communities. Tom found that he was particularly interested in understanding the agency of local communities, and as a grad student, he started to do fieldwork right away.

One of his first projects was in the Pine Barrens – a heavily forested area of coastal plain stretching across more than seven counties of southern New Jersey.  He joined a team of folklorists and related professionals put together by the American Folklife Center, to document traditional work culture in the Pine Barrens following enactment of the Pinelands Preservation Act, and to make recommendations to the Pinelands Commission to help preserve traditional culture there.  This fieldwork exposed a central operative tension between the preservationist model and local community members who subsisted on local resources.  The project also demonstrated the potential of politically engaged fieldwork, suggesting that folklore provided a means to embody and enact long established progressive ideals – in effect, to tell stories that weren’t necessarily being heard – from the perspective of a cultural community for whom local resources, and access to them, were sources of economic viability and cultural identity.  What would it mean to see things from the perspective of this traditional community?


Stay tuned for more from Tom Carrol.  I am structuring the telling of his work story  following the work interrogatives (WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, HOW of work):