Archie Green

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Musicologist and folklorist Archie Green was the pioneering force behind what he dubbed "laborlore" -- his studies of the songs, stories, and rituals that shaped the trade union movement shed enormous…
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Musicologist and folklorist Archie Green was the pioneering force behind what he dubbed "laborlore" -- his studies of the songs, stories, and rituals that shaped the trade union movement shed enormous historical light on the creative heritage of the American working class, and his tireless lobbying efforts are cited as the decisive factor behind Congressional support for the passage of the American Folklife Preservation Act of 1976. Born Aaron Green in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on June 29, 1917, he was five years old when the family relocated to Los Angeles. His father, an ardent socialist who supported union leader Eugene Debs as well as Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal labor initiatives, profoundly influenced Green's own burgeoning pro-labor beliefs, and though he graduated from UC Berkeley in 1939 with a degree in political science, he soon abandoned academia to join the Civilian Conservation Corps as a road builder and firefighter, additionally working a stretch as a shipwright.

During World War II Green served with the U.S. Navy's Seabees division, constructing roads and runways across the Pacific theater; upon returning to civilian life, he worked as a carpenter and joined the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, remaining a member of the union for close to 70 years. In addition to his work as a carpenter, Green closely aligned himself with veterans' groups, and along the way he collected untold numbers of stories and songs from the people he befriended -- his rabid interest in the labor movement ultimately led him to enroll in graduate school, and he earned his M.L.S. degree from the University of Illinois in 1960, soon after joining the staffs of the school's English department and Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations.

Green spent more than a decade at the University of Illinois, during which time he served as an adviser to the campus folk music club and regularly sent students out into the field to record the indigenous music of central and southern Illinois; his own song-collecting efforts led him to Appalachia to capture the mountain broadsides sung by Kentucky's mine and mill workers, an experience that informed his seminal article "Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol," published in The Journal of American Folklore in 1965. Green also recorded performances by singers Sarah Ogan Gunning (the half-sister of legendary folksinger Aunt Molly Jackson) and George Davis, and in 1972 his Ph.D. dissertation was published as the book Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs.

Throughout his career Green actively promoted the concept of public folklore, contending that historians should work outside of the academic sphere to gather, preserve, and publicize their subjects in conjunction with lawmakers, museums, folk festivals, and radio stations. He also maintained that the federal government needed to assume a larger role in supporting, preserving, and energizing America's cultural traditions, working as a senior staff associate at the AFL-CIO Labor Studies Center during the early '70s and calling for a national center spotlighting the creative heritage of the working class. After more than a decade of lobbying Congress, on January 2, 1976, then-president Gerald R. Ford signed into law the American Folklife Preservation Act, which passed unanimously through both houses of Congress and effectively established an American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Green joined the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin in 1975, and two years later he was awarded the Bingham Humanities Professorship at the University of Louisville. After retiring from academic life in mid-1982, he established an archive for his collected materials in the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina, but continued his laborlore writing and research -- Green's subsequent books include 1993's Songs About Work, 2001's Torching the Fink Books & Other Essays on Vernacular Culture, and 2002's Tin Men, a study into the tinsmith art of Northern California. Particularly notable is the 2007 publication of The Big Red Songbook, a collection of close to 200 songs first published between 1909 and 1973 in the Industrial Workers of the World's pro-union series Little Red Songbooks. Green inherited the project from John Neuhaus, a machinist and longtime IWW member who devoted years collecting and cataloging the songs -- faced with terminal cancer, Neuhaus bequeathed his research to Green in 1958, who worked on the project for almost 50 years.

Green spent the last decades of his own life in San Francisco, where he served as secretary of the nonprofit Fund for Labor Culture and History -- in 1995, he received the American Folklore Society's Benjamin A. Botkin Prize for outstanding achievement in public folklore, and in 2007 he was honored with the Library of Congress' Living Legend Award, given to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions to America's cultural, scientific, and social heritage. "Archie Green has devoted his life to studying the creativity of ordinary, working Americans," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in announcing the honor. Green died of kidney failure on March 22, 2009 -- he was 91 years old.