Archie Green dies at 91; folklorist studied lives of working people

Archie Green poses with Mr. Dixie, an 11-foot-tall “Tin Man” sculpture at the Dixie Sheet Metal Works in Falls Church, Va. His book “Tin Men” was published in 2002.
(David Taylor / American Folklife Center)

Archie Green liked to tell people he had two educations -- one on San Francisco’s waterfront, the other in the university. But the former shipwright and carpenter didn’t just trade his blue collar for a white one. He merged the two identities and created a new field of study.

Green, who was 91 when he died of kidney and heart failure March 22 at his San Francisco home, was a pioneering folklorist who studied the language, music, art and customs of working men and women. It was a unique pursuit that required a name, which he coined: He called it “laborlore.”

In his hands, laborlore meant scholarly explorations of hillbilly music, the etymology of the shipyard term “Dutchman,” and the origins of the metal figures tinsmiths fashioned for their shop signs. He so strongly believed that these were important cultural expressions -- as worthy of preservation as a symphony by Berlioz or a landscape by Winslow Homer -- that he spent seven years lobbying Congress to create the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Established in 1976, it houses more than 4,000 collections documenting the lives of ordinary Americans.

“Archie said, ‘Working men aren’t dummies.’ I heard him say that many times,” recalled Robert Cantwell, a University of North Carolina folklorist who knew Green for 40 years. “That struck me as the essence of his thinking. He didn’t like to be patronized, and he didn’t like patronizing social philosophies. He invested a lot of his beliefs in the capacity of the working man to be a conscious carrier of his labor culture.”

Green was born June 29, 1917, in Winnipeg, Canada, and moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was 5. The son of a Ukrainian harness maker, he grew up in the ethnic stew of Boyle Heights, listening to cowboy music and jazz with childhood friend Norman Granz, the legendary record producer and impresario. After graduating from Roosevelt High School, Green entered UCLA, later transferring to UC Berkeley, where he earned a degree in political science in 1939.

Despite being college educated, Green decided that “the most desirable choice I could make” was to find a trade and become a unionist. He joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, working on the Klamath River, building roads and fighting fires. After a year, he moved to San Francisco and worked in the shipyards until World War II intruded. He served as a Navy Seabee in the Pacific during the war.

When the war ended, shipbuilding jobs were scarce, so Green became a carpenter and raised a family with his wife, Louanne.

She survives him along with a daughter, Debra Morris; two sons, Derek and David; a sister, Mitzi Zeman; and four grandchildren.

In his spare time, Green prowled record shops and bookstores, collecting such things as Paul Bunyan stories and flamenco music. An interest in coal miners’ songs led him to correspond with experts on labor music, who encouraged him to compile a discography of coal-mining music. His hobby gradually led him into a new life.

Although he felt he was “abandoning my trade and leaving companions behind,” he made the break in 1958, enrolling in a University of Illinois library science program. After earning a master’s degree in 1960, he began teaching at the university’s Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations. He also advised the Campus Folksong Club.

In 1965 the Journal of American Folklore published his article, “Hillbilly Music: Source & Symbol,” an influential study that set the standard for commercial country music scholarship. With a folk song revival underway across the country, Green enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1966 to pursue a PhD in folklore. He earned a doctorate in 1968 with a thesis based on his investigation of coal-mining music. It was later published as a book, “Only a Miner” (1971).

Instead of burnishing his academic credentials with teaching and writing, Green cut another new path, to Washington, D.C. From 1969 to 1976, he lobbied Congress to pass the American Folklife Preservation Act.

“I viewed my lobbying role as that of a teacher with the entire Congress as a classroom,” he wrote in an afterword to his book “Torching the Fink Books and Other Essays on Vernacular Culture” (2001). “I believed then, and still do, that if tax funds are allocated for cultural activity, our social charter requires an equitable, democratic distribution of those resources.”

Green, who received the Living Legend award from the Library of Congress in 2007, also believed that the work of the folklorist was not restricted to the university. He taught early courses on what he called public folklore, starting in 1975, when he joined the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin.

He retired from teaching in 1982 but continued to write books, including “Wobblies, Pile Butts and Other Heroes” (1993) and “Tin Men” (2002). He served as secretary-treasurer of the Fund for Labor Culture & History, a nonprofit group that supports labor folklore projects with small grants.

He also co-edited “The Big Red Songbook” (2007), a treasury of songs that the Wobblies, as members of the radical trade union Industrial Workers of the World called themselves, used as a recruiting tool through much of the 20th century. Many of the songs were set to borrowed melodies, including the tunes from “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and Bizet’s “Carmen,” but others became enduring classics reinterpreted for younger generations by artists such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

Green considered most of the songs unsingable, though historically important. Among his favorites was “The Preacher and the Slave,” which he knew by heart since hearing it as a child:

Longhaired preachers come

out every night

Try to tell you what’s wrong

and what’s right

But when asked how ‘bout

something to eat

They will answer with voices

so sweet: You will eat bye

and bye

In that glorious land above the


Work and pray, live on hay

You’ll get pie in the sky when

you die.