What is Folklife?

What is Folklife?

Folklife is the expressive arts, practices, and lifeways that emerge from within a community. Folklife that is passed through generations grows into the traditional arts of that community. Traditional arts are often deeply rooted in a geographic location and its religious, ethnic and occupational groups, or they are carried with immigrant and migrant communities as they establish themselves in new homes. Folklife and Traditional Arts are typically taught through one-on-one interaction in a community setting.

Every region in North Carolina is home to its own distinct and living traditions of craft, music, religious practice, foodways, and occupational folklife. From the centuries-old pottery tradition of the Seagrove region, spoken word, funk, and jazz in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, old-time, bluegrass, and ballad singing in the mountains, statewide gospel traditions of African American, Appalachian, and indigenous communities, fishing, boatbuilding and duck decoy carving on the coast, to the traditional arts of the eight state-recognized native tribes of North Carolina.

Folklife is an essential and enduring part of how communities form their identity, learn from their pasts, and decide their futures. Folklife is a living and dynamic experience expressed through art, music, dance, celebration, work, story, dress, sense of place, and belief. No community is without it, and we are all its carriers.


About the Folklife Program

Since 1977, the Folklife program of the N.C. Arts Council has promoted North Carolina folklife and traditional arts through ongoing documentation of living traditions, folklife apprenticeships, grants and special projects, statewide initiatives, and an archive of folklife materials. Signature projects include Traditional Arts Programs for Students, and the North Carolina Heritage Awards.

Supporting and exploring local folklife has immense value for both the cultural and economic health of a region. Maintaining folk traditions enables communities across the socio-economic spectrum to nurture cohesiveness, support artists and musicians, boost regional tourism, and improve educational achievement.

A three-month Folklife Internship is offered every year to applicants who have completed at least one year of graduate study in folklife or related fields (ethnomusicology, anthropology, history, etc.) or have experience with traditional arts and culture.


Want to Be a Folklorist?

North Carolina universities offer programs for advance degrees in folklife and related studies:

Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University offers the nation’s only Master of Arts degree in Appalachian Studies and encourages research and collaborative projects concerned with the region’s past, present, and future.

Center for Documentary Studies, an interdisciplinary educational organization affiliated with Duke University, carries out documentary projects at local, state, national, and international levels. Founded in 1989, CDS connects the arts and humanities to fieldwork, drawing upon photography, filmmaking, oral history, folklore, and writing as catalysts for education.

Curriculum in Folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill was established in 1940 and was one of the first graduate programs in folklore in the country. The curriculum is a master’s level program that has been instrumental in establishing a place for folklore studies in higher education, in training many folklorists now working in the state, and developing the Southern Folklife Collection.