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What is Folklife?

Folklife is comprised of arts and expressive practices, skills, bodies of knowledge, and ways of living that are learned and passed down in cultural communities that share family, ethnic, tribal, regional, occupational, or religious identity. As such, folklife is dependent upon and defined by its accordance with tradition— its continuity and coherence with collective and enduring beliefs and values. Folklife is typically sustained without institutional direction; it is transmitted orally, by imitation, through observation, and in performance. Though fluid and evolving over time, deep-rooted folklife typically maintains a persistent and fundamental core aligned with the purposes and preferences of the community of origin.

Folklife can include music, dance, visual and material arts, clothing and adornment, crafts, foodways, calendar and life-cycle customs, and occupational skills. Self-taught, visionary, and other vernacular cultural practices also often fit within broader folklife conceptions. In Tennessee, folklife encompasses older cultural forms that have been here for decades and centuries, as well as arts and customs brought here recently by immigrant groups.

What does the Folklife Program do? 

We collaborate with nonprofit organizations, traditional artists, culture workers, and community scholars across the state to document, preserve, and present Tennessee’s diverse folklife. In addition to providing operating support and project grants to organizations engaged in folklife activities, we are also a central resource for information on the state’s folklife and traditional artists. We offer technical assistance to individual folk artists, as well as to museums, festivals, community groups and researchers. Folklife Program staff members are also professionally trained fieldworkers and actively travel the state to uncover, research, and document Tennessee’s dynamic traditional cultures. We maintain an archive of field documentation, and draw from such to create a variety of interpretive presentations, publications, exhibitions, and media productions.

What does the Folklife Program fund?

We offer grant support for organizations that work with folklife traditions and projects, including festivals, concerts, exhibitions, publications, museum acquisitions, survey projects, documentary recordings, heritage trails, and professional development for folk artists. The Folklife Program also yearly supports teams of master artists and apprentices engaged in the training and transmission of a traditional art form. Our priority is to work with cultural expressions in ways that best benefit and reflect their communities of origin.

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