Keepers Of Tradition
 
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Monkey Dance, Angkor Dance Troupe, Lowell, Massachusetts. Photo copyright by James Higgins.
Folk Art is expression deeply rooted in shared ethnicity, religious belief, occupational tradition, or sense of place.
Folding fan with calligraphy by Qianshen Bai, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Photo by Jason Dowdle.
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  Throughout Massachusetts, artists learn, practice, and revitalize folk art traditions that take many expressive forms. These keepers of tradition are recognized as outstanding practitioners of craft, music, dance, and sacred arts. Yet much of their work is hidden from the public, remaining essentially unknown beyond their local communities. Some of these traditions have been here for centuries, while others came with people who moved here more recently from all over the world.

What is Folk Art?
Folk art is expression deeply rooted in shared ethnicity, religious belief, occupational tradition, or sense of place. It also involves mastery in unexpected media — the uniformity and utility of a Nantucket lightship basket, the rhythmic drive and stunning ornamentation of music from an Irish button accordion, or the vibrant colors and textures of a Caribbean carnival costume. These are things of beauty that hold meaning for specific groups of people. They have stood the test of time.

The folk or traditional arts are cultural expressions (music, dance, craft, verbal arts) practiced by groups of people who share a common ethnic heritage, language, religion, occupation, geographic region or way of life. These artistic traditions often are taught within a family over many generations or within a trade or ethnic culture. Typically, the folk arts are learned during the course of daily living from someone steeped in the tradition, rather than through classes, books or other means of institutional instruction.

Massachusetts is home to a host of ethnic groups, ranging from longstanding communities of Yankees, Franco Americans, Irish, Italians, African Americans, Armenians, Portuguese, Greeks, Cape Verdeans, Wampanoag, Chinese and Latinos, to newcomers from Cambodia, Vietnam, Brazil, Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. In addition to ethnic affiliations, distinctive regional occupations such as maritime work, agriculture and the textile industry have given rise to folklore that is integral to the state's cultural landscape. Each of these groups has vital artistic traditions and many master artists, which deserve recognition and support.

Finding Keepers of Tradition
This web site draws from ongoing fieldwork by folklorists at the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Our field research takes us into people’s homes, kitchens, dance halls, boat yards, places of worship, and festival sites – places where folk art is produced, used and valued. We identify, talk with, photograph, and record people practicing folk art traditions, with the goal of understanding these practices from an insider's point of view.

This online collection celebrates the many cultural traditions that coexist in Massachusetts – traditions that individuals and communities care enough about to sustain, to enshrine, and to pass on. These living traditions contribute to the quality of life for everyone in Massachusetts by connecting us to our past, building community, and helping us to understand each other.

We continually add to this collection. If you know of an ethnic, musical, craft, or dance tradition that we may not be aware of, we hope you will tell us about it. Folklore fieldwork is an ongoing process of discovery, and the work continues. Please contact Maggie Holtzberg, Folk Arts & Heritage Program Manager.