Screening American Studies

Introduction. By Simon J. Bronner (Chair and Distinguished Professor of American Studies, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, and Editor-in-Chief, Encyclopedia of American Studies online)

  1. Screening American Studies: A Sacred Trust. By William Ferris (Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Senior Associate Director of the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of the American South).
  2. Screening American Studies: Intersections. By Sharon R. Sherman (Professor Emerita of Folklore and English, University of Oregon).


By Simon J. Bronner (Chair and Distinguished Professor of American Studies, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, and Editor-in-Chief, Encyclopedia of American Studies online)

Planning for the next semester’s American Studies course, whether a student or a professor, typically involves checking the syllabus for adopted textbooks.  Educational programs in museums and heritage societies coordinated by American Studies professionals often have a list of books “for further reading.” The question I raise in this Forum is “what about further viewing?” What about visual media for learning about American culture? A distinct contribution of American Studies scholars has been to adapt ethnographic film documentation often focused on exotic and distant cultures inward on American myriad folk expressions, and especially groups not usually depicted in the historical record and Hollywood film.  Progressive teachers brought this work into the classrooms to visualize groups and genres of American culture that were absent from existing textbooks. The films, and later videos, brought the great variety of cultural scenes under the rubric of “American” alive and profoundly challenged assumptions about the homogenization of modern mass culture and social inequalities in America. In the twenty-first century with the advent of the digital age (and what has been called the YouTube or i-Generation), harnessing media for documentation and creative production is more user-friendly than ever, and more Internet resources such as make openly accessible a massive storehouse of documentary films about American “roots cultures,” as its website declares (the site includes digitized versions of the films by the contributors in this Forum).  It is one of the key sources that the staff of the Encyclopedia of American Studies has consulted in the last year in the effort to make EAS a truly multimedia reference. Indeed, our goal by the end of 2015 is to have visual media attached to every entry in the encyclopedia, which now boasts close to one thousand signed entries.  Our hope is that this media will be a pedagogical as well as research tool for American Studies scholars, students, and practitioners.

In this Forum, I present two leading figures of the movement to “screen” American Studies: William Ferris and Sharon Sherman, both professors as well as public intellectuals and master filmmakers. The same year that William Ferris received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania on Mississippi Delta blues music and folklore, he produced Sonny Ford, Delta Artist, a 16mm black and white documentary film on Leland, Mississippi, bluesman and folk artist James “Son” Thomas. The film was shot in the “field” rather than the studio. Ferris showed viewers the African-American cultural contexts of juke houses, home kitchen, and the southern front porch and yard. Ferris went on to create fifteen documentary films in color on African American and Mississippi Delta traditions. He wrote and edited ten books, including most recently, The Storied South: Voices of the Writers and Artists (University of North Carolina Press, 2013). Showing his intellectual as well as pedagogical orientation to multimedia, the book includes a CD of original interviews and a DVD of the original film. His ethnographic film Mississippi Blues (1983) was featured at the Cannes Film Festival. Working with audio as well as visual media, he produced numerous sound recordings and hosted Highway 61, a weekly blues program on Mississippi Public Radio for nearly a decade. He was the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, where he taught for eighteen years. After that time, he became chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities where he encouraged media projects on American culture and frequently addressed the American Studies Association. He is now the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he is affiliated with its American Studies program. He is also the senior associate director of the university’s Center for the Study of the American South. For his many accomplishments in folklore, media, and American Studies, he was awarded the Charles Frankel Prize in the Humanities, the American Library Association’s Dartmouth Medal, the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Lifetime Achievement Award, and the W.C. Handy Blues Award. In 1991, Rolling Stone magazine named him among the Top Ten Professors in the United States.

Sharon Sherman also began her involvement in documentary media with the use of 16mm film during the 1960s. Her academic background included the Ethnographic Film Program at the UCLA and her Ph.D. in folklore from Indiana University. In 1970, she produced Tales of the Supernatural in which she captured on film storytelling performances. Her groundbreaking work signaled an intellectual shift from text-based analysis to contextualized performances and practices. She went on to produce ten films and documentaries, including the award-winning Kathleen Ware, Quiltmaker (1979) and Spirit in the Wood: The Chainsaw Art of Skip Armstrong (1991).  The latter video was also accompanied by a book Chainsaw Sculptor: The Art of J. Chester “Skip” Armstrong (University Press of Mississippi, 1995).  She also reflected upon the process of media documentation in her book Documenting Ourselves: Film, Video, and Culture (University Press of Kentucky, 1998), which was translated in Chinese. She also explored popular film in her co-editing of Folklore/Cinema: Popular Film as Vernacular Culture (Utah State University Press, 2007).  In 1976 she began teaching in the department of English at the University of Oregon, where she was also director of the Folklore Program and taught courses on film and filmmaking. She retired as professor of folklore and English in 2013, and has continued filmmaking since.

Screening American Studies: A Sacred Trust

By William Ferris (Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Senior Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South).

Over the years, I have been privileged to speak to American Studies audiences throughout the United States and in Europe, Guyana, Haiti, Russia, Tobago, and Trinidad.  In each place, I saw how the spoken word touched the heart of audiences in special ways. I learned how folklore transcends barriers of culture and language. Today, more than ever, we must build bridges that deepen mutual understanding of our worlds, as only folklore can. 

A long, deep relationship exists between folklorists and the media in an American Studies context.  We are as fascinated with technology as with the oral traditions that we document. I think of the dizzying arc of technology--from John and Alan Lomax’s recording machine that filled the trunk of their car to the iPhone in my pocket.  Alan Lomax’s dream of the “global jukebox” now exists via the Internet, which delivers universal access to the songs and dances that he recorded and loved so deeply.

Fig. 1. William Ferris filming at the Louis and Addie Mae Dotson Home, Lorman, MS, 1979. Photo by Hester Magnuson, William R. Ferris Collection, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A spiritual power exists in the recordings, photographs, and film created by folklorists.  Often captured in the heat of the moment as we work with artists and musicians, years later we look at and listen to these documents with both nostalgia and surprise, struck by how they capture time with special clarity.

In recent years, I reengaged documentary work that I did in the 1960s and 1970s.  My first book Blues From the Delta was published in 1970.  In 2009--thirty-nine years later—the book inspired a sequel Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues that includes a CD of my recordings and a DVD of my documentary films.  The French translation of the book, Les Voix du Mississippi , appeared in 2013 and also features a CD and DVD.

My last book The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists appeared in 2013 with a CD and DVD.  Enhanced e-books embed recordings, photographs, and film clips into text in a digital format that redefines how we understand and read a book. 

Today folklore and American Studies have come full circle.  We now digitize our archived photographs, sound recordings, and films and place them in new forms of media and print. Technology transforms the archives where our collections reside and allow us to reenter worlds long forgotten. As I look through the online inventory of my archive in the University of North Carolina’s Southern Folklife Collection, I reengage with my work in new and innovative ways.  I can also search for and find my photographs that have been digitized.

In the fall of 2014, I taught a MOOC course “The American South: Its Stories, Music and Art” that reached over 8,000 students in 120 countries around the world.  Their online conversations moved me as they discussed films, sound recordings, and photographs I made with, B.B. King, Ray Lum, Parchman Penitentiary inmates,  James “Son Ford” Thomas, and Eudora Welty. My students understand these transformative worlds far better than I do.  They help me appreciate how technology liberates the next generation of folklorists and American Studies scholars to capture and share the rich and varied worlds of American culture with audiences throughout the world. The quality of this work has dramatically improved, and its cost is significantly less than the photographs, film, and analogue sound recordings I collected in the 1960s and 1970s.

While technology continues to change, we must always view our work as a sacred trust to capture the human heart through voices of the people whom we record.


Agee, James and Walker Evans. 1974. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. New York: Ballantine Books.

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Screening American Studies: Intersections 

By Sharon R. Sherman (Professor Emerita of Folklore and English, University of Oregon).

American Studies is a vast and ubiquitous realm, and much of it is broadcast via media such as films and videos.  Plainly put, American cultural films document what it is to be American.  These films are interdisciplinary and tend to focus on aspects of American culture by examining the lives and creative processes of people who live in different regions, have distinct occupations, religious practices, ethnic backgrounds, or who stand out as a unique individuals with special talents.  Families and communities of all types emerge as subjects. Such films confirm our own identities, causing us to see ourselves through the activities of other people depicted on the screen.  In my own area of American Studies, I study folklore, usually in my own backyard.  Unlike early film that ethnographically documented peoples in tribal and so-called primitive societies, American folklorists have turned to their own cultural customs. Traditional behavior is exhibited everywhere and we all participate in our varied practices, whether it be singing traditional songs, playing games, or celebrating events in our lives, from birth rituals to coming of age tales and activities to funereal procedures. I put on my folklore glasses to see the everyday transform the ordinary to the extraordinary.  As media usage becomes more and more common, people are taking up cameras and using their phones to document themselves. A wealth of material exists and some filmmakers, both amateur and professional, broadcast (in its most inclusive sense) their work via the Internet on sites such as YouTube and Vimeo.

Fig. 2. Sharon Sherman filming with an Eclair (large camera), 1992. Courtesy Sharon Sherman.

I believe that film offers us a more exhaustive means of gathering data and presenting scholarly viewpoints. My own film work began at a time when the term “urban legend” had not yet been used.  This film, Tales of the Supernatural (1970), examines narrating as an event by documenting a group of teenagers telling modern legends including ones about a man with a hooked arm, a vanishing hitchhiker, and the mysterious death of a boyfriend. The film asks why people continue to tell these stories and what functions they serve in contemporary America. For me, film became the most in depth tool for studying the many communicative dimensions of traditional narrating, and, by extension, the multiple folkloric events that deal with creativity and the human experience.

For Kathleen Ware, Quiltmaker (1979), my intent was to look at an individual textile artist, as opposed to women working in a quilting bee.  Although quilted fabric was worn under soldiers’ plate armor as early as the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries in Europe, as an aesthetic and functional blanket it has come to be considered a uniquely American art.  Especially popular during the westward expansion of America, women made quilts to pass the time and to use materials they had at hand. Today quilt tools and books are popular and common.  The film captures a time when such tools were not available; unintentionally, the film has become a nostalgia piece for recalling an earlier means of creating traditional patterns.  The film captures the folk art of quilting and one woman’s personality in the coast range of Oregon.

Fig. 3. B&W still from Kathleen Ware, Quiltmaker, 16mm, color, 1979, Sharon Sherman filmmaker. Courtesy Sharon Sherman.

In a similar manner, Spirits in the Wood (1991) presents an individual artist.  A chainsaw sculptor, Skip Armstrong is representative of a larger group of chainsaw artists, especially in the West.  His choice of materials and methods of creating shape, texture, and detail have much in common with both regional vernacular western chainsaw art and delicately tooled wood sculpture. This video explores the processes of creativity, raises questions about the differences between folk art and fine art, and captures Armstrong’s unique aesthetic sensibilities, his outlook on life, his surroundings, and his growing reputation as an artist.

Passover, A Celebration (1983) takes stock of a ritual that occurs annually.  It transcends location to examine the celebration of Passover in one family.  By extension, it speaks to religious events and celebration.  Celebratory occasions are a significant part of life in America and elsewhere.  Seeing this time through the eyes of one North American family makes us ponder the celebrations that are significant in the calendar.  One might think of July 4th, Martin Luther King Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and springtime celebrations.  Food is often a central element for such occasions. Other American filmmakers, Les Blank and Tom Davenport, for example, have focused on food and its relationship to celebration in their many films that document ethnicity and regionalism.

American Studies, like folklore, is constantly in flux. As but one more personal example, Kid Shoes (2001) explores the boy band phenomenon. Kid Shoes is an upbeat documentary about the role of music in the lives of boys on their journey though middle school, to high school, and to college. The musicians’ exciting performances are mesmerizing and their songs and stories delight audiences.  In many ways, the band is exceptional; in another way, they represent the typical American garage band members creating their own CDs.

Film tells us much more than the apparent topic.  What does America look like in the past?  Decorations, cars parked on the street, clothing styles, and housing appear in the frame and freeze historical moments. What will the future look like for filmmakers and videographers who wish to document topics that represent American Studies?  Computer editing is essential at present. The field is rapidly changing.  Digital media such as streaming video have become the current standard, and film and video will continue to recreate themselves in ways we cannot conceptualize.   With a concentration on American tradition, the topics will be endless.


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