Folklife at the National Park: A Look Back

Following is another excerpt from “Mill Power: Reclaiming Lowell’s Place and Story,” the book I’ve written about the national park in Lowell. This piece is a sidebar, a flashback to the Lowell Folklife Project of 1987-88, when a team of scholars recorded in pictures, on tape, and in field notes our way of life. The project team from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress was led by Dr. Doug DeNatale, who was based at the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, where I worked. I interviewed Doug in North Carolina while I was in the area attending a conference. Here is his view of what the folklorists did and learned in Lowell.—PM


Listening to a Memory Worker 

On a sticky morning in Carrboro, North Carolina, in April 1989, Doug DeNatale, Ph.D., was writing his wrap-up of the Lowell Folklife Project, a comprehensive survey by the American Folklife Center (AFC) of the Library of Congress. The heat was ninety degrees at 10:00 a.m. On the porch a hummingbird sucked red syrup from a tube. Living room walls and shelves were covered with artifacts: a dulcimer, a small mud-green ceramic catfish, Hmong story cloths. There were two black-and-white photographs from Lowell: a picture of a Portuguese woman singing at the IV Seasons Restaurant on Central Street and a group portrait of young skateboarders in the Acre neighborhood.

The project was sponsored by the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission. From June 1987 to May 1988, Lowell’s way of life was under a microscope. AFC fieldworkers fanned out across the city—recording songs, making photographs, taping interviews, and collecting stories. Their efforts paralleled a similar project undertaken shortly after Congress established Lowell National Historical Park in 1978. Every important building and structure in the historic district was catalogued in a multi-volume report called the Inventory of Cultural Resources. But those researchers focused only on the built environment. The folklife project made a record of Lowell’s people during the course of a year. After the field work, DeNatale returned home to North Carolina to sort through the data in his red-brick bungalow in a suburb outside of Chapel Hill.

DeNatale’s team collected a truckload of information on subjects as various as songs about the French Canadian-American neighborhood of Little Canada and the informal names for favorite swimming spots in the Merrimack River. The folklorists considered the meaning of ethnic flag-raising ceremonies at City Hall and listened to anecdotes repeated by Park Rangers who had met retired mill workers while leading canal tours. In his documentary bag he had a Greek recipe for baked lamb, transcriptions of Puerto Rican song lyrics, and harrowing accounts of journeys out of Southeast Asia told by Cambodian refugees.

     “It’s clear that there’s a high level of historical consciousness in the community,” said DeNatale. “Lowell is in the memory business, and that’s a wise decision. When you wipe the slate clean, you have nothing to start with. People read each other’s experiences in the city by what they understand their own history to be. Their understanding of their grandparents comes down to them, and they apply it to their view of others in the city. I don’t think this is the best basis for understanding the new immigrants. You are as far away from your great-grandparents’ experiences as you are from the experiences of new people coming to the city.

“Lowell has plenty of lessons for any city that has experienced immigration and industrialization. At the same time, Lowell is atypical because of the recent revitalization, a process not easy to duplicate. The best book about Lowell will have to be written by somebody from Lowell. It would be impossible for me to define Lowell. In my writings, I hope people will find something that they had forgotten or see something they don’t know about. I’m sure some people will say, ‘Well, that’s good, he knew about that in our community, but he didn’t know anything about this, and it’s the most important thing here!’”

Portuguese fado musicians Duarte Tavares and Olivete Maria Poulart perform at the IV Seasons Restaurant, Lowell, Massachusetts, November 14, 1987. (Lowell Folklife Project Collection. Photo by John Lueders-Booth, courtesy of Library of Congress)