Archie Green: Folklorist and musicologist

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The Independent Online

In August 2007 Archie Green received the Library of Congress's Living Legend Award. It has been conferred on individuals such as Madeleine Albright, B.B. King, Alan Lomax, Martin Scorsese, Pete Seeger and Tiger Woods who have made a significant contribution to American life. Explaining how he had earned the honour, James H. Billington said, "Archie Green has devoted his life to studying the creativity of ordinary, working Americans, and he was also one of the most significant figures behind the formation of the Library's American Folklife Center." The musicologist, folklorist and staunch unionist is credited with coining the neologism for his particular field of interest: "laborlore" or the folklore and folkways of workers and working-class communities.

The Canadian-born son of a Ukrainian harness-maker, Green grew up in Los Angeles' multicultural Boyle Heights district. He graduated from UC Berkeley (after transferring from UCLA) in 1939 with a degree in political science. In a move that presaged so much, he forsook the life laid out for him. He joined the Civilian Conservation Corps as a road-builder and firefighter, worked in the San Francisco shipyards and served as a Seabee – the engineering branch of the US navy that constructed roads, runways, jetties and suchlike – in the Pacific theatre of war.

After the War he worked as a carpenter, fed his interest in popular culture and in 1958 went back to academia, emerging in 1960 with a master's degree from the University of Illinois. In 1968 he obtained a PhD in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania; his dissertation on the music of US coalminers was turned into his book Only a Miner: studies in recorded coal-mining songs (1972). The University of Illinois Press would publish a substantial body of his writings.

Green chronicled the lives, culture, speech and song forms and customs of working-class Americans, especially those of the political left, including trades unionists, the International Workers of the World (IWW) – nicknamed the Wobblies – and folksingers like Sarah Ogan Gunning for her Folk-Legacy LP Girl of Constant Sorrow (1965, issued by Topic in Britain in 1967). He was an important advocate and lobbyist for the American Folklife Preservation Act of 1976 – the legislative bedrock for the American Folklife Center.

He co-edited The Big Red Songbook (2007), a treasury of some 250 songs published between 1909 and 1973 in the IWW's Little Red Songbooks. This major undertaking to republish the Wobbly songbooks fulfilled a pact, a task he had inherited on the death of his IWW friend John Neuhaus in 1958. Green's scholarship was profoundly based on working-class culture but it was also based on a deep appreciation of what it was like to do manual work. It was not rarefied. It came with calluses and splinters.

Aaron ("Archie") Green, folklorist and musicologist: born Winnipeg, Manitoba 29 June 1917; married 1944 Louanne Bartlett 1944 (two sons, one daughter); died San Francisco 22 March 2009.