The Tennessee Arts Commission established its Folk Arts Program in October 1984, the name of which was changed to the Folklife Program in 2000. From the beginning, program director Dr. Robert Cogswell took photographs of artists, sites, and events related to program activities, mainly using black-and-white negative and color slide films. The program also regularly copied images and acquired prints, both historic and recent, from other sources, including some images by contracted photographers. In 2002, the program transitioned almost entirely from film to digital photography. The Photographs Series of the Tennessee Arts Commission Folk Arts Program Records at the Tennessee State Library and Archives consists of approximately 22,000 images (in the form of photographs, slides, negatives, and digital files) that document folkways and unique Tennessee styles, characters, and art. The images in this TeVA collection are a small sampling of this rich material.

The Tennessee Arts Commission Folk Arts Program Records document folkways unique to Tennessee. The Tennessee State Library and Archives' abundant resources on folklife, folklore, and folkways highlight Tennessee's place in the national studies of folklife.

There are many formal definitions of folklife and what qualifies, but the Library of Congress American Folklife Center provides the following easy to understand definition on its website:

The everyday and intimate creativity that all of us share and pass on to the next generation:
The traditional songs we sing, listen and dance to
Fairy tales, stories, ghost tales and personal histories
Riddles, proverbs, figures of speech, jokes and special ways of speaking
Our childhood games and rhymes
The way we celebrate life
- from birthing our babies to honoring our dead
The entire range of our personal and collective beliefs
- religious, medical, magical, and social
Our handed-down recipes and everyday mealtime
traditions The way we decorate our world
- from patchwork patterns on our quilts to plastic flamingoes in our yards, to tattoos on our bodies
The crafts we create by hand
- crocheted afghans, wooden spoons, cane bottoms
on chairs Patterns and traditions of work
- from factory to office cubicle
The many creative ways we express ourselves as members of our family, our community, our geographical region, our ethnic group, our religious congregation, or our occupational group
Folklife is part of everyone's life. It is as constant as a ballad, as changeable as fashion trends. It is as intimate as a lullaby, and as public as a parade.
In the end ... we are all folk.

In the rapidly changing 19th and early 20th centuries, many folkways did not get passed down to the next generation. Early folklorists noted this and began a long-standing tradition of collecting these documentary items of otherwise lost traditions. The Tennessee Arts Commission established its Folk Arts Program in October 1984. (The name of which was changed to the Folklife Program in 2000.) From the beginning, program director Dr. Robert Cogswell collected valuable details, oral histories, and photographs of Tennessee folkways and traditional arts. Materials chronicling artists, sites, and events, both historic and recent, were assembled. The images evidence unique Tennessee styles, characters, and art. This collection highlights every topic named in the Library of Congress's description. Art, architecture, music, medicines, herbs and foodways, traditional work such as farming, boat building, dancing, chair and basket making, fishing, traditional music, needlework, and quilting are just a few of the topics specifically identified.

The U.S. Congress passed the American Folklife Preservation Act (P.L. 94-201) in 1976. At that time Congress defined "American folklife" as "the traditional expressive culture shared within the various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, regional; expressive culture includes a wide range of creative and symbolic forms such as custom, belief, technical skill, language, literature, art, architecture, music, play, dance, drama, ritual, pageantry, handicraft; these expressions are mainly learned orally, by imitation, or in performance, and are generally maintained without benefit of formal instruction or institutional direction."

Note that the definition of "American folklife" as defined in the American Folklife Preservation Act includes "ethnic" groups. Something that sets this collection apart from other collected Tennessee folklife materials is the presence of cultural/ethnic art and traditions from Tennessee's immigrant populations. The following cultural groups are represented in the collection: African American, Anglo American, Argentinian, Austrian, Bolivian, Bosnian, Brazilian, Burmese, Chinese, Colombian, Croatian, Cuban, Czechoslovakian, Filipino, Ghanaian, Greek, Guatemalan, Honduran, Hungarian, Indian, Iraqi, Jamaican, Japanese, Kurdish, Laotian, Latino, Native American, Nicaraguan, Palestinian, Panamanian, Peruvian, Polish, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Samoan, Somalian, Sudanese, Swiss, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, and West African.

The materials within this collection are accessible for purposes of education and research. While the Tennessee State Library and Archives houses an item, it does not necessarily hold the copyright on the item, nor may it be able to determine if the item is still protected under current copyright law. Users are solely responsible for determining the existence of such restrictions and for obtaining any other permissions and paying associated fees that may be necessary for the intended use.

  • Belanus, Betty J. (1989) Evaluating public sector folklore: The Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University.
  • West, Carroll Van, editor-in-chief; Margaret Duncan Binnicker, associate editor. A History of Tennessee Arts: creating traditions, expanding horizons. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004.
  • (1979, July - July 1980). Tennessee Conservationist Magazine.
  • (n.d.). The Bulletin of the Tennessee Folklore Society.
  • Olson, T. (2009). A Tennessee folklore sampler: Selections from the Tennessee folklore society bulletin, 1935-2009. Knoxville, Tenn.: The University of Tennessee Press.
  • Jones, O. (1967). Peculiarities of the Appalachian mountaineers; a summary of legends, traditions, signs and superstitions that are almost forgotten. Detroit, Mich.: Harlo Press.
  • Cogswell, R. (2010). Tradition: Tennessee lives & legacies. Nashville, Tenn: Tennessee Arts Commission.
  • The American Folklife Center. (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2015, from
  • The American Folklife Center Tennessee Collections. (n.d.). Retrieved March 22, 2017, from