Final Talk in WKU Folk Studies Anniversary Series to Feature 1974 Alumnus Peggy Bulger

Events, News from the Field
black and white image of peggy bulger who has curly hair and wears earrings and a silk turlteneck
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin, May 1999.

WKU Folk Studies will wrap up the 50 Years of Folklore Graduate Studies at WKU speaker series with a talk by alumnus Dr. Peggy Bulger on Thursday, March 23rd at 5:30 at the Kentucky Museum. In her talk, “Public Folklore in the USA: Born of Activism,” Dr. Bulger will discuss her experiences with activism throughout her career as a public folklorist. In an interview leading up to her talk, Bulger emphasized that “the main goal [of public folklore] is to make positive social change and to help people sustain their culture and traditions in an increasingly complex and diverse world.”

Arriving at WKU in 1974, Dr. Bulger was a member of one of the first cohorts to graduate from the WKU Folk Studies MA program. Before she found WKU, Bulger was a receptionist at an art and history museum in New York. A curator took notice of her interest in the museum collections and pointed her toward museum studies, which led her to the discovery that it was possible to get a degree in folk art. Her interest in folk craft, architecture, and music led her to WKU Folk Studies professor Dr. Lynwood Montell, who had led the establishment of the MA program and who remains beloved around the region and state. As a student, she held a graduate assistantship in the Folklore Archives with the D.K. Wilgus collection. “I ended up doing some of my first fieldwork by going over to Drake, Kentucky, and talking with Freeman Kitchens who was the president of the original A.P Carter Family Fan Club. He had every recording of the Carter family that you could imagine.”  This led to the subject of her MA thesis, “The Carter Family: Traditional Sources for Song.”

After working in Eastern Kentucky for a year, she spent thirteen years as the Florida State Folklorist, and then became the first regional public folklorist when she accepted a position with the Southern Arts Federation, now South Arts. In 1999 she was appointed director of the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. Throughout her career, Dr. Bulger had mentors such as Archie Green and Lynwood Montell.  Dr. Bulger’s talk on campus is inspired by “the fact that all of these mentors and most folklorists were first and foremost activists and then documentarians and folklorists.”

“To be a successful folklorist you have to really care about people and community and sustainability and the fact that what you’re doing can be a very powerful tool for social change. You have to be careful about that, too.” Dr. Bulger will be using her own experience as a pioneer public folklorist to explore how public service is intertwined with activism. As a folklorist working with the public, she states, “you become a part of people’s lives and you make an impact whether you mean to or not, and you have to be very conscious of the fact that you’re an activist whether you want to be or not.”

As a professional in folklore, it is essential to not just document and archive your work, but to celebrate the culture and community so that it is able to be carried on to the next generation. “From my perspective, now after 45 years in the field, I see children and grandchildren of some of the artists that I originally worked with who are definitely carrying on traditions and changing them. They don’t stay the same but they are definitely based on the original tradition.”

To hear directly from Dr. Bulger about public folklore as cultural activism, attend her lecture on March 23rd at 5:30 in the Western Room of the Kentucky Museum.

For more information contact Ann K. Ferrell, Folk Studies Director, (270) 745-5896,  [email protected].

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