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Folkstreams Documents America, An Hour At a Time

Filmmaker and Folkstreams founder Tom Davenport on Hollin Farm with Sarah Toth, a collaborator on his <em>From the Brothers Grimm</em> fairytale films.
Filmmaker and Folkstreams founder Tom Davenport on Hollin Farm with Sarah Toth, a collaborator on his From the Brothers Grimm fairytale films.

Tom Davenport has lived most of his life on a farm nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In his younger days, he ran the farm and made films — documentaries were his first love. He worked on films about the Shakers in New England and storytellers and musicians in the rural South; later he made feature films based on fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, which he re-imagined in American settings.

But making feature films got to be too expensive, so Davenport let that activity go idle. And these days, he leaves most of the farming to his son. He devotes most of his time to developing his Web site — Folkstreams.net, which aims to be a national treasury of documentary films about folk art and culture. So far, it's the repository for some 80 hours of films capturing the myriad worlds that make up America, from Italian street festivals in Brooklyn to homeless San Francisco runaways. It's all available, free and at full length, at the Folkstreams site.

Davenport oversees Folkstreams from a big shed turned production office next to his farmhouse. He works with a group of filmmakers, scholars and archivists, and with two organizations based at the University of North Carolina. The idea behind Folkstreams, says Davenport, is to give new life to independent films that haven't been seen in years — documentaries by filmmakers and folklorists including Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, and Davenport himself. They cover American folk culture from A to Z.

Before Folkstreams, if films like this found an audience at all, it was usually in college classrooms. Now, they can be seen for free at any time on the Web.

"These films just sit out like in a library in space," Davenport says, "and anybody can watch them anywhere in the world. So these films develop niche markets. People interested in stone carving will find this film on stone carving and they will talk to other people interested in stone carving, and it becomes a kind of phenomena."

"As a blues singer once said, it's like bringing eyesight to the blind," says William Ferris, a senior associate director at UNC's Center for the Study of the American South and a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. "It's essentially opening the door to the world to the fact that these films exist."

Ferris has helped Davenport find funding for Folkstreams, and he encourages other filmmakers to put their work on the site as well. Ferris' 1975 documentary, Give My Poor Heart Ease, can be found on Folkstreams. It features rare footage of blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta, along with an intimate conversation with bluesman B.B. King.

King is famous, of course, but Ferris says most of the people featured in these documentaries are not.

"They are storytellers, musicians, craftspeople who live in isolated worlds and are known almost exclusively by their community," Ferris says. So the filmmaker offers a window on those worlds, and when that film is featured on the Internet, it brings a powerful kind of visibility to traditional families and musical worlds that are largely unknown."

Though many of the films were made in the 1960s and '70s, the Folkstreams site also includes new documentaries. Madison County Project, made in 2005, looks at how a big-budget Hollywood picture affected the lives of a family of traditional ballad singers in North Carolina.

Back on the farm, Davenport's pride in the land is as palpable as his pride in his films and his Web site. For him, they are all a piece.

"We are doing this because the filmmakers want to connect, re-connect with audiences," he says. "They've had these films in their closets and their basements, and nobody's been seeing them."

Davenport knows that most people who watch video online aren't usually looking for full-length movies. "These films are going against the grain of Internet films," he acknowledges.

In an effort to market to those viewers — and in a gesture that seems a perfect merger of the very old and the very new — many of the vintage documentaries hosted at Folkstreams are also available for preview on a You Tube channel.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.