Folklore study in the state of Maryland formally dates to 1895, when the Maryland Folk-lore Society (note the hyphen) was founded as a branch of the young American Folklore Society. Despite early, intense interest in the topic, the Society became defunct in 1902. Half a century later, a distinct association was founded: the Maryland Folklore Society (no hyphen). Between 1972 and 1980, this organization presented concerts, sponsored conferences, maintained a semi-annual newsletter, published a journal for several years, and acted as a central informational resource for mid-Atlantic regional folklife organizations.
State-sponsored folklife programing was founded in 1976 as the "Maryland Folklife Program" (MFP), now known as "Maryland Traditions" (MT). Although the institution changed names in 2001, it remains the longest continuously-run state folklife program in the United States; in contrast, Pennsylvania has the oldest state folklife program. The MFP and MT are represented in two archival collections at the Maryland Traditions Archive: Collection 116: Maryland Folklife Program records, and Collection 120: Maryland Traditions records. The inception of Maryland's state-run program occurred amidst a national surge of interest in folklife and a movement known as "public folklore." Where academic folklorists tend to analyze and publish on folklife topics, public folklorists also document, preserve, and present folklife. Public folklife examples include the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, founded in 1967 and now an international standard for presentations of cultural heritage; and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, established in 1976. Similar programs were founded around the country at this time.
MFP/MT has always been affiliated with the Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC; then simply the Maryland Arts Council), which was founded in 1967 by the state legislature. In 1968, the legislature passed H.J.R. 39 to appoint a Gubernatorial Commission to study the need for the establishment of an Archives of Maryland Folklife (hereafter referred to as the "Folklife Study Commission"). This initial legislation focused on studying the need for an archive only, not a general folklife program. Two years later in 1970, the Folklife Study Commission published its final report. It had discovered a "substantial interest" in the study and preservation of, and the collection and dissemination of information on, Maryland folklife. The report made four recommendations: 1) create a folklife archive system of five archives around the state; 2) found a Maryland Folklife Commission to establish this archival system and develop its policy; 3) create a Maryland Folklife Researcher to administrate the Commission; and 4) award $50,000 a year in grants funding to folklife projects in the state. Although the legislation creating the commission focused on the need for an archive, the Folklife Study Commission found a need also for a broader program composed of both archive and project funding. This funding formed the nascence of a state-sponsored folklife program. Because state government work relies on the existence of precedent and mandates, this document remains crucial to MFP/MT, even a half century later.
Despite the Folklore Study Commission's suggestions, the legislature failed to pass a bill funding those recommendations. Undeterred, MSAC executive director James Backas applied for and received an NEA grant which he matched with MSAC funds to create a new position: state folklorist. He hoped a folklife program would succeed in reaching the state residents that MSAC had failed to reach: notably non-urban residents with rural, mountain, maritime, immigrant, and working-class backgrounds. At the same time, the NEA wanted to use Maryland as a national pilot to see if folklife program might flourish at the state level. For the inaugural position, Backas hired George Carey, the former vice-chairman of the Folklife Study Commission and former University of Maryland, College Park (then simply University of Maryland) associate professor of English.
Carey worked as state folklorist for one year, 1974-75. An undated progress report from his first few months on the job lists an exhaustive series of activities: centralizing materials for a state folklife archive; networking with colleagues at local, state, and federal agencies; attending conferences and giving talks; and laying the groundwork for field research and for the Maryland Folklife Festivals (MFF). With a nod to the quantity of work he had completed, he humorously ended the progress report by saying "During the week of May 15th I suffered a cardiac arrest and perished. Posthumously submitted [signature]." Carey's resignation partially derived from frustration with attempting to get funding into the hands of community-based folklife practitioners. It was comparatively easier to funnel funds to folk revivalists, and this dynamic hastened his departure.
The second state folklorist, Charles Camp was no less active. A year into his tenure, he had coordinated the official birth of the MFP and formed an MFP advisory board. A 3 Jan 1982 feature article in The Sun newspaper communicated the broad scope of his work. In addition to field research, Camp created free course outlines, lesson plans, and additional teaching tools for teachers on folklife topics. He also drafted, but never published, an edited volume on folklife in the state. He implemented a series of exhibits, produced a series of films, consulted on local events, designed oral history projects, delivered lectures, organized film screenings, and facilitated tours of cultural sites. In 1980, Camp commissioned a report on the New Deal-era Maryland Farm Security Administration photographs, which focused on the photos as objects of Maryland's cultural history. That same year, Camp decided to retire the MFF. In addition to budgetary concerns, his decision partially derived from his successes: his efforts and the MFP had inspired the founding of many local festivals, and Camp felt the MFF now to be redundant.
Camp left MFP in the late 1990s and collection records from that time are severely limited. His retirement resulted in a sudden and significant loss of relationships between the MFP and members of the communities with whom MFP had been engaged over the previous quarter century. The nature of field research means that relationships often predicate on trust and respect between the field researcher and one or two individuals. Although MFP had hired a number of field researchers over the years, Camp had maintained those connections on behalf of the state almost exclusively since 1976. At the same time, institutional memory was negatively affected by a series of fires, floods, burglaries, and office moves. An internal MSAC document suggests that the combination of Camp's departure and that loss of archival material would require an institutional renaissance.
Maryland state folklorists have produced a variety of events that focus on folklife. Having accepted the inaugural position of state folklorist, George Carey created the Maryland Folklife Festivals (MFF). He designed the MFF using a model created by his successor, Charles Camp. Camp, who was then completing a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, had run the Ohio festival between 1973 and 1975. The Ohio model featured tradition bearers sourced by field researchers to perform and demonstrate their traditions before an audience. The first MFF in 1975 was partially galvanized by field research conducted for the 1972 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which featured Maryland as a subject.
The first two MFFs took place on the campus of the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster in central Maryland in 1975 and 1976. These two festivals drew tradition bearers from the entire state. Each subsequent festival moved around the state and drew tradition bearers from each respective region: west to the Catoctin Mountain Park in Thurmont in 1977, east to Queenstown on the Eastern Shore in 1978, and south to St. Mary's City between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay in 1980. In a letter dated April 5, 1976, Camp stated that he wanted to move the festival around the state in order to establish it "as the property of all Maryland citizens."
An unidentified newspaper clipping announcing the 1975 MFF described it as "the first state-wide presentation of traditional music, dance, crafts, and cookery in Maryland." This description became the presentation goal of each subsequent MFF, which featured a variety of traditions and tradition bearers. Carey hired Timothy Lloyd to direct this first festival; Lloyd also conducted key field research for later MFFs. Although budgets for the 1975 festival allocated funds for field researchers, the field research itself is thinly represented by scraps of notes detailing telephone conversations. A tight schedule meant that field research for the 1975 MFF did not come close to the quantity and comparative rigor facilitated by more time for the subsequent festivals. Cumulatively, the MFF field researchers conducted fieldwork with over 300 people in 21 of the 23 Maryland counties.
The second state folklorist, Charles Camp, discontinued the Maryland Folklife Festivals after 1980 while branching out into exhibits, conferences, and other events, such as folklife components for the Baltimore Artscape festival in 1986 and 1989. In 1984 to celebrate the 350th anniversary of state settlement, Camp organized an exhibit entitled "Soundings: Tradition in Maryland Life." The exhibit toured the state before traveling to Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, as part of a cultural exchange program. It featured "portraits" composed of personal objects and audio recordings of several tradition bearers, including basket maker James Crobie, storyteller Alex Kellam, and musician Ola Belle Reed. Gerald Parsons, on loan from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, conducted the fieldwork for the exhibit in collaboration with his wife, Margaret, through a grant from MSAC in 1981. Work for the exhibit suffered a setback in 1982 when MSAC was burgled and set on fire; early recordings made for the exhibit were destroyed.
Camp organized other exhibits, too. In 1989-1990, MFP received an NEA grant to enable an exhibit entitled "Arabbers of Baltimore" to travel around the state. He created this exhibit in coordination with the publication of a book by the same title with photographs of Roland L. Freeman. The exhibit featured Freeman's photographs, photomurals, and contextualizing text panels. After opening at the Baltimore Museum of Art, it toured to the Academy of Arts in Easton and the Banneker-Dougles Museum in Annapolis.
In 1977, the MFP produced the first of a series of Maryland Folklife Conferences. Documentation in Collection 116 is somewhat limited, but these conferences focused on education and folklore. According to the 1977 program, conference organizers wanted to connect area educators, library personnel, and the general public with resources, opportunities, and techniques of folk cultural research in the state.
In 1986, Camp organized a presentation on traditional craftsmanship for the Baltimore Artscape festival. These presentations appear to have combined aspects of both the MFFs and the "Soundings" exhibit. Tradition bearers performed their crafts for Artscape audiences accompanied by tools, objects, and other pertinent materials.