In the context of an increasingly cable TV–like streaming market, Folkstreams remains a website apart, an oddball gold mine of music documentaries, ethnographic films, and educational movies with little-to-no commercial appeal—all available, in the democratic tradition of folk art, for free. The site was founded in 2000 by filmmaker/farmer Tom Davenport as an effort to preserve and provide access to the work of amateur and professional folklorists and ethnographers. In the tradition of Folkways Records and Alan Lomax’s Association for Cultural Equity, Folkstreams combines academic backing with pure documentary zeal, and remains a family-run nonprofit with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and a partnership with The Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina.
By the time he turned his attention to streaming (and to his farm in northern Virginia), Davenport had spent years working as a full-time filmmaker, directing folklife documentaries and producing a series of adaptations of Grimms’ Fairy Tales set in the Amercian South for PBS in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. The process of building a promotional website for the series led to an interest in using the still-fresh internet to provide new life to films that were otherwise only available at libraries and universities, if at all. Folkstreams was created, according to its website, to preserve and host films with “unusual subjects, odd lengths, and talkers who do not speak ‘broadcast English.’” The result is an invaluable and exhaustive collection of work focusing on American folklife, with films from the early ’60s to 2018, all of which have been carefully digitized and preserved and are streaming with the permission of the filmmakers.
The site contains a wealth of moving images that would otherwise be nearly impossible to see, or even find out about. It hosts classic ethnographic films like John Cohen’s haunting 1963 portrait of Appalachia The High Lonesome Sound (notable for “rediscovering” Roscoe Holcomb, a forgotten genius of old-time music), and less easily categorized work like Arlene Bowman’s Navajo Talking Picture (1986). Films like Stan Woodward and Gretchen Robinson’s beautiful 1974 People Who Take Up Serpents are rough-around-the-edges evocations of lost ways of life, while Joyce Smith’s Paj Ntaub (1996) is more straightforwardly educational, a PBS-style documentary detailing the experiences of Hmong refugees resettled in Providence, Rhode Island. Folkstreams also provides supplemental material, including both archival and commissioned writing by and interviews with filmmakers, along with a fantastic guide for home preservation of film and video. The attention to detail and the simplicity of the navigation and search features make it easy to get lost in the site, jumping from film to film and culture to culture.
Though humming at a much lower frequency, Folkstreams’s documentaries provide invaluable insight into cultural history, where big boys like Amazon and Netflix offer the reductive Americana of Ken Burns or the overwrought cliffhangers of Wild Wild Country. As these larger streaming services silo off in order to more efficiently monetize their intellectual property, Davenport’s collaborative, not-for-profit site calls back to the idea of streaming as a means of discovery, open-ended search, and surprise.