Born in East Boston, Massachusetts, to Lithuanian Jewish immigrants in 1901, his family moved frequently. He attended Harvard University as a commuter between 1916 and 1920 and earned his master's degree in English at Columbia University, and his Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska where he studied under Louise Pound and William Duncan Strong. He taught at the University of Oklahoma in the early 1920s, traveled throughout the United States, and married Gertrude Fritz in 1925. He edited the annual Folk-Say from 1929 to 1932 and a "little magazine," Space, from 1934 to 1935. Contributors to Folk-Say included Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Henry Roth, J. Frank Dobie, Louise Pound, Alexander Haggerty Krappe, Archer Taylor, Stanley Vestal, Alain Locke, Sterling Brown, Paul Horgan, and Mari Sandoz. He became national folklore editor and chairman of the Federal Writers' Project in 1938, a post he held until 1941. Along with Charles Seeger, he organized a massive research and recording campaign centered on American music. From 1942 to 1945 Botkin headed the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress where he focused attention on the emerging aspects of folklore in modern life. During that time he also served as president of the American Folklore Society.
At a panel of the 1939 Writers' Congress, which in addition to him included Aunt Molly Jackson, Earl Robinson, and Alan Lomax, Botkin spoke of what the writer had to gain from folklore: "He gains a point of view. The satisfying completeness and integrity of folk art derives from its nature as a direct response of the artist to a group and group experience with which he identifies himself and for which he speaks." Botkin called on writers to utilize folklore in order to "make the inarticulate articulate and above all, to let the people speak in their own voice and tell their own story." (See Robbie Lieberman, My Song Is My Weapon: People's Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-50, The University of Illinois Press, 1989, p. 34.)
While many researchers viewed folklore as a relic from the past, Botkin and other New Deal folklorists insisted that American folklore played a vibrant role in the present, drawing on shared experience and promoting a democratic culture. Botkin served as the head of the Archive of American Folk-Song of the Library of Congress (formerly held by John Lomax and Alan Lomax) between 1942 and 1945. He became a board member of People's Songs Inc., a forerunner to Sing Out!, during the mid '40s. At that time Botkin left his government post to devote full-time to writing. During the '40s and '50s he published a series of books on folklore, including A Treasury of American Folklore in 1944, A Treasury of New England Folklore in 1947, A Treasury of Mississippi River Folklore in 1955, and A Civil War Treasury of Tales, Legends and Folklore in 1960.
In his foreword to A Treasury of American Folklore, Botkin explained his values: "In one respect it is necessary to distinguish between folklore as we find it and folklore as we believe it ought to be. Folklore as we find it perpetuates human ignorance, perversity, and depravity along with human wisdom and goodness. Historically we cannot deny or condone this baser side of folklore — and yet we may understand and condemn it as we condemn other manifestations of human error." Accordingly, during the '50s and '60s Richard M. Dorson attacked Botkin's work, which he considered unscholarly, calling much of what was included in his books "fakelore." Botkin ignored Dorson and disregarded his criteria. Folklore, he believed, was an art to be shared, not an exclusive artifact for scholars. His idea that folklore is basically creative expression used to communicate and instill social values, traditions, and goals, is widely accepted by folklorists today. Botkin insisted that democracy is strengthened by the valuing of myriad cultural voices. He is considered the "Father of Public Folklore."
The American Folklore Society awards the Ben Botkin Prize to individuals whose work in documenting American folklore has deepened the conversation of the way in which people create an art that reflects their reality and transmits culture and understanding.