A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Document Your Family Folklore This Thanksgiving

Become a folklorist this Thanksgiving holiday and document your family folklore.

Quillworker Yvonne Walker Keshick with her grandchildren at the 2015 GLFF.

Family folklore could include stories, jokes, music, rituals, games, scrapbooks, videos, recipes, and material culture. 
"For an individual family [however "family" may be defined], folklore is its creative expression of a common past. As raw experiences are transformed into family stories, expressions, and photos, they are codified in forms which can be easily recalled, retold, and enjoyed. Their drama and beauty are heightened, and the family’s past becomes accessible as it is reshaped according to its needs and desires," (Zeitlin 1982).
Lacemaking has been passed down for generations in Ron Ahren's family.
An easy way for anyone to document family folklore is to interview a relative through the StoryCorps app.

"The StoryCorps app—a free mobile application—seamlessly walks users through an interview by providing all the necessary tools for a wonderful experience. You will receive help preparing questions, finding the right environment for your conversation, recording a high-quality interview on your mobile device, sharing the finished product with friends and family, and uploading your conversation to the StoryCorps.me website. This site is a home for the recordings and also provides interviewing and editing resources. In addition, all interviews uploaded to the platform during the first year of the program will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress," (https://storycorps.me/about/).
Though the app has built-in questions to ask your interviewee, we suggest you make your own questions centering on family traditions.
What kinds of traditions does your family have for Thanksgiving?

Ask about Foodways
            What dishes do you always have at Thanksgiving?
            How do you make the dishes?
            Where does the recipe come from?
            Where do the raw ingredients come from?
            Who cooks what?
            What kind of cookware is used?
            Are there special serving dishes?
            When do you eat?

Ask about Music
            What kinds of music do you listen to during the holidays?
            When do you listen to music during the holidays?          
Does anyone in your family play music?
                        Where did they learn?

Ask about Stories
            What are the stories, tales, and myths told?
                        Where do they come from?
                        What kinds of stories are they? Humorous, cautionary, or romance?
            Who tells stories at a gathering?
            In what setting are stories told?
Use the Story Corps app to record and archive your interview.  Tag your interview with “MSU Museum” and your interview may be featured on the Great Folks blog! We want to hear about your folklife. 

If you need some pointers for interviewing, the Smithsonian has a free online guide available here.

Work Cited
Steve Zeitlin. A Celebration of American Family Folklore. Cambridge, MA: Yellow Moon Press, 1982, p. 2 

Photos by M. McBride.  

Friday, November 20, 2015

MSU Museum's MacDowell Named American Folklore Society Fellow

MacDowell at the Great Lakes Quilt Center of the MSU Museum
Michigan State University Museum Curator of Folk Arts Dr. Marsha MacDowell has been named a fellow of the American Folklore Society (AFS), demonstrating outstanding accomplishments and making important contributions to the field of folklore.

Established in 1960, the Fellows of the American Folklore Society are folklorists who have produced a significant number of important articles, books, and other scholarly productions or exhibitions on folklore, and have provided meritorious service to the Society and the discipline of folklore studies. In addition to her substantial record of publications and exhibitions, MacDowell has served in a number of capacities within AFS, including as elected member of the AFS executive board.
MacDowell is also a professor in MSU's Art, Art History, and Design Department as well as a core faculty member in the College of Arts and Letters Museum Studies Program, where she serves as the program's internship coordinator and teaches future museum professionals curatorial, research, field work, exhibition and civic engagement work. Her research interests include South African quilt history; traditions of patchwork covers in China; quilts and health; the history and meaning of lau hala in Hawaiian culture; and the intersection of ethnography and museums in a digital age. She is the director of the Quilt Index, an international digital repository of stories, images, and other data related to quilts and their makers.

MacDowell has curated over 50 research-based interpretive exhibitions and festival programs as Michigan State University and is founding director of the MSU Museum's Great Lakes Folk Festival, a university-community partnership. As the Coordinator of the Michigan Traditional Arts Program since 1984, she has led many projects focused on Michigan traditional and cultural heritage. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

MSU Museum's Quilts of Southwest China Featured on WKAR

Bedcover, c. 1940
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong
The new exhibit at the MSU Museum, "Quilts of Southwest China," opened September 28th, and runs until April 30th, 2015. Folk Arts Curator Marsha MacDowell sat down with WKAR's Peter Whorf to discuss the exhibit.

From the WKAR website:
Dr. Marsha MacDowell was surrounded by quilts from the start. She says she was born with an instant quilt collection assembled by her quilting grandmothers. The quilts from MacDowell’s childhood bed made their way to her residence hall during student days at MSU.
Her love and knowledge of art and textiles ultimately led to a professorship in Art and Art History at Michigan State, and her role as Folk Art Curator at the MSU Museum.
Dr. MacDowell is the author of numerous books about the art of quilts in Michigan and beyond. Her most recent work with MSU’s ongoing China Experience project now connects her passion for the art to people half a world away.
Current State's Peter Whorf talks with MacDowell about the exhibition.
Listen to the full interview here!

Monday, November 2, 2015

2014 Nation Heritage Fellow Yvonne Walker Keshick Visits the MSU Museum

Yvonne Walker Keshick at the MSU Museum
Photo courtesy Kim Worthington
Yvonne Walker Keshick stopped by the MSU Museum on Friday, October 23, to see the new exhibition on Michiganders who received the very prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Yvonne was the most recent Michigander to receive a fellowship. She was recently honored, along with 2002 National Heritage Fellow Nadim Dlaikan, as a featured speaker at a 50th Anniversary Celebration for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Photograph by Kim Worthington, Yvonne’s daughter and a good quillworker herself.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Events Around the State Highlight 40th Anniversary of The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald

For the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald (Nov. 10th, 1975), museums and communities around the state are putting together events and exhibitions to remember and honor those lost and discuss the culture surrounding shipping on the Great Lakes. 

The Lansing State Journal has compiled a comprehensive list of these events below:
“Iron Hulls and Turbulent Waters: Ore Boats, Workers, and Great Lakes Shipping” is on display through Jan. 24 at the MSU Museum, 409 W. Circle Drive. Events include a reception with James Brozek from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday; and a talk by Brozek at 12:15 Friday talk in the Museum auditorium. A panel discussion is scheduled for 7 p.m. Nov. 10 at the MSU Library featuring State Archaeologist Dean Anderson and MSU professors Peter Kakela and Michael Velbel. They’ll discuss the nature and shipping of iron ore and Great Lakes shipwrecks.  In addition, Robert Campbell, author of “Classic Ships of the Great Lakes,” will sign books and speak at 7 p.m. Nov. 17 at Schuler Books in Meridian Mall. Find out more about the exhibit here.
-- The annual Lost Mariners Remembrance takes place from 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, on Belle Isle in Detroit. It feature marine artist Robert McGreevy, who will tell the story of lifesaving crews that patrolled the Great Lakes. There also is a lantern vigil at the Fitzgerald anchor and a performance by singer Lee Murdock. Admission is $10; advance registration is strongly recommended. Call (313) 833-1801 for information.
-- “Gales of November: The 40th Anniversary of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” takes place at 7 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven. Speaker Jim Spurr will discuss the perils of Lake Superior travel in November, from 1816 through the Fitzgerald sinking in 1975. Admission is $8. Learn more at www.michiganmaritimemuseum.org.
-- The 40th Anniversary Memorial Ceremony takes place at 7 p.m. Nov. 10 in the main gallery at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Gallery in Whitefish Point. The museum displays the bell of the wrecked ship as well as its life boats and other artifacts. The bell will toll 29 times, once for each member of the crew, and a 30th time for all lost on the Great Lakes. The Museum also will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 10. Learn more about the museum and the event at www.shipwreckmuseum.com.
-- The documentary movie “A Good Ship and Crew Well-Seasoned” will premiere at 6 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Seagate Center in Toledo as part of the National Great Lakes’ Fitzgerald memorial activities.  Learn more at www.inlandseas.org.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Michigan Traditional Arts Program Call For Applications, Nominations

The Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the MSU Museum has two initiatives that are currently accepting applications and nominations.

The first is The Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. This program awards $2000 grants to qualified master artist and apprentice pairs who apply to work together from February through August. Traditional art forms can include, but are not limited to, music, dance, foodways, storytelling, fiber arts, carving, ceramics, calligraphy, and more. The master artist and apprentice must be residents of Michigan. (Follow this link for a list of past participants)
The application for can be found here.

The second is the Michigan Heritage Awards. These awards are given to individuals or organizations that are nominated by members of their own community as tradition bearers deserving of recognition. The actual Awards Ceremony is held each year in early August at the Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing, Michigan. (Follow this link for a list of past awardees)
The nomination form for artists can be found here.
The nomination form for community leaders can be found here.

All applications are due by December 1, 2015.
Apply today!

View our current press release here!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

New Video With Odawa Quillworker Yvonne Walker Keshick

Yvonne Walker Keshick demonstrating quill work at the 2015 GLFF

 A new video has been added to the MTAP YouTube channel that features nationally recognized quillworker Yvonne Walker Keshick.  Watch the video to hear Yvonne speak about how she learned quill work.

Yvonne is speaking this Friday at the 50th anniversary event of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowments for the Humanities.  The event commemorates the NEA and NEH and the cultural work made possible through their grant programs.  The event is open to the public and free.  It is Friday, October 23, at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts.  Tickets can be reserved online here.  
Friday, October 23 at 7pm, Wharton Center
Yvonne received a Michigan Heritage Award in 1992 and in 2014 became a NEA National Heritage Fellow for her mastery of quillwork and for teaching future generations the art. She has taught through the Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program and has been featured at the Great Lakes Folk Festival. 
Yvonne and her family demonstrate quill work at the 2015 GLFF
The Michigan Traditional Arts Program seeks artists and community advocates like Yvonne to participate in our Apprenticeship and Heritage Awards programs. The Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program awards a master and their apprentice a $2000 stipend to support one-on-one learning experiences that take place February through August. The Michigan Heritage Awards celebrates tradition bearers and supporters of traditional culture who have made significant contributions to our state's heritage. The deadline to apply for both programs is December 1st.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Check Out the MTAP YouTube Channel!

The Michigan Traditional Arts Program has a wonderful YouTube channel highlighting traditional artists in our state. These videos are a great resource to learn about and experience Michigan's folklife.

Some videos are music performances from past Great Lakes Folk Festival and Festival of Michigan Folklife.  For example, check out this video of Howard Armstrong and Ted Bogan at the 1989 Festival of Michigan Folklife:

Some videos are interviews with Michigan Heritage Award recipients, Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship masters, and tradition-bearers from around the state.  Listen to Patricia Shackleton, 2013 MTAAP master, speak about birch bark cutouts:

There are videos on an array of topics, from quilting to metalworking, that highlight the rich diversity of traditional arts in Michigan.  Subscribe to the MTAP YouTube channel today to keep up-to-date as new videos are posted!

Monday, September 14, 2015

75th National Folk Festival Features Former GLFF Performers

The 75th National Folk Festival was held last weekend in Greensboro, North Carolina. The festival began in 1934 in St. Louis, Missouri, and was the first of its kind "to present the arts of many nations, races, and languages on equal footing." This was the first time the festival was held in North Carolina, a state with a very rich musical history. Among this year's line up were former Great Lakes Folk Festival participants Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Thomas Maupin & Overall Creek.

Giddens paid tribute to Chocolate Drops musical mentor, the late Joe Thompson, who was a resident of Greensboro. Thompson performed at the 2007 Great Lakes Folk Festival. He passed away in 2012 at the age of 93.

From the GLFF website:
"It is not widely known that the fiddle and banjo were commonly played by African-Americans from slavery times to well into this century. The instruments were combined to provide much of the dance music for the balls and "frolics" of both white and black Southerners. And thousands of dance tunes--waltzes, schottisches, and reels--were adapted and composed for the fiddle and banjo. No one knows when or how the instruments were first played together, but it was a marriage of two radically different cultural traditions, giving rise to one of America's first truly indigenous musical forms.
Joe Thompson is perhaps the last surviving African-American "old-time" fiddler. Joe and first cousin Odell (with whom Joe played until Odell died in 1994) made their homes near the Alamance and Orange County line north of Mebane, North Carolina. Born and raised on farms in the area (Odell in 1911; Joe in 1918), they grew up helping their parents tend crops of tobacco, cotton, corn, and wheat. Music-making was much valued in their households, and the sounds of the banjo and fiddle could be heard whenever the work was done. Joe and Odell's fathers, Walter and John Arch Thompson, were constantly sought after by neighbors, black and white, to play for square dances. 
The Thompson boys soon began performing at Saturday-night dances with their dads. Joe recalls taking his position in the doorway between rooms filled with dancing couples. "We were playing [four- and eight-hand square dance] sets--I was only seven years old. We had straight chairs, and my feet couldn't touch the floor." 
As popular tastes in music and dancing changed through the years, there was less call for fiddlers and banjo players. Joe played his fiddle at dances and parties throughout the 1920s and '30s, while Odell took up the guitar and learned the blues. The early 1970s brought a revival of interest in African American folk music traditions. The Thompsons were "discovered" by folklorists who encouraged them to play publicly again, only this time for predominately white audiences at folk festivals and special events. In more recent years, they appeared at the National Folk Festival at Lowell, Massachusetts, the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in the state of Washington, and at New York's Carnegie Hall. Their dynamic instrumental styles and soaring vocals packed plenty of punch and brought attention to the rich tradition of African American string band music in the South."
Read or listen to the NPR story here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

In Memoriam: Dennis Hale, 1966 Shipwreck Survivor and 2005 GLFF Participant

Shipwreck survivor Dennis Hale lost his battle with cancer September 2, 2015He is survived by his wife, Barbara, children, Cindi Titch and Katherine Scaife, stepchildren Jon C. Robinson and Melissa LaMar, and seven grandchildren. The family is holding a private funeral. A public memorial for Hale will be held at a future date.

Hale was a participant in the Great Lakes Folk Festival in 2005, sharing his story in conjunction with the maritime theme. As you can imagine, the audience was completely captivated by his harrowing tale and unassuming demeanor.

From the 2005 GLFF website:
Dennis Hale
Dennis Hale.  Photo courtesy of Dennis Hale.

In a terrible storm on Lake Huron on November 29, 1966, the ore freighter DANIEL J. MORRELL was in high winds and waves when suddenly, without warning, it broke in half and sank, killing 28 shipmates. Only Dennis Hale, a 26-year-old watchman from Ashtabula, Ohio, survived. After being thrown into the icy lake, wearing only boxer shorts, a pea coat and life jacket, he spent 38 hours on a life raft until he was rescued .The three shipmates on the raft with him perished. In 1996 Hale published Sole Survivor: Dennis Hale's Own Story. Although his sensitive story remains traumatic in each telling, he still speaks about his experience to select, appreciative audiences. Hale now uses the speaking engagement as a way of dealing with the experience and keeping the memory of his shipmates alive. Dennis Hale tells his dramatic story of survival and his role in Great Lakes shipwreck lore at this year's Great Lakes Folk Festival. 

- LuAnne Kozma, field worker

You can find his story as told to Tim Juhl and Pat and Jim Stayer in the book, "Sole Survivor: Dennis Hale's Own Story."

He was also featured in the documentary, "Graveyard of the Great Lakes: A Shipwreck Hunter's Quest to Uncover the Past," which profiles David Trotter and includes information about many Great Lakes shipwrecks, including that of the Daniel J. Morrell. In Trotter's words,"He was one of the most unique people in the history of the Great Lakes with his survival... I admired his ability to tell others his story. He certainly was a survivor and fought with all his energy to beat the cancer. He now belongs to Great Lakes history."

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Ceremony to Honor Michigan Heritage Awardee Ronald Ahrens

Michigan Heritage Award winner Ronald Ahrens will be honored at a special ceremony at the Region of the Three Oaks Museum, where he has been teaching workshops and classes in lacemaking and fiber arts for many years. 

From the Region of the three Oaks Museum website:
"The Region of Three Oaks Museum is holding a reception for his receiving the state’s highest distinction, on Saturday, October 3, 2015 at the museum.  Ron will be demonstrating his skills from noon to 2pm.  From 2–4pm, there will be a special recognition ceremony in his honor.  Please join us at The Region of Three Oaks Museum to congratulate Ron on his being awarded the Michigan Heritage Award for 2015."
Ron Ahrens at the 2015 Great Lakes Folk Festival

Ronald Ahrens (b. 1941) was born in Wisconsin and moved to Michigan later in life. Ronald first began to learn lacemaking from his grandmother at age five. Several members of his family practiced other fiber art techniques and Ronald was able to learn from them as well. He became proficient in knitting, crocheting, bobbin lacemaking, tatting, broderet, and filet netting.

Ronald has enthusiastically shared his skills and knowledge with his own family, friends, and community members and can often be found teaching fiber art techniques and doing demonstrations at community functions. As Joan Nelson, one of the individuals who nominated Ahrens for the award stated, “Adults and children alike are fascinated by watching and listening to Ron, and though few are willing to take on this intricate craft of lacemaking, they will long remember actually seeing this lace being made and will have a new respect for this craft.”  As his daughter observed, Ronald has cultivated among many individuals a deep appreciation for the handmade, rather than machine made, mass-produced object. He has also stimulated interest among those he has taught to pass on the skills they have learned to others.

In addition to serving his community as a pastor of The Gathering, a Dutch Reformed Church in Three Oaks, Michigan, Ronald also supports his community through teaching his art and even giving gifts of his art to support local causes.  One piece of filet net work he donated to an auction took him over sixty hours to make. 
To watch Ron work and learn more about lacemaking and fiber arts, visit the Region of the Three Oaks Museum on October 3rd from 12-4pm!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Dr. Don Yoder: A Remembrance

From C. Kurt Dewhurst, Ph.D. MSU Museum University Outreach & Engagement:

Don Yoder holds an example of printed fraktur from 1848.
Lancaster Newspapers file photo, 1974
Last week we lost a remarkable scholar and friend of folklife. Dr. Don Yoder passed away after a lifetime dedicated to giving voice to the rich traditions that were so often overlooked and rarely valued. I had the good fortune to know Don Yoder and benefit from his passion for learning and his groundbreaking work in creating the internationally recognized, Kutztown Folk Festival in 1950. He influenced and encouraged many of us during his long and productive career. In the 1970s, Marsha MacDowell and I were working on the exhibition, Reflections of Faith: Religious Folk Art in America. We were inspired by his scholarship and he kindly spoke at the opening conference for the exhibition in New York City. A true gentleman scholar, he has a way of encouraging his students and guiding them to be better scholars and educators.

The following is a brief version of his obituary:
 “Dr. Yoder was born on August 27, 1921, in Altoona, Blair County, Pennsylvania, and proudly accounted himself 'an incurable Pennsylvanian.' He received his PhD in 1947 from the University of Chicago in religious studies, and in his early career he taught at Franklin and Marshall College, and later at Muhlenberg College.

Emeritus Professor of Folklife Studies, Religious Studies, and American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he taught for forty years (1956-1996), Dr. Yoder directed over sixty PhD dissertations. He was largely responsible for the introduction of the term “folklife” to its present academic use in the United States, and he helped to found the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. In 1949, Dr. Yoder co-founded the Pennsylvania Folklife Center with Dr. Alfred L. Shoemaker and J. William Frey, and together they established the Kutztown Folk Festival in 1950, considered among the first ethnic festivals of its kind. Dr. Yoder has published seventeen books, and countless articles on Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture. He was elected a Fellow in 1972, and served as AFS President 1981-1982. He was widely known in Europe and his work was influenced the important music of composer Paul Hindemith. He continued his distinguished career following his retirement in 1996, with significant contributions in the areas of American ethnic and regional cultures, American immigration history; genealogy, particularly of German and Swiss families in Pennsylvania; folk religion, sectarian cultures, religious folk music, folk medicine, folk costume, folk cookery, foodways, folk arts, and material culture after his formal retirement from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996. The Don Yoder Lecture in Religious Folklife at the AFS annual meeting sponsored by the Folk Belief and Religious Folklife section of the Society honors his central role in these areas of study. He was awarded the AFS Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2006.

He will be remembered as a splendid teacher, an impeccable scholar, and wise and gentle presence on our midst.”
Image courtesy Mainline Today article, "Folklife Tour de Force." 
Don Yoder’s influence on our work at the MSU Museum had a lasting effect as he inspired us to build collections of religious folk and popular art—and regional folklife. For example, the gift of the major Robert Beseda collection religious popular art to our museum (among others) is a valued source for teaching, exhibition, and research.

This fall we will be welcoming a new curatorial colleague to our museum, Dr. John Keune, who is a joint appointment between the Department of Religious Studies and the MSU Museum. John will help us expand our collections, exhibitions, publications, and educational programs exploring the role of religion in society…a topic of ever-greater importance in our diverse world of the 21st century. Scholars like Don Yoder paved the way for man of us as he helped us understand the rich cultural dimensions of religion— as well as the power and persistence of folk traditions in our lives.

C. Kurt Dewhurst, Ph.D.
Michigan State University Museum
Director of Arts and Cultural Initiatives, and Senior Fellow for University Outreach & Engagement
Director Emeritus and Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Co-Director, Great Lakes Folk Festival
Professor, Department of English

Friday, August 14, 2015

Laurie Sommers Featured by American Council on Historic Preservation

Image courtesy achp.gov

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) recently interviewed Michigan Traditional Arts Program Adjunct Researcher and Independent Consultant Laurie Sommers as part of their "Preservationists in the Neighborhood" series.

Here are a few highlights from an excellent and thorough piece:
"Laurie Kay Sommers, a native of Lansing, Michigan, holds a Ph.D. in Folklore from Indiana University. She currently works as an independent consultant in folklore and historic preservation through her company, Laurie Kay Sommers Cultural Consulting, LLC. She is the Co-Chair, American Folklore Society Working Group in Historic Preservation. Sommers has worked in public folklore, ethnomusicology, and historic preservation for more than 30 years for organizations such as the Michigan State University Museum, the Michigan SHPO, and the South Georgia Folklife Project at Valdosta State University. Her background in historic preservation dates to the late 1970s, when she worked for the Michigan SHPO and then as an independent consultant to the SHPO, Commonwealth Associates (Jackson, MI), and various other clients.
Can you tell us what you are working on right now?One current project is to continue the activities of the Working Group in Folklore and Historic Preservation, a policy initiative of the American Folklore Society. Our goal is to better position folklorists and folklore methodologies as central forces in historic preservation. I authored the white paper, "Integrating Folklore and Historic Preservation Policy: Toward a Richer Sense of Place" and developed the associated Web site that has case studies of projects that involved folklore and historic preservation, as well as a bibliography andwebography. A particular emphasis of the working group has been to develop model Traditional Cultural Places nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, in particular nominations that expand the purview of Traditional Cultural Places to include more than sites associated with American Indian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Fellow folklorists Beth King (Wyoming) and Tina Bucuvalas (Florida) have worked on successful nominations for the Green River Drift (cattle trail) and Greektown in Tarpon Springs. We also seek to network with like-minded folks in allied fields and to engage young people in our work. 
How does folklore play a role in historic preservation?
Folklorists in the past often did not find their skills valued or welcomed in the world of historic preservation and Section 106 review. This was certainly not always the case, but when I was working for a cultural resources management firm as a "historian" (at the same time I was a graduate student in Folklore), I would have cost the company extra money by including ethnography in my reports: this would have been considered nice but definitely not essential. A colleague who did survey work in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was told that he was to focus on buildings only, not people and their stories/memories of place. From a folklorist's point of view, that was a travesty. What are we preserving? If historic preservation is interested in preserving "place" in its broadest and richest sense, then folklore has much to contribute:
  • As placemaking (and the historic preservation community's place within it) gains momentum at local, state, and national levels in both public and private spheres, the folklorist's methodology can lead to a richer sense of place through ethnographic documentation of context and use - the ways story, ritual, and behavior link communities to places and make them meaningful.
  • As Section 106 and environmental review continue to be major activities for CRM firms and SHPOs, some preservationists are realizing that ethnography - long a weak point in environmental review efforts - is important to the process. Folklore methodologies can help engage the local community and elicit their voices.
  • As the National Park Service revisits National Register Bulletin 38 (Traditional Cultural Properties or TCPs) and seeks to clarify its parameters, folklorists are creating model nominations for a range of places, beyond the sacred American Indian, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian places that are typically listed as TCPs.
  • Folklorists are expanding the range of properties and places typically listed in the National Register to include a wider range of cultural communities and a greater diversity of buildings, structures, and places (think a traditional Wyoming cattle trail, Tarpon Springs' sponge fishing docks, an Italian American religious shrine in Staten Island). This in turn is providing a richer and more inclusive documentation of our heritage.
  • As the National Park Service pays increasing attention to cultural landscapes, folklorists can assist in the understanding and documentation of cultural traditions, responses to the natural environment, and land use and activities, all landscape characteristics highlighted in National Register Bulletin 30 (Rural Historic Landscapes).
  • As the historic preservation movement increasingly embraces diversity and the vernacular, folklorists can bring our skills to bear. Model programs like Citylore's ground-breaking Place Matters have integrated folklore, historic preservation, advocacy, documentation, and grass roots participation by focusing on New York City's culturally and historically significant places, not necessarily the architecturally significant sites typically included in the National Register. (http://placematters.net/)
Do you have advice for novice preservationists?
  • Take advantage of existing internships - or try to create new ones with organizations of particular interest. This can provide valuable training and professional contacts prior to formally entering the job market.
  • Consider volunteering to build your resume. I volunteered the summer after I graduated from college, and it opened all sorts of doors. Think broadly and creatively about potential partners in your work.
  • Take a look at the approaches to preservation, landmarking and advocacy by Citylore's Place Matters in New York City where the starting point is the local community's definition of what is significant and worthy of preservation (often buildings not eligible for the National Register). (http://placematters.net/)
  • Don't forget the people, stories, uses, and the meaning of the places you seek to preserve. It's not just about the building.
  • Know that you are doing important work in placemaking, economic development, and sustainability."
Read the full interview here

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Down Hill Struggler Eli Smith on Old Time Music

The Down Hill Strugglers (Photo Courtesy of Eli Smith)
The Down Hill Strugglers, a dynamic Old Time string band from New York City, is joining us this year at the Great Lakes Folk Festival. You can catch them on the City Hall and Dance stages throughout the weekend.

The Down Hill Strugglers (formerly known as the Dust Busters) strive to integrate a wide range of old-time songs, ballads, fiddle tunes, and jug band blues into every performance, infused with the old-time feeling and freewheelin’ high energy that characterized early string bands such as The Skillet Lickers, Dykes Magic City Trio, The Mississippi Sheiks, and J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers among many others. They are influenced and inspired by the direct fusion of Scots-Irish and African music that took place in Appalachia, the Western states and the Deep South from the earliest colonial times through the Second World War.
The band has had the opportunity to learn directly from living tradition bearers, especially Kentucky fiddler Clyde Davenport, North Carolina fiddler Joe Thompson (who was part of the 2007 Great Lakes Folk Festival) and Kentucky banjo player Lee Sexton, as well as from their friend and mentor John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers, who himself learned from tradition bearers including Roscoe Holcomb, Maybelle Carter, George Landers, Frank Proffitt, Wade Ward, and others. 

Eli Smith, Down Hill Struggler, Down Home Radio Show producer, and seasoned folk festival producer, was able to answer a few questions about playing Old Time music in anticipation of the Great Lakes Folk Festival.  

What’s the band’s process for learning a new tune? 
When one of us brings in a new song or tune, sometimes we'll play one or more old source recordings for the tune so that the other bandmates can hear a way or ways that it has been done in the past as we approach making our own arrangement.  Or alternatively, just play the song or tune for the other bandmates without immediately referencing a source recording, so that we won't be immediately influences by the old recording and can have some spontaneous response and go from there.  We experiment with different instrumentation, give each other comments or ask advice on our parts and finally come to our own arrangement.  In it's own way it is simple music but has to be played right! 

What kinds of things do you have to consider when presenting Appalachian music to diverse audiences? 
We do play a lot of Appalachian music, we also play string band music from the Deep South, the West and the North and we incorporate diverse styles of rural American music into our performances.  We want people to know that what we perform and present is our take on the music of the American rural working class, incorporating both Euro and African - American influences.  Most contemporary audiences have never heard our music before because it is not played almost anywhere, the only reference they have for it is a vague idea of Bluegrass music, which has made some inroads into the popular consciousness.  We feel that our music speaks for itself, but we also try to give people some background information about the music and the styles that we play. 

What does ‘tradition’ and ‘creativity’ sound like in Old-Time (or down home) music? 
Thank you for mentioning the term "Down Home Music" which we as a band like very much.  That term describes the kind of rural, minimalist music that we like, music that hasn't been deranged in some unwarranted way.  We carry on a tradition of rural American string band music not simply for the sake of "tradition" itself.  Some traditions are bad and should go away, like slavery or militarism!  We honor the music because it is old and handed down by a long tradition of great musicians, but we continue it out of our own creativity and desire to express ourselves truly and to the best of our own abilities. 

What do you enjoy most about playing this music? 
I enjoy the spirit of it, and its take on the inner emotional life of people.  It speaks to me in a way that feels satisfying and right, not psychologically damaging or absurd like most of the music coming at me from loudspeakers across America.

Check the Down Hill Strugglers out at the Great Lakes Folk Festival at these times: 

Friday, August 7
8:00 pm, Dance Stage 

Saturday, August 8
12:00 pm, City Hall Stage, “Celebrating Alan Lomax” session
8:45 pm, City Hall Stage 

Sunday, August 9
1:30 pm, City Hall Stage, “Celebrating Alan Lomax” session
4:30 pm, Dance Stage

Here's a link to the Great Lakes Folk Festival schedule.