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Feature

“It Is Who We Are”

Music from the National Folk Festival

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, July/August 2006 | Volume 27, Number 4

American music takes many forms--the plucking of banjos and bowing of fiddles from Appalachia, the steady beat of the blues from the Mississippi Delta, the chanting of American Indians from the Great Plains. "It is who we are," says Julia Olin, executive director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, which is preserving folk music performances of the past seventy years. "Our collection and archive offers a portrait of American culture in all its diversity and transformations."

In the early 1930s a group of folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and historians wanted to create a festival to showcase musicians and craftspeople from all regions of the country. For the first of these, held in St. Louis in 1934, writer Zora Neale Hurston recruited singers, dancers, and bluesmen from her hometown of Eatonville and from Daytona Beach, Florida. In later years, the festival went on to feature Cajun, polka, norteño, American Indian songs, and even Peking opera.

"We work with people who have learned their craft in their community, family, nationality," says Olin. "We have documented those who are keeping tradition alive. Many of the recordings are from families where the music has been handed down from generation to generation.

"The festival was, and still is, a gathering of outstanding traditional artists from every part of the nation," says Olin. Founded in 1933, the council is the oldest folk arts organization in the country and has produced the National Folk Festival since its inception. It returns this October to Richmond, Virginia.

The council holds recordings from its festivals and maintains archives at its headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. Although the recordings are of high sound-quality, fighting deterioration is a constant struggle. Public access to the collection has been limited. With NEH support, the council is now preserving and copying its audio archive to state-of-the-art digital format in preparation for storage at the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center. "In this way we are making the collection accessible to the public," says Olin. "We also have plans to make CD recordings and public radio and television programs."

The original recordings, made on reel-to-reel tapes, digital audiotape, cassettes, and CDs, hold treasures of classic American forms such as bluegrass, blues, gospel, cowboy songs, Cajun, and Appalachian ballads. In the archives is music from the Veracruz region of Mexico, American Indian shape note singing, and African, Vietnamese, and Armenian songs. It includes Yiddish klezmer, Creole zydeco, and Irish folk singing.

Some of the artists presented at the first festivals are now legendary and their live recordings are gems of American music. The early festivals included artists such as W.C. Handy, known as the "Father of the Blues;" Hobart Smith and his sister Texas Gladden; and Captain Pearl Nye, a canal boat captain who performed work songs. Aunt Samantha Baumgardner of Buncomb County, North Carolina, appeared at the second festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She sang and played banjo and fiddle, and was one of the first Appalachian women to record commercially.

The archive contains original audio recordings dating back to the first festival, but the largest concentration is from the 1960s to the present. "The significance of the collection lies in its coverage of a broad range of traditional arts in music, dance, and narrative forms," says Joe Wilson, the council's chairman. The recordings include not only performances but also workshops where artists have conversations with scholars about their heritage.

Digital archivist Frank Stielow calls it "arguably the nation's most important private collection . . . that collectively defines the essence of America's cultural legacy to music documentation."

Nick Spitzer, producer and host of Public Radio International's American Routes series and a professor of folklore and cultural conservation at the University of New Orleans, has used the archive for his broadcasts. He says in researching a feature for National Public Radio's All Things Considered about the history of the National Folk Festival, he found early Cajun musicians presenting their traditions in public for the first time, along with program presentations by Hurston, and the old-time country fiddling of Senator Albert Gore Sr.

"The breadth of the collection, the virtuosity of the performances, and the quality of the recordings is stunning," says Olin. "It is a treasure trove of sounds that document the ever-changing face of American culture." Breaking taboos of the time, African Americans and whites appeared on the same stage at Constitution Hall in 1938. Later on, the festival reflected the influx of newcomers from Southeast Asia when flutist Nguyen Dinh Nghia performed in 1985. Nguyen had hidden in the mountains of Vietnam for years, waiting for permission to enter the United States.

The festival moves every three years to a different city. It runs for three days and draws audiences upward of 120,000. The city of Lowell, Massachusetts, developed its own festival after sponsoring the national festival from 1987 to 1989. Lowell, the Lowell National Historical Park, and the Lowell Festival Foundation now partner with the National Council to produce the event each year. The council also produces concerts for the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galax, Virginia. Another arm is a touring program that offers music in community centers and high school auditoriums.

The archival collection is growing along with the festival. Today, it includes artists such as Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs, contemporary bluegrass musicians. As new populations come to the United States, folk art has to be reinterpreted. The Dance of Tears, a council-supported documentary, centers on a Cambodian dance troupe and its escape from their homeland. Another film, The Last Performance, concerns the resettlement of Laotian court dancers in the United States.

"Traditional culture is not petrified, but a vibrant, living thing," says Olin. "Collections such as ours encompass many decades, capture unique moments, and express the very soul of our nation."

Maggie Riechers is a writer in Potomac, Maryland.

The National Council for the Traditional Artshas received $404,974 in grants from NEH to digitally preserve its audio archive.