Cranberry Rug Hookers’ Guild coming to Lowell Folk Festival

May 21st, 2015
Hooked rug by Susan Sharpe

Hooked rug in the primitive style by Susan Sharpe of Mashpee

Rug hooking fits into the “waste not, want not” mentality. Using recycled wool from clothing and remnants from textile mills, rug hooking was once common in households along the eastern seaboard in New England and Atlantic Canada. The technique is still used to create colorful floor rugs, table mats, pillows, and wall hangings.

In late March, Millie Rahn and I drove out to S. Dennis to attend a meeting of the Cranberry Rug Hookers’ Guild. The guild, which is a chapter of the Association of Traditional Hooking Artists (ATHA), meets at bi-monthly “hook-ins” to work on individual rugs, learn from each other, and socialize.

When we arrived, guild president Kathy Blake-Parker welcomed us and invited to partake of the snacks in the kitchen – fresh fruit and vegetables, dip, baked goods, coffee and tea.  A group of about 25 women were busy working on their individual rugs or mats.

Cranberry Rug Hookers hooking

Cranberry Rug Hookers hooking

Some members were working on projects other than rug hooking, including knitting, felt applique, and punch cut embroidery.

Example of felting

Penny rug made for mat swap by Lucy Labor.

Rug hookers work on a small frame, using a hook to pull strips of cut wool or other fiber through a loose weave, such as burlap.

rug hooking frame Rug hooking detail

Jacquelin Lee using hook

“It’s like coloring with wool,” says Kathy Blake Parker.

Unfinished hooked rug by Kathy Blake-Parker

“Moby” an unfinished hooked rug by Kathy Blake-Parker of West Harwich

About mid-way through the afternoon, the group did a show and tell. Each guild member held up what she was working on while one of their members took photos. Once this was done, they did what they called a “mat swap” – a version of the White Elephant game people play during Christmas time. Five women sat in a circle holding the mat (approximately 8 x 8 inches square) she had made specifically for the swap. Reading the text of Goodnight Moon, each would pass on the mat upon hearing a previously selected word. When the poem ended, each woman took home the mat she was holding.

After the rug hooking swap

Members holding up their rug swap results

We went around looking at each woman’s work, engaging some in conversation. Throughout the afternoon, members socialized, worked on their rugs, ate snacks, exchanged advice, and seemed to enjoy themselves. The variety of work was impressive. Some women use commercially produced patterns while others create patterns of their own design. Most everyone re-dyes their wool.

Rug hooking by Sylvia Doiron

“School Houses” a hooked rug by Sylvia Doiron of Barnstable.

In addition to the pleasure had in creating something of beauty, guild members commented on how comforting rug hooking can be during life’s changes, like a daughter going off to college. Guild member Mary Rita Labor, who has been hooking rugs for 15 years, shared this with us, ” I became a rug hooker after my three children, the last child went off to college. I was a little lonely, a little lost. I did have that emptiness syndrome, no question about it. And I took an adult education class and really fell in love with rug hooking. It’s been very relaxing, it’s been a good friend to me. Brought a lot of good people to my life. And was very comforting when I lost my mother. It comes in handy in more ways than one.”

The guild displays their work at the Barnstable County Fair every summer and also produces the Biennial Cranberry Rug Hookers Guild show in mid-May. Two members of the guild will be demonstrating in the Folk Craft area of this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival.  Come meet them.

Rug hooking by Jackie Lee

“Plaid Nation” rug hooked by Jacqueline Lee

Through the eyes of an apprentice

May 18th, 2015

Every once in awhile, the Folk Arts & Heritage Program welcomes an intern. It’s a win-win situation. The intern gets exposed to the work of a public folklorist (doing fieldwork, managing grants, and archiving field collected materials). The public folklorist gets help with transcribing recorded interviews and the opportunity to mentor the next generation. This spring, that intern has been Hampshire College sophomore and fiddler extraordinaire, Tatiana Hargreaves.

Tatiana HargreavesHere is her guest blog post about her experience:

I started my internship after returning from the Dosti Music Project in March. As preparation, I read Maggie’s book Keepers of Tradition and was immediately struck by the vast array of traditions documented in it. I had no idea Massachusetts held so much culture and so many traditions. Everything in the book fascinated me, but knowing I would be leaving for tour in May, we decided to focus on the three music apprenticeships: South Indian mridangam, Carnatic vocals, and Irish Uilleann piping. I was especially excited about the two South Indian apprenticeships as a way to follow up my experience at Dosti. Our role was to document the progress of the apprenticeships by conducting site visits to observe a lesson and ask follow-up questions about the apprenticeship.

Our first site visit was with mridangam player Gaurish Chandrashekhar at his house in South Grafton.

Gaurish Chandrashekhar teaching mridangum. Photo by Jennifer Atwood.

We all crammed into a small room with Gaurish and his apprentice Kaasinath Balagurunath in the middle, and Kaasinath’s dad scrunched in the corner filming on his iPhone. Having grown up with Western classical and oldtime music, I expected the lesson to start similarly, that is, with a warm-up. However, as soon as Kaasinath sat down for the lesson, they started at full speed, right where they left off at the last week: how to subdivide a 10-beat phrase into a 16-beat cycle. The lesson kept a very fast pace, with Gaurish having Kaasinath figure out multiple ways to put the 10-beats into the sixteen.

Gaurish and Kaasinath

Towards the end of the lesson, we were free to ask questions.  I led the interview, but Maggie’s last question got the most powerful answer. She asked Gaurish what role music played in his life, to which he responded, “People have immigrated from India and here and now they are Americans. . . your heritage, your culture, the grass, the roots are somewhere else. Right? So how do you keep that connection going? So a natural aspect is music or dance or food, right? Those are the three things that we have. Or clothes, obviously. So music has become a very significant part of it, and dance even more so, because it tells a story.  So you have to learn about the stories. . .  so you can bring out the correct expression. The same thing with musical instruments. You’re lyrically expressing what happened at a period of time . . . You’re not just presenting what is taught you.”

Hearing Gaurish say this made me think about all of the kids learning western classical music in schools. How do they connect with the story and history of that music? Or do they at all? At 13, Kaasinath is not only learning music, but a whole history. When I was learning western classical music at that age, no one stressed the importance of the history and culture of the music we were playing. As a result, I wasn’t interested in where it came from or why it was played. So where did the importance of history and culture go in western music education?

Tara Bangalore (right) and Pratik Bharadwaj. Photo by Jennifer Atwood.

Our next site visit was with Tara Bangalore and her vocal apprentice Pratik Bharadwaj. Tara also teaches Carnatic violin, so Maggie and I (both fiddlers) came an hour early to get an introduction to Carnatic violin playing. Although Maggie and I both have a lot of training in other musical traditions, we were complete beginners with Tara. During Pratik’s lesson, Tara taught him the beginning of a new piece by ear, going over it phrase by phrase, and then had him perform a pallavi for us. Pallavi is one of the most complex song performances in Carnatic music as it features several different ways of improvising, from alapane, a slow improvised section, to tanam a rhythmic improvised section, to pallavi, a melodic refrain that has extremely complex improvisation rules. Pratik went through each section, only hesitating once during the pallavi, which he learned at the last lesson.

After the lesson, we asked Tara and Pratik some questions and Tara said many things that could apply to any musician, but one thing she said particularly jumped out at me as something a student in any area should consider. “When you’re. . . building yourself into a musician, you have to pay attention to balance. Is your music balanced? Is it too stormy? Does it have enough melody? Does it have all [the] technical stuff?”

“There’s a lot of music out there in the world today, a lot of interpretations, a lot of brilliance, no question, but sometimes in the middle of all that, the simple melody, the simple music that made Carnatic music what it was, that gave it the classicism, it  always runs the danger of slipping out somewhere.”

Maggie and Tati  working on a sound file. Photo by Artsake

So where am I going with all of this? As a musician, this work is eye-opening and inspiring. As a human being, it teaches you about other human beings and the world we live in. Having the chance to go out into the world and learn about people and the art they make and why they do it, it teaches you so much more than just the how or why. It gets you questioning deeper into your own music, your own life, your own culture, and your own story.

Hand Crafting Textiles in the 21st Century

April 23rd, 2015

folk craft banner

It’s that time of year when we are busy selecting craft demonstrators for the Lowell Folk Festival. Our theme is textile traditions and for the past several months I’ve been traveling to meet with people who are passionate about hand crafting textiles out of wool, cotton, and linen.

In Colonial New England, prior to the availability of manufactured goods, women were primarily responsible for the production of household textiles. Cloth was woven out of homespun cotton, wool, and flax; quilts were pieced together from worn out clothing and feed sacks. Women sewed the family’s clothing, hooked rugs, and knitted sweaters and mittens.

Mile of Mills by Sally Palmer Field

Of course, the late 19th century Industrial Revolution changed all this. As pictured above in Sally Palmer Field’s Mile of Mills wall hanging, Lowell is the birthplace of the American textile industry. Once fabrics were manufactured locally, they became more affordable. Today, the majority of textiles we use are commercially manufactured halfway round the world. Buying hand-crafted textiles has become something of a luxury. What began as basic survival skills — weaving, knitting, quilting,  and rug making — has evolved largely into expressions of creative artistry. The craft artisan’s purpose/market has changed too – from domestic necessity to supplying craft fairs and galleries, and engaging tourists at living history museums.

Linda Lane working on bobbin lace

This is especially true when it comes to the time-consuming, exacting production of bobbin lace. As Linda Lane, a master lace maker points out, “It can’t really be done on a commercial basis because one square inch of lace takes approximately an hour. Due to its complexity and the fineness of the lace, that can be days. So immediately, you price yourself out of a demand market.”

Linda pointing out a join

Linda Lane

An accomplished weaver and spinner, Linda Lane learned to make lace by watching another lace maker for a number of years. Then, with the aid of a few formal lessons and some very good instructional books, she taught herself. Decades later, Linda is a treasure trove of lace making history, patterns, and techniques. A retired nurse, Linda is currently the resident lace maker at the Hooper-Hathaway House in Salem, Massachusetts and a member of the New England Lace Group.

Hooper Hathaway House, Salem, MA

Linda working on bobbin lace

Linda weaves using 20 to 40 English bobbins, plaiting and working the lace-making fibers, which can go from 36 twos to 200 twos.  (Two is the ply – the higher the first figure, the finer the thread.) To make bobbin lace, one must have tremendous patience and keen eyesight. Just look at this example of lace in the making — its pattern comes from the edging found around a handkerchief once belonging to Christian the 4th, King of Denmark, circa 1644.

lace in the making

Notice the size of the metal pins in comparison to the lace to get a sense of scale. The pattern is called a pricking. “This is my sheet music . . . it tells me where to go, but not how to get there. The “how” to get there is up here,” Linda says, pointing to her head.  “In lace, there is a whole world of technique in just getting around a corner.”

Detail of a lace corner

Although lace, being woven, is technically a textile, it is more truly an embellishment. Indeed, lacere, the Latin root of the word lace, is to entice or delight. Bobbin lace, the type that Linda Lane excels at, dates back to the 1450s. “Throughout history,” Linda explains, “lace follows the dictates of  fashion very closely. It goes up and down. Only the well-to-do could afford it – royalty, the aristocracy, and the church.”

And what of lace, today, I ask. Linda responds,“It’s only purpose to exist is to be pure decadence, as it [was] in years past. It’s a socio-economic statement.”

Linda Lane will be demonstrating bobbin lace making at this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival, July 25-26, 2015.

 

Tibetan musician Penpa Tsering to perform in Boston

March 11th, 2015

Penpa Tsering playing one of his handmade flutes. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

I first heard Tibetan musician Penpa Tsering perform at the 2008 Lowell Folk Festival. It wasn’t until November of 2014 that I made it out to Bedford, MA where he now resides, to interview him. I knew that he made some of his own musical instruments and that he plays sixteen different instruments including the deling (flute), pi-wang (lute) and the impressively long brass trumpet, the dungchen.

Born in Chamdo, Tibet in 1963, music filled Penpa Tsering’s life from an early age. His mother and grandfather taught him to sing traditional Tibetan songs, including the healing songs of his family, who, for generations, have been nomadic farmers. He claims to know over 70 Tibetan traditional songs, which are not well documented and at risk of being lost.

Sometimes, interviews lead to other opportunities for artists.  I was able to help connect Penpa with members of a Connecticut Tibetan community who were very interested in learning Tibetan songs, music, and dance.  Their apprenticeship is currently underway, thanks to a grant from the Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program.

Penpa Tsering is not only passionate about sharing Tibetan culture through teaching, he is also eager to perform. So it was a pleasure to pass on his contact information to Bridget Lynch, Director of the Trustman Art Gallery at Simmons College. Anya had come across Penpa’s profile on our Keepers of Tradition website while looking for a performer to kick off a new “Music in the Gallery” series. Things fell into place and the upcoming event is one I look forward to attending. Dressed in traditional Tibetan clothing, Penpa will perform on a variety of musical instruments and sing traditional songs from his family’s repertoire. The concert/demo takes place on Tuesday April 7 from 2:00-3:15 pm at the Trustman Art Gallery, located on the fourth floor, Main College Building, 300 The Fenway in Boston. The concert is free and open to the public. For more info, contact Marcia Lomedico 617-521-2268.

Penpa Tsering playing the he Tibetan pi-wang (lute), Tibetan musician, 2014 Photography by Maggie Holtzberg    	Penpa Tsering playing the Tibetan rag-dung (trumpet), Tibetan musician, 2014 Photography by Maggie Holtzberg

Saving Stuff: Exploring a Repository for our Archival Collection

February 17th, 2015

Six years ago, I posted a blog  commentary about how the world of archiving folklore fieldwork was changing. I was concerned about the challenges of keeping “born digital” items safe, and I remain concerned. Since 2008, we have switched exclusively to using digital devices (cameras, audio recorders) in our field research. That means that all new field-generated audio and visual data is captured in bits and preserved on DVD discs, SD cards, and external computer hard drives.

Fuji film cannister Box of Kodachrome slide film      arrow pointing right     archival DVD disc

Cassette and DAT magnetic tape       arrow pointing right       2 GB Sandisks

The responsibility of preserving archival collections and making them accessible was, frankly, a lot simpler in the pre-digital age. Tangible items in a collection — paper, prints, film, and  magnetic audio tape — are physical things that take kindly to acid-free file folders, chemically inert plastic sleeves, and Hollinger boxes. But our collection is comprised of both physical and born digital materials. We have manuscript materials (field notes, transcriptions of audio recorded interviews, release forms, and ephemera) analog and digital audio field recordings, color slides, black and white negatives, and digital images. From the creation of the archive in 1999, we have employed archival preservation methods for the tangible items; caring responsibly for digitally born materials is more of a challenge. We store field-generated audio (.wav files) and images (.tiff) on writable compact discs and external hard drives, rather than on redundant file storage servers, as is recommended by archivists. Like the majority of public folklore programs around the country with archival collections, we lack trained staff dedicated to audio preservation, quality analog playback and digital conversion equipment, and large-scale information technology support.

archive_materials

The issue at hand is how to ensure long term access to and preservation of this ever growing folk archival collection.

Storage containers for digital content

We are essentially ready to explore some kind of mutually beneficial partnership with a university special collections or other repository that has both trained staff and a stated mission supporting preservation and access.

For advice, I’ve reached out to individual archivists, like Steve Green of the Western Folklife Center Archive, who has been tremendously helpful, and other state folklorists who have made progress securing their own archival collections like Joey Brackner at the Alabama State Council on the Arts and Mary Allison Haynie at the Alabama Folklife Association, Wayne Jones, Karen Paty, and Julianne Carroll who are leading the effort to preserve the Georgia Folklife Program’s collection; and Cliff Murphy at Maryland Traditions who helped facilitate the Maryland’s Folklife Program archives move to UMBC.

Closer to home is Dr. Jack Warner, State Archivist and the Massachusetts State Historical Records Advisory Board who reviewed our situation. There are some promising partnerships on the horizon.  We will keep you posted on any new developments.

 

 

This is soooo Boston

February 4th, 2015

Confetti on snow

Between the New England Patriot’s victory parade down Boylston Street and the over 40 inches of snow Boston has received in  just one week’s time, this image says it all.

Okay, I’m not exactly a football fan and, to be honest, I have no comprehension of the game. On the big day, I didn’t watch the Superbowl — ( I’m more of a Downton Abbey fan). The only way I knew the Patriots had won was being awakened by the distant sound of fireworks going off late Sunday evening.

That said, I am surrounded by knowledgeable and fervent fans. It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement and hometown pride over the Patriot’s victory. And even a sports dummy like myself knew key players ridomg by on Boston’s duck boats.

Malcolm Butler and fans

Fans cheering on Malcolm Butler. His interception is a big part of why we are all here today.

Robert Kraft

Robert Kraft holding the Super Bowl trophy

Coach Bill Belichick on the far right.

Flag atop Hancock building copy

Even the buildings are proud!

 

Scenes from a Gubernatorial Inauguration Celebration

January 12th, 2015

We don’t usually attend gubernatorial inauguration celebrations, but we were excited to help showcase a rich diversity of Massachusetts’ performing artists at Governor Charlie Baker’s celebration, which took place at the Boston Event and Exhibition Center. It was a logistical challenge escorting 16 performing groups to five stages throughout the evening. In the mix was the Irish step dancing, Cambodian court dance, police piping and drumming, a Dominican carnival comparsa, a 150-plus member high school band, two choirs, a drumming group, a Caribbean carnival mas band, and a jazz trio.  Here are a few snapshots from the evening.

Before the inaugural celebrants arrived . . .

Before the crowd arrives

A humungous cake made with edible paint, baked by Montilio’s Bakery of Boston.

Cake baked by Montilios Baking Company

Members of Asociacion Carnavelesca de Massachusetts in their “green” room and then performing on stage.

Asociacion Carnavalesca members in their green room

Asociacion Carnvalesca on stage

Members of the hip-hop group, Origination performing on stage

Origination on stage

Members of the Boston Police Gaelic Column Pipe and Drums tuning up.

Boston Police Gaelic Column Pipe & Drum Band tuning up backstage

Boston Police Gaelic Column descending the escalator

Gaelic Column coming down the escalator

Drum Major Jim Barry leads the processional followed close behind by Governor Baker and his wife Lauren.

Drum Major Jim Barry

Governer Charlie Baker and his wife Lauren

New television series hosted by Alan Kaufman featuring traditional musicians

December 8th, 2014

Scene from "In the Tradition" with Alan Kaufman and Don Stratton

In addition to being a fine old time fiddler, guitarist, and singer, Alan Kaufman is incredibly knowledgeable about a variety of traditional American folk music genres of the 20th century. We were delighted to learn that Alan has launched a wonderful new television series called “In the Tradition” produced by Arlington Community Media Inc television. The program, Alan explains, was inspired by the 50th anniversary of Rainbow Quest, a television series Pete Seeger devoted to American folk music.

Two episodes of “In the Tradition” have aired to date and they are available to those outside of Arlington, MA through vimeo. Click here for the second episode in the series and stay tuned for more.

From Intern to State Folklorist and Published Author

November 24th, 2014

It was a decade ago that CliffMurphy interned with the MCC’s Folk Arts & Heritage Program. A graduate student in ethnomusicology at Brown University at the time, Cliff was deep into his research on New England’s Country and Western music. I was fortunate to travel with him on a few of the many interviews he conducted with Massachusetts musicians — key figures like Georgia Mae Harp, “Jimmie Cal” Calderone, and yodelling Kenny Roberts.

Georgia Mae Harp with her signature white guitarKenny Roberts album cover

His wonderful new book, Yankee Twang: Country and Western Music in New England was recently published by the University of Illinois Press. Not only is it an engaging and informative read, the book breaks new ground in country music scholarship by challenging the notion that country music is inherently southern.  New England Country and Western music is not the same thing as the country music heard across New England on country format radio. It is a homegrown, working-class regional music with deep roots. Read this book and you come to know a once vibrant regional music virtually ignored by the country music industry. Prior to the 1960s, talented performers dressed in country western garb, “barnstormed” their way across New England, doing live radio shows, performing community concerts, and playing for social dances.  New England’s multi-ethnic demographic makeup helped create a distinctive style of country music.

YankeeTwang book cover

We are fortunate to have had Cliff Murphy delve deep into one of New England’s core music traditions at a time when many of its exemplary performers were still alive. The documentary work Cliff did in Massachusetts is now safely archived in the MCC’s traditional Arts Archive. Cliff has since gone on to be the Director of Maryland Traditions, the folklife program of the Maryland State Arts Council. Massachusett’s loss is Maryland’s gain.

Listen to WBUR’s story about Cliff and Yankee Twang here

The Public Folklorist and the Nature of Aging: A Personal Take

October 24th, 2014
Retired gandy dancers being recorded by Maggie Holtzberg, Calera, Alabama, 1988. Photo by Joey Brackner

Retired gandy dancers being recorded by Maggie Holtzberg, Calera, Alabama. Photo by Joey Brackner

There was a time in the late 1980s, when, as a newly minted folklorist, all the tradition bearers I’d seek out to interview and learn from were decades older than I was — Southern gandy dancers in their 70s and 80s, holding on to the last thread of work song culture; women quilters whose mothers had taught them to recycle old feed sacks and scraps from worn-out dresses; and Irish fiddlers whose venues had changed from crossroads dance halls in Co. Kerry to bars in New York City. These folks were the age of my own grandparents.

Nellie Kinsey holding a string of leather britches and red peppers, Kinsey Town,  White County, GA, 1989. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

Nellie Kinsey holding a string of leather britches and red peppers, Kinsey Town, White County, GA, 1989. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

Time passed. Contract fieldwork turned into salaried positions at state art agencies. I relocated from the Deep South back home to the Northeast and dug into the folk culture of Massachusetts’ people – Italian feast days, Yankee wooden boat building, Franco-American  and Cape Breton fiddling, Polish pysanki and Cambodian dance.

Procession of St. Mary of Carmen, Nonantum. MA. 2007. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

Procession of St. Mary of Carmen, Nonantum. MA. 2007. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

Eight or so years into the work, I began to notice that there were no longer decades of lived experience between the majority of the people I was interviewing and myself.  We were, in fact, cohorts in age.

Maggie interviewing Michelle Fernandes and Anita Peters Little about their apprenticeship in Wampanoag regalia making. West Barmstable, MA, 2005. Photo by Russell A. Call

Maggie interviewing Michelle Fernandes and Anita Peters Little about their apprenticeship in Wampanoag regalia making. West Barmstable, MA, 2005. Photo by Russell A. Call

It’s now been 15 years since I came to manage the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Folk Arts & Heritage Program.  A few months ago, I was sitting across from a Nepalese sarangi player, a Tascam DR100 recording device in my hand, listening to him talk of his experience immigrating to the US. There were photos of his young daughter on the wall. It was after I asked him the year he was born that I suddenly realized; “This man is 20 years younger than I am. In fact, so are the last three people I interviewed.”

Sushil Gautam posing with Nepalese sarangi. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

Sushil Gautam posing with Nepalese sarangi, 2014. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

The arc of any folklorist’s work experience is grounded in time. I’ve gone from being the youngster interviewing elders, to interviewing people of my generation, to the odd sensation of realizing that I am older than many of the people with whom I work. I suppose it is the opposite experience of academic folklorists who, each fall semester, find themselves in classrooms filled with students who never seem to age.

Either way, we all grow older.


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