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.

 

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.

Musical worlds

October 7th, 2014

One of the gratifying things about being a folklorist is being able to connect tradition bearers with potentially influential people, resources, and opportunities. When done well, the folklorist plays the role of being what Malcolm Gladwell called a “connector” in his book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

Soon after meeting Sushil Gautam, a local Nepalese sarangi player who helped establish the Music Museum of Nepal, I had the good fortune to meet Darcy Kuronen, Curator of the Musical Instruments at the Museum of Fine Arts. It turns out that in this collection of over 1,100 musical instruments, there is no Nepalese sarangi. So it was with pleasure that I was able to introduce Sushil and Darcy to one another. Time will tell if something comes of their acquaintance.

The MFA’s Musical Instruments Gallery is a little gem. The intimate sized gallery is filled with musical instruments and sound samples from around the world. For the past dozen years, Darcy has programmed regular gallery talks and demonstrations, engaging in conversation with visiting musicians who bow, pluck, finger, or breathe life into the featured instruments.

Abarta_MFA

On Monday, October 6th, that musician was Joey Abarta, who, coincidentally, was one of the six master artists who was recently awarded a Massachusetts Cultural Council Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant. Joey had brought two of his own Irish uilleann pipes to perform on, since the museum’s set is not in working order. And uilleann pipes are finicky instruments.

The gathered audience was treated to some beautiful playing — an air, a set of jigs, a set of reels — plus some really interesting conversation about the history of the uilleann pipes, renowned makers both historical and living, and the technical challenges of playing, which include manipulating a chanter, drones, and regulators, in addition to the bellows, which are filled by pumping one’s elbow. (Uilleann is the Irish Gaelic word for elbow.)

Darcy asked Joey to let the audience know where they might be able to hear him playing locally. Every Thursday evening, at 7:15, Joey leads an Irish music session at the Canadian American Club in Watertown. Everyone is welcome.

The Price and Promise of Leaving Home

September 24th, 2014

Sushil_competing

Old Time musician Alan Kaufman and I were in Lowell to judge the 35th Annual Banjo & Fiddle Contest on September 6th. As the audience began to gather, Alan mentioned, “There is someone I want you to meet. A man from Nepal who plays the Himalayan fiddle (a four-stringed wooden instrument played with a bow), and jaw harp. His name is Sushil Gautam.” Alan explained that he had met Sushil at the local Dunkin’ Donuts in Arlington, where Sushil works. A few weeks earlier, Alan had walked in wearing a Banjo & Fiddle contest tee-shirt and the two got to talking. This is when Alan discovered that the man who serves him his ice tea is not only a Himalayan fiddle and jaw harp player, he also helped to establish The Music Museum of Nepal and published  a book on the history, ethnic songs, and methods of playing the Nepalese sarangi.

Sushil, Alan, and I spoke briefly before the contest began. Although Sushil had brought his sarangi, he was not planning on entering the contest. I told Sushil I’d be in touch soon about interviewing him for the MCC Folk Arts & Heritage Program. He kindly gave me a copy of his paperback, Sarangee, A Guide Book. The book, in Nepalese, was published by Orbit International Education Culture Education Department in Kathmandu, Nepal. Before walking away, Sushil handed me his business card, saying  “This is the view from my parent’s home.” It was a stunning panorama of the Himalayan Mountains with a small village in the foreground.

Sushil Gautam's business card

I stared at the picture, worthy of a travel brochure. Wrapped up in that little moment was the price of leaving home. The push/pull factors of limited economic opportunities, family, farm fresh food. . . .Why would someone leave such a place of physical beauty to resettle in a country halfway round the world. Clearly, it wasn’t the job. Or was it?

We scheduled a time for me to interview Sushil at his home in Somerville, where he lives with his wife and young daughter.

On September 12, I found my way to a rental house on a narrow side street off Somerville Avenue. I rang the doorbell.  At first, there was no response. I rang again. The windows were open; orange silk curtains fluttered in the screenless windows. I rang once more. Sushil appeared with a smile on his face and welcomed me into the front room of the house. It was sparsely furnished. Around the room were reminders of home –  photocopied color prints of family members and scenes from his parents’ village in Nepal. His daughter’s stuffed toys were piled in one corner. Several musical instruments were lined up against the back wall, resting on the carpeted floor; a few more hung from the walls. Sushil showed me two sarangis, one carved out of a lighter wood, and one of a darker, denser wood. The latter had an ornate carving of an elephant on the back. “Oh, Ganesha,” I remarked.  Sushil, surprised, asked “You know of Ganesha?”

Carving of Ganesha on back of sarangi

I asked if I could record our interview. He nodded and gestured to a small side table and two plastic chairs.

Economic opportunities and the chance to better his daughter’s future motivated Sushil and his wife to emigrate. Sushil Gautam came to this country with his wife and young daughter in January of 2013. “I grew up with tourism in my village.” Although the snow-capped Himalayas loom in the distance, snow never falls in his village. “All the year it is green.” Arriving in Boston, during the deep midwinter, came as somewhat of a shock. “I experience snow by my hand and leg here in Boston for the first time.”

Sushil had been selected by lottery for a green card and the opportunity to work and stay in the United States. Like many immigrants, he and his wife have university degrees, but can only find work in the food services. For now, Sushil is happy with his job at Dunkin’ Donuts, which provides an opportunity to improve his speaking skills in English. He has aspirations of finding a job as a teacher of languages and culture in the future.

Sushil Gautam playing a Nepalese sarangee

The sarangi is a bowed chordophone, carved from solid or composite wood, rather than pieced together like a violin. It has four strings; nylon has replaced gut (sheep intestine), and a metal string is used for the highest pitched string.  The sarangi is held vertically, much like a South Indian violin, or Chinese erhu. The outer two strings are tuned to an octave; the middle two strings are tuned a 4th up from the lowest string, e.g., G, C, C, G.  In western parlance, we’d call this an open tuning, meaning that all the strings are tuned to harmonized notes.   Some sarangi are highly ornamented, with carving depicting the God Ganesha or the Buddha.

Sushil Gautam posing with Nepalese sarangee

The Gandharba, a caste of occupational musicians, consider the sarangi to be their instrument. Until fairly recently, it was possible for them to make a living in Nepal. Much like other hereditary musicians, they played a key role in society, traveling from village to village, spreading news and entertaining.

Sushil recalls their music from his childhood, “Before there was any communication, people used to come to the mountain to entertain a lot of people. And they used to collect a lot of food for them. It was the living for this musician caste, and entertainment for the farmers in the mountain.  But time changes. A lot of radios and television came and the entertainment means are changed and these people lost their job.”

Sushil holding a jaw harp

Sushil playing the jaw harp

In generations past, the Gandharba caste were considered low and experienced discrimination. Although Sushil is from a historically higher caste, he plays the Gandharba’s instrument and has worked hard to elevate the musicians’ status and preserve their traditions. Sushil feels fortunate that he got to study with a very good teacher, Khim Bahadur Gandharba, who is a well-known sarangi player. In fact, he was the first sarangi player, selected by the king, to travel outside of Nepal to perform on a royal visit to Hong Kong and China.  Today, Khim Bahadur Gandharba is nearing 80, and is no longer physically able to play.

Sushil_3instruments

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Sushil moved to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, to pursue his masters in music. Before leaving Nepal, Sushil was teaching sarangi, performing, and making recordings. He also helped establish the Music Museum of Nepal, and wrote his guide to playing the sarangi. One of his motivations is to change the hereditary system of learning sarangi in Nepal, opening the instrument up to everyone.

“When the father wanted the child to chance to learn, even in the same ethnic group, if the caste, if somebody’s father does not know how to play sarangi, even though they belong to the same caste, they have no chance to learn. Because they don’t have a teacher. And they don’t have a book. With the generation gap, now, from my book, everybody can learn sarangi. Even if their father is not a sarangi player.”

 

Six New Apprenticeships Funded by MCC

August 25th, 2014

We are delighted to announce this year’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants. The following six traditional art forms will be taught by master artists to their apprentices: Irish uilleann pipe playing, South Indian carnatic singing, sign painting and gold leaf, ornamental and architectural wood carving, North Indian Madhubani painting, and South Indian carnatic drumming.

Irish uilleann pipe playing: Joey Abarta, master artist and Caroline O’Shea, apprentice

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South Indian carnatic singing: Tara Anand Bangalore, master artist and Pratik Bharadwaj, apprentice

Bangalore_Bharadwaj_main

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Sign painting and gold leaf: Josh Luke of Best Dressed Signs, master artist and Corinna D’Schoto, apprentice

JoshLuke_main___________________________________________________________________________

Ornamental and architectural wood carving: Dimitrios Klitsas, master artist and Spiro Klitsas, apprentice

KlitsasApprenticeship_main___________________________________________________________________________

North Indian Madhubani painting: Sunanda Sahay, master artist and Sanjana Krishna, apprentice

Sahay_apprenticeship_main___________________________________________________________________________

South Indian carnatic drumming on mridangam: Gaurishankar Chandrashankar, master artist and Kaasinath Balagurunath, apprentice

Chandrashankar_apprenticeship_main

Apprenticeships are a long-standing method by which an individual learns skills, techniques, and artistry under the guidance of a recognized master. Applicants were reviewed by a panel of experts who evaluated the artistry of the master artist, skill level of the apprentice, rarity of art form, significance of the tradition,  appropriateness of the pairing, and work plan. Grantees are expected to offer a community presentation at the end of their 9-month long apprenticeship.

To see a list of all MCC-funded apprenticeships since 2002, click here.

Recycling festival T-shirts to make paper!

July 22nd, 2014

 Drew Matott with portable Hollander Beater  

Drew Matott had an “aha” moment when he first realized paper could be made from old clothes. He and Margaret Mahan have gone on to bring the transformative experience of hand paper making to people all over the world. In order to pulverize rag into pulp, they use a machine designed and built by papermaking engineer Lee McDonald of Boston. Not only is it portable, it is bicycle powered. Pulling sheets of paper is a fun and messy business. To form a piece of paper, a screen is dipped and submerged in a vat of pulp and pulled through the fibrous water. A thick wet sheet of paper forms as the water drains away. Sheets are stacked, pressed, and hung up to dry.  

In addition to hand paper making and bookbinding, Drew and Margaret founded the Peace Paper Project in 2011. Through paper making workshops, survivors of war and terrorism have been guided to pulp the clothing they associate with their traumatic experience, including military uniforms. The clothing is cut up, beat, and formed into sheets of paper. Working with certified art therapists, participants use the paper to begin the process of adjusting and recovering from their experiences.

At a recent Lowell Folk Festival planning meeting, Millie Rahn and I brought up Drew and Margaret’s request for textiles that could be recycled for making paper at the festival. We talked about approaching a local textile mill but Pat Bowe (of The Lowell Festival Foundation) had the brilliant idea to recycle surplus festival T-shirts from festivals past. Last week, Pat mailed them bundles of brightly colored cotton T-shirts.

Margie Mahan pulping T shirts

Drew wrote to us saying, “We received the t-shirts! We love all the colors! I think it is the perfect amount- Margie and I cut them all up and started processing them into pulp. Over the next three days we will make 12lbs of it into paper to hand out to participants. We will pulp the remainder for use with the bike operated beater and sheet forming during the festival.”

Drew Matott working with beater

Come by to meet paper makers Drew Matott and Margaret Mahan this weekend at the Lowell Folk Festival. You’ll never look at old clothing the same way again.

Architectural drawing and model making

July 18th, 2014

Russell Call working drawing

Continuing our paper tradition theme at this year’s Lowell Folk Festival craft area, we turn to architectural drawing and model making. Paper is still the most common way of transmitting architectural information and ideas. From initial sketches to the iterative design process, from presentation to white prints, it is the drawing on paper that is critiqued, approved, and followed. Architects need paper plans to get client approval or obtain a building permit.

architectural drawing with seal

Contractors, engineers, and builders need a paper plan from which to work. Architectural drawings (floor plans, sectionals, and elevations) might be perplexing to someone who doesn’t know how to “read” them, but with a 3-D representational scale model, no translation is necessary.

As a student at the Boston Architectural College, Russell Call is learning the essential skills of architectural drawing and model making.

Russell Call measuring

Paper is used to make massing models. These rough study models can be made quickly and are an efficient tool for understanding how a design will occupy real space.

architectural model made of paper and wood

Paper can also be easily modified to represent different types of building materials, e.g., flat paper for façade; stacked, compressed paper for cement; and folded paper for clapboard siding.

 

architectural model with paper siding

In today’s digital world, with access to computer-aided-design (CAD), why do you think architects still build models out of paper?

Building 3-D models out of light bass wood is a hands-on way of learning about construction methods –foundational support, structural integrity, joinery, framing, and finishing.

Russell Call working on 1/2" scale model

Come see this miniature bungalow-in-the-making, as well as other architectural paper drawings and models in the folk craft area of the Lowell Folk Festival.

Russell Call working on 1/2" scale model2

 

Mexican Piñatas by Angelica Ortiz

July 9th, 2014

Pinata by Angelica Ortiz

Perhaps you’ve tried breaking open a piñata at a birthday party, but did you know that this paper mache object has roots in religion? The Spanish brought the tradition of piñatas to Mexico, to help transmit Catholicism.

Angelica Ortiz grew up in Mexico City.  She remembers watching her uncles make piñatas each December. During the nine evenings of Advent, people gathered in the street holding candles to walk and sing songs of Las Posadas. Each night, a different family hosted a party, ending with the breaking of a piñata. 

Breaking pinata in Mexico City Supplies for making clay pot pinata

Piñata is originally an Italian word meaning clay pot. Traditional piñatas in Mexico are still made with a clay pot interior, rather than a balloon. The piñata is covered in shiny paper and fitted with a seven-peaked star, symbolizing the seven deadly sins. “The idea,” Angelica explains, “was to break it. Or hit is as hard as possible so evil and the bad sins will be gone. In Mexico, they filled them with fruit and nuts, not candy.”

When it’s time to try to break the piñata at children’s parties, Angela sings the song traditionally sung in Mexico. “It’s very important,” she says, laughing. “The lyrics indicate 1-2-3 chances at striking the piñata; once the singing stops, your turn is over.”

Come see Angelica making piñatas in the folk craft area of the Lowell Folk Festival on July 26 and 27, 2014

Owl pinata by Angelica Ortiz

The art of Polish paper cut design

July 2nd, 2014

wycinanki by Susan Urban

Susan Urban practices the Polish art of wycinanki (paper cut design). She also makes cut paper dolls wearing costumes from different regions of Poland. Generations of West Springfield school children have benefited from having her as their art teacher.

Wycinanki are believed to have originated with Polish peasants. Farm women hung sheep skins over the window openings of their farmhouses as a way of keeping out the elements. In order to let in light and air, they used sheep shears to snip small openings in the skins. Like many folk arts, the practice was both functional and decorative. At some point, Polish women transferred their designs to paper.

 Wycinanki of rooster by Susan Urban

In Poland, wycinanki vary by region. The women of Kurpie are famous for their paper cut-outs of animals, geometric designs, and flowers. These symmetrical designs are cut from a single piece of colored paper, folded once. Another style comes from the area of Lowicz and is distinguished by many layers of multi-colored paper. The native Polish rooster, which is black and noted for its strange-shaped tail feathers, is a popular subject for paper cutting. Some designs with repeated elements are made by folding the paper and cutting through as many as eight layers at a time.

 Wycinanki by Susan Urban

 Susan Urban will be demonstrating the art of Polish papercut design in the folk craft area of the Lowell Folk Festival. 

black & white wycinanki by Susan Urban

“Wall paper hanging is like upholstering a room”

June 26th, 2014
Heidi L. Johnson. Photo by Tom Adams

Heidi L. Johnson. Photo by Tom Adams

There are 6 weeks left until the Lowell Folk Festival. Between now and then, we are posting examples of folk crafts that will be demonstrated in Lucy Larcom Park. Our theme is paper traditions, and that includes the occupational craft  of paper hanging.

Heidi L. Johnson is pretty sure her passion for paperhanging started in her grandmother’s guestroom where the walls were papered with a faux bois of white and beige with lavender roses.   As a five year old, she’d stare at the walls. “I was figuring out pattern repeat. I knew a machine had printed that and I could tell that it had to be engineered around the room.”

The tools of the paperhangers’ trade may be simple (straight edge razor blades, levels, electronic lasers, bristle sweeps, and pasting machines), but their use requires great skill. In fact, wallpaper hanging is considered a higher trade in the building trades. It demands planning, engineering skills, visualizing patterns, knowing materials, prepping walls, and applying the product swiftly and accurately.  “It looks easier than it is,” Heidi says, adding that wallpaper hanging is like upholstering a room. “The sign of a good craftsman is to hide the skill.”

Rolling out a sample of wallpaperHeidi’s background in textile design and her experience in designing and manufacturing wallpaper, make her especially well-suited to papering interiors. She has been a member of the National Guild of Professional Paperhangers since 1994, an occupational group she describes as “the paper geeks of the industry.”

Heidi will be demonstrating her craft at the 2014 Lowell Folk Festival in the Folk Craft area along Lucy Larcom Park.

Samples from the Norwood-Day Collection