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

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

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.