Here’s what happens when . . .

. . . you have the opportunity to hire a professional film crew and still photographer  to capture master musicians and dancers performing in a beautiful venue. Videos by Blake Road Productions and stills by Brendan Mercure.

Below are links to each segment of the concert – shot and edited by, Blake Road Productions.

Through the eyes of an apprentice

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.

Saving Stuff: Exploring a Repository for our Archival Collection

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.


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.



“The Beautiful Music All Around Us”

Stephen Wade holding a copy of his book

Last week I had the good fortune of introducing Stephen Wade at the Cambridge Forum in Harvard Square. Like an archaeologist revisiting a dig site 75 years later, Wade went back to 13 Southern towns where folklorists working for the Library of Congress had recorded locally known singers and musicians.  These field recordings went on to become iconic of Southern old time banjo and fiddle music, blues, children’s lore, cowboy songs, and other forms of American folk music.

William Stepp on horseback

In addition to doing some serious library research, Wade was able to track down living relatives or acquaintances, finding himself in places where everyday people made music:  living rooms, front porches, church pews, prisons, and dance halls. During his November 13 presentation in Cambridge, he told stories from his travels in researching and writing The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience. He also performed on a number of banjos, including one originally belonging to musician Hobart Smith. Take a look and listen —


Polish rosettes for a crowd

Early on the morning of July 25, just days before this year’s Lowell Folk Festival, members and friends of the Lowell Polish Cultural Committee were at the Dom Polski  hall on Lakeview Avenue busy preparing rosettes, deep fried cookies in the shape of flowers. At five cooking stations, volunteers stood over electric fry pans, dipping hot irons covered in sweet batter into hot, 420 degree, oil. The Polish group plans to make 700 cookies before the weekend.

This is the fourth year Marcia (Kosik) McGrail has helped. She’s the official batter maker, joking that when she first started frying, “maybe I wasn’t doing it right, and I don’t mind doing batter, next thing I know, I was put on batter.” The rosettes are made from eggs, milk, flour, sugar, and salt, with a touch of rum. Marcia said that when her grandmother made them, she used brandy instead of rum. 

Frank Makarewicz, a relative newcomer, got advice from the “master rosette maker,” Eva Kalish. His crumpled soggy rosettes were soon replaced by perfectly formed crispy brown cookies. “I need a rhythm,” he commented. He will be in charge of making kielbasa sandwiches at this weekend’s festival.


Rosettes only take a few seconds of frying on each side before they’re done. When the iron covered in batter is first dipped into the hot oil, the cookies explode into flowers. 

 The volunteers used two shapes of irons for a variety of rosettes.

Jane (Markiewicz) Duffley has cooked for a festival every year but one since 1974, first for the Regatta Festival, then the Lowell Folk Festival. She even worked two weeks before her wedding. Both her sisters are helping with the festival this year. I’m “older than Moses” doing this, she said, as she scurried around, picking up the fresh, crispy cookies from each station and carefully lining them row by row into large boxes.


The Polish group expected to sell out of rosettes as usual this year. The money raised from the festival will help fund Dom Polski scholarships and other worthy causes.

photos and blog by Lesley Ham


Native American Woodlands Folklife Talk by Dana Benner

Curious about the Native peoples who once lived along the banks of the Merrimack River? The Lowell Folklife Series invites you to a talk by Dana Benner on Saturday, November 5 at the Event Center of the Boott Mills MuseumWhen most people think of Native peoples at or around the time of contact with Europeans, they think either of Thanksgiving or fierce warfare. Many people are unaware of the extensive social traditions, trade relations, and industrious nature of the Native nations. The area along the Merrimack River that we define as Lowell was home to the Pennacook people.  Just to the south were the Massachusett, who were direct trading partners with the Pennacook.  Mr. Dana Benner will explore the rich traditions of the Pennacook nation, leaving the audience with a greater appreciation of the people who once called this area home.

Dana Benner is of Micmac/Penobscot/Piqwacket descent and is a member of the Inter-Tribal Council of New Hampshire.  He has been studying Native history and culture his entire life and has been writing about it for over 25 years.  He holds a BA in Liberal Arts with a concentration in U.S. History and Native Culture from Granite State College and he is working on his M.Ed in Heritage Studies with a concentration in Native History and Culture from Plymouth State University.

This talk is free and open to the public.

2:00 p.m @ 2nd Floor Event Center, Boott Mills Museum

110 John Street, Lowell, MA

For more information: 978-275-1719

Event sponsored by the Lowell National Historical Park and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.





Getting your fabulous folk content to an online audience

You know you have great content – it’s the folklorist’s stock in trade. But getting your folklore content to an online audience and engaging repeat visitors can be a challenge. Do you have questions about the technical, geeky side of things? Want ideas for how to design, structure, and then market your folk web site/exhibit/etc.?

If so, consider registering for the South Arts webinar on June 16, 2011 covering best practices for getting your folk content to an online audience. Folklorist Maggie Holtzberg and MCC Technology Project Manager Dawn Heinen will present. Topics will include: Leveraging a physical exhibition into an online presence, designing and implementing the user experience, and bringing it all to market.

This South Arts project is supported by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The King (and Prince) of Beans

The reason why we exist is because of pork scrap and Lowell’s famous baked beans. Pork pies. We have a little niche that has kept us in business since 1917.

Roger Levasseur, owner of Cote’s Market

“I’ve been doing beans since forever, almost. It seems forever. We started buying [beans] from Frankie Rochette and then he took in my father, who was like a son. Frankie Rochette, who pioneered the Lowellian type of bean, was known as ‘King of Beans.'”

So what makes Cote’s beans so special?

Perhaps it is the use of small Californian white beans, which have been aged for up to three years. Or the extremely fresh salt pork imported from Canada. Whatever it is, the beans made at this local corner market have found a way into local’s hearts for generations. Customers include elderly people who have been shopping at Cote’s for sixty or seventy years. Even people who have moved away will come back every Saturday to get their beans and their brown bread. Kurt Levasseur: “Recently, we had one woman who was moving to California, not out of choice. She was beside herself that she could not get Cote’s beans every Saturday.  It was something that she did as a child, something that’s ingrained in her French-Canadian roots, and she was literally in tears. . . she liked my grandfather’s homemade sauce. We sent her off with six quarts of sauce; I think she had more food than luggage.”

When Frankie Rochette handed the recipe over to Roger Levasseur of Cotes market, he told him, “Don’t ever change the recipe. And always keep my secret.” Roger adds, “Of course, the secret is pretty obvious. The secret is use the best ingredients and you’ll be in business 30 years from now.”  Roger is now in in early 60s and his son, Kurt Levasseur, is helping to carry on the business. While big chain supermarkets have all but put small local grocers out of business, Cote’s is thriving. 

Some of Kurt’s earliest memories are of helping to make beans in the store. “I started when I was very, very small. [My father] would make the beans at night around seven, eight o’clock. Which would seem really late to us at night.” From helping his father scoop the dry navy beans, to pouring the beans in the pot, or stamping bags, Kurt has been in this store since he could walk. Below you see him holding the “special scooper” used in measuring out the beans. “Gosh, if I lose that scooper it would be World War III. That thing has to have a GPS on it. It’s like an heirloom.”

“My father is 62 years old. He’s worked really, really, really hard his whole life. I’ve watched him work, watched the sweat roll off his forehead,to give us a good childhood. He worked hard, so I want to give back now and take care of my mother and father, just like he does with his.”

Photos by Maggie Holtzberg

Foodways Lectures, Film at Lowell National Historical Park

It’s not every day that someone’s kitchen becomes a museum exhibit. But then again, Julia Child is not your every day cook.  When she relocated from Cambrdige to California, her kitchen – the cabinets, appliances, utensils, pots, and pans – found a new home at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. The exhibit remains popular with visitors since it opened in 2002.  


To explore the kitchen’s journey to the Smithsonian, join us on Friday April 30 for a talk by Dr. Rayna Green, folklorist and Smithsonian’s curator of Julia Child’s kitchen. She will also touch upon the French Chef’s impact on the home cook in the 1960s and 70s through her cookbooks and her legendary television show produced by Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. The program is free and will be offered in the auditorium of the Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center, 246 Market Street,  at 7:30 pm.

In case you missed it, consider joining us on Tuesday, April 27 for Julie and Julia. The feature film (2009) is a comedy-drama written and directed by Nora Ephron. The film depicts events in the life of Julia Child in the early years in her culinary career, contrasting her life with Julie Powell who aspires to cook all 524 recipes from Child’s cookbook during a single year, a challenge she described on her popular blog that would make her a published author. Being screened in partnership with the Lowell Film Collaborative, the film will be shown at the Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center,246 Market Street, at 6:30 pm. The film is free.

Native American Foodways in New England, May 1

On May 1, Dr. Rayna Green will give a presentation on Native American foodways of New England. She will provide a broad overview of Native foodways in New England (coastal cultures versus inland, seasonal food, agriculture, etc.) and talk about the impact of Native American foodways on what some would define as “traditional” New England cuisine. This free presentation will be offered at 1:30 pm in the Boott Event Center located on the second floor of the Boott Cotton Museum at Lowell National Historical Park, 115 John Street.


This trio of events inaugurates a new series of foodways programming at Lowell National Historical Park.

A Folklorist’s Folklorist: Bess L. Hawes (1921-2009)


Addressing the American Folklore Society at the 1988 Centennial Meetings, Bess Lomax Hawes told a story about doing fieldwork, the sine qua non of the folklore profession. When she was teaching years ago, a student of hers had done an excellent term paper based on some folk curing beliefs which he had collected from an old lady in his neighborhood. By semester’s end he complained, “You taught me all about how to collect, Mrs. Hawes. What you didn’t teach me was how to stop collecting. That old lady lives on my block and every night when I come home, she runs out on the porch and says, ‘Hey boy, I just remembered another one!’  I keep trying to explain to her that my project is all finished, but she just won’t stop, and I’m starting to go up the alley when I go home just so I won’t run into her.”

“My dear young man,” Bess responded,  “welcome to the grown-up world. It’s a place where real actions have real results, where real people have real feelings as well as real information. And it’s a place where old ladies actually think that people who say they are interested in what they know really are interested, and issues like course requirements and semesters and quarters are really irrelevant. You’ve gotten your A. Now you start to pay back.” (excerpt taken from Public Folkore, edited by Robert Baron and Nicholas R. Spitzer, 1992, page 68.)

Bess Lomax Hawes, a folklorist of national renown, died last Friday. Today’s Boston Globe pays tribute to her and the little piece of local folklore she left behind. During the 1940s, while raising her family in Cambridge, Bess sang with local folk groups and tried her hand at songwriting. Today’s Boston Globe story focuses on “Charlie and the MTA,” a song Bess co-wrote with her friend Jacqueline Steiner. The political ditty poked fun at the Massachusetts Transit Authority’s complicated fare system and went on to become a hit.

In addition to a career as a performer and teacher, Bess Lomax Hawes was a remarkably effective arts administrator. Rocco Landesman, current Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, reminds us that, during her 16-year tenure as Director of the NEA’s Folk & Traditional Arts Program, Hawes inspired her colleagues to re-imagine how a federal agency might serve often overlooked artists and communities across the nation. Hawes was largely responsible for creating this country’s version of the Japanese Living National Treasures program. The first National Heritage Fellowships were awarded in 1982 and they continue to be the country’s highest honor awarded to individual artists working in the traditional arts.

Finding, documenting, presenting, and honoring traditional artists is work that is carried out at the grassroots level. Bess was the driving force behind establishing the network of public folklorists we have in the United States today. My colleague Jeff Titon recalls the United States map Bess kept in her office: “Whenever a folklorist got a job in one of those states, a colored push pin went into the location. She used to point to the map with great pride as the number of pins, and states, and public folklorists, increased. It was as if this gentle lady was mapping an occupying army moving into positions around the country.”

Indeed it was Bess who took Jeff aside in the early 1980s and began asking him why there wasn’t a position for a state folklorist in Massachusetts. Jeff writes, “It wasn’t long before Jane Beck [founder of the  Vermont Folklife Center] and I were lobbying at the state arts council, telling them that the NEA would fund a position for a state folk arts coordinator for three years, and that when the arts council saw how valuable it would be to have one, they would surely pick up the funding from then on. . . That is how the position that Maggie Holtzberg now holds with the Massachusetts Cultural Council originated. The pattern had been established before Massachusetts, and it was repeated in state after state.”

Many public folklorists, like myself, who were lucky enough to enter the field in the 1980s, were mentored by Bess.  We looked to her for advice and wisdom. This is why, during the past few days, my email box has been overflowing with “Bess stories” — moving memories of this pioneering, principled, formidable, feisty, fun-spirited woman. We are often reminded of her in our daily work and will miss her presence in the world profoundly.