How do those folk festivals get booked anyway?

If you’ve ever been to the Lowell Folk Festival, the American Folk Festival in Bangor, Maine, or the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the nation’s mall, you might wonder how particular musicians or craft artists get chosen to participate. Folklorist Chris Williams writes of his experience planning a portion of the 2008 Richmond Folk Festival here. It’s a good read. And so are the other essays you can find posted on the Mid Atlantic Forum. The Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation initiated this series to further the exchange of information and ideas among folklorists and their peers. Sally Van de Water, who curates the series, served as city folklorist for Boston back in 2003.

New England Country & Western Music

We are pleased to post a guest blog by Cliff Murphy, folklorist at the Maryland State Arts Council and co-director of Maryland Traditions. While a graduate student at Brown University, Cliff interned with us. In 2008 he received a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from Brown University, where he wrote a history and ethnography of New England Country & Western music.


On any given weekend night, head out to the Canadian-American Club in Watertown, Massachusetts and you’ll find the unmistakable sound of New England Country & Western music. Honky-tonk steel guitar blends with Acadian twang and the occasional song that alternates verses sung in French and English. The house band – the Country Masters – and the lead vocal of singer Jimmy Spellman will remind you of Nova Scotian country star Hank Snow – or, better yet, Maine’s legendary truck-driving songster Dick Curless. And the community that gathers here – a community predominating in immigrants from maritime Canada or their descendants – never questions the authenticity of its country musicians.

Yet in the popular imagination, Country & Western music is firmly rooted in the American south, an expression of Protestant, white, working-class Southerners. A scan of modern Country radio reveals song after song with a deep southern twang in the vocals – even when it comes from Massachusetts natives like Jo Dee Messina of Holliston.

So what do we make of the fact that Country & Western has been a rich and vibrant form of multicultural working-class expression going all the way back into the 1920s? And, perhaps even more puzzling is how we come to grips with the fact that Massachusetts has been a hotbed of cowboy yodeling for just as long – a place where women like Georgia Mae Harp of Carver, Kenny Roberts of Athol, Vinny Calderone of Everett, and Johnnie White (Jean LeBlanc) of Stoneham have been yodeling their troubles away for the better part of a century?

As a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Brown University in 2003, I had the good fortune of landing an internship with Maggie Holtzberg – folklorist extraordinaire and editor of this blog – who encouraged me to find the answers to these questions, and even accompanied me on fieldwork visits with a few of the abovementioned yodelers. What emerged over the next four years of fieldwork throughout New England was a picture of Country & Western music as a deeply expressive form of multicultural working-class culture.

The highly ornamented, virtuosic yodel of cowboy music (as opposed to the “blue yodel” of Mississippi Brakeman Jimmie Rodgers) can be traced directly to the farms and lumber camps of Maritime Canada and Maine. An intensely personal form of expression, men generally developed their yodel while working alone with animals – driving teams of oxen in the Maine woods, or driving apples to market in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. Continue reading “New England Country & Western Music”

Recorded sound from so long ago

It’s chilling to listen to – the actual voice of Fountain Hughes, a former slave from Charlottesville, Virginia, whose grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Remarkably, the Library of Congress has a recording of an interview done with Mr. Hughes as part of a WPA project to record oral histories and interviews with African Americans who endured slavery. The American Folklife Center recently broadcast a podcast that brings to this first-person account to life.

The Watershed Years of Public Folklore

The American Folklore Society has been around for over a century. As one might imagine, members include folklorists who work in academia, researching, teaching, and publishing. But during the last 35 years, a growing number of folklorists work in the public sector as state folklorists, museum curators, archivists, radio hosts, and festival producers. What paved the way for strong work in public folklore? Key legislation, the development of programs at several federal cultural institutions, and the vision and perserverance of a few movers and shakers — people like Archie Green, Bess Lomax Hawes, Richard Kurin, Alan Jabbour, and Dan Sheehy. A film project that captures this watershed moment is now availabe online. US Public Folklore: The Watershed Years covers The Early Years and the Smithsonian Festival, Archie Green’s stories about lobbying for the Folklife Preservaton Act and the folk arts programs at the National Endowment for the Arts and the Library of Congress. The project was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and produced by the Public Programs Section of American Folklore Society.

Friend of “the folk” appointed role in Obama transition team

It is heartening news to learn that Bill Ivey has been appointed to lead the Obama transition team with responsibility for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Ivey has had a distinguished career as a folklorist. He currently directs the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, and has served as director of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. He is past president of the American Folklore Society, and chair of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1998 to 2001.