On November 19th I had the honor of attending a planning meeting for a 2017 series of events involving the 35th anniversary of the NEA Heritage Awards Fellowships and 50th Anniversary of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC. This diplomatic mission came about after executive director Cristina Balli was unable to attend the meeting due to her presentation at an event honoring pioneering radio journalist Maria Martin at UT Austin. So I jumped at the opportunity to pinch hit. The list of attendees at the planning meeting was quite impressive, encompassing the “who’s who” of national level folk and traditional arts, festival planning, folklore, and ethnomusicology public sector work, as well as several folk and traditional artist National Heritage Award fellows including Michael Ducet (Cajun fiddler), Shiela Kay Adams (singer and banjo player), Caroline Mazloomi (quilter), Mick Moloney (Irish fiddler), and Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellow Dan Sheehy. We also received a visit from NEA director Jane Chu, who expressed gratefulness and an understanding of the importance of celebrating the anniversaries of these two great programs.
I was inspired by the high level of dialogue and considerations that were exchanged amongst the participants, as we were tasked to do some brainstorming about how to celebrate the anniversary edition of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and NEA National Heritage Awards in a way that honored the legacy of both programs but also looked ahead to the future. Additionally, a natural extension in any discussion of this kind amongst culture workers is what Smithsonian Folkways director Dan Sheehy called the “So What?” question - why does this work matter, how do we define the work we do, and why are we doing it? I come away from the meeting with some considerations for Texas and the cultural vitality of our state, as well as some ramblings on broader ideas about the value of the work culture workers do during these times of great uncertainty.
Of the 416 NEA Heritage Fellowships awarded since 1982, 18 of them have been Texans. In addition to fellows from a variety of cultural backgrounds and artistic disciplines, 9 of those Texan awardees have been Tejano musicians, and 7 of those have been accordion players! In addition to Heritage Award nominations made by Texas Folklife, no doubt the efforts by the organization to showcase a number of these artists in their own communities and beyond over the years has contributed to their recognition on the national stage. Several of these fellows have participated in Texas Folklife’s Apprenticeship in the Folk & Traditional Arts program, inspiring enthusiastic practitioners to continue traditions that are flourishing today, including Texas-Mexican conjunto and Texas style fiddling. According to Dan Sheehy and Bill Ivey, former director of the NEA, this flourishing of cultural traditions was one unanticipated outcome of the NEA Heritage Awards - access to cultural traditions led to their activation not only in the communities from which they came, but also amongst new communities or affinity groups.
As the NEA designated Folk & Traditional Arts organization for the state, Texas Folklife could take advantage of some upcoming opportunities to further showcase the living Heritage Award winners in anticipation of the 2017 joint national Smithsonian Festival event and proposed NEA Heritage Award anniversary convening. A two-way collaboration between the NEA and state folk arts agencies to highlight local state Heritage Award winners could serve as publicity in anticipation of the 2017 festival and convening, or a “tilling of the soil” as one attendee stated today. There will be opportunities to engage local city, state, and national legislative representatives and raise awareness about their folk art practitioner constituents who carry a sort of “extraordinary ordinary”, “everyday passion”, and “ordinary magic” (all phrases used today to describe the importance of traditional cultural expression) and the work Texas Folklife does to highlight them. Texas Folklife could also reach out to the NEA Heritage Award winners we haven’t yet collaborated with on public programming in anticipation of the anniversary, to offer a mini-program of sorts recognizing the Texas fellows.
List of NEA Heritage Fellows from Texas
African-American Blues Pianist
Western Swing Fiddler
Anglo-American Cowboy Poet, Singer
De La Rosa
Tejano conjunto accordionist
Cowboy & Western Singer/guitarist/composer
Decorative building craft
Jim "Texas Shorty"
Tejano Accordion Player
Cermacist & clay sculptor
Tejano musician and singer
As I made my way through the streets of DC over the last two days, near the national mall, site of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, I noticed gloomy faces amid gloomy weather, little or no smiles except amongst the tourist families visiting museums. Perhaps a normal collective visage for the drudgery and politics of Capitol Hill, but I venture to say that on a national and global scale we are in a particularly harsh moment of intolerance, vulnerability, and uncertainty. Flags were at half-mast in the wake of the recent Paris attacks, today the US House of Representatives acted to slow the immigration of Syrian refugees into the United States, and television, print, and social media are all rife with divisive memes and commentary in response to reactionary government and military actions across the world. At the meeting today we danced around the issue, but several people brought up in one way or another the need for intercultural understanding, embracing of the folk and traditional arts, and the celebration of difference as a possible way forward amidst what looks like a troubling gathering storm of sociopolitical, geopolitical, immigration, economic, security, and environmental crises. I think this is why and how culture work matters. Additionally, the frame of traditional arts can and is being used to tackle of a host of tangible societal issues ranging from public health to community access and economic empowerment. I would like to see and do more of this kind of work, and start by reaching out to local communities of Austin artists who are accomplishing great things equipped only with cultural expression and community cohesion.
As somewhat of a side note, Folklore and cultural heritage does have a presence in the everyday, and in many instances is even embraced by commercial entities for advertising and marketing purposes. On the flight back from DC, the United Airlines in-flight safety video was a corny mash up of flight attendants performing safety instruction duties, but with an interesting twist. The video featured each in-flight safety function being performed by an actual attendant, not an actor, within a variety of celebratory cultural milieus. The buckling of the in-flight seat belt was performed while riding on a golf cart at what looked like the old course in St. Andrews, Scotland, a flight attendent inflating the life vest panned to a shot of a bagpiper holding his infant son strapped to his bag, also equipped with baby bagpipe. A service message about having a safe flight was surrounded by a Chinese new year celebration in a set designed to look like the streets of Shanghai, complete with a traditional dragon dance and fireworks. I was struck by this United Airlines strategy to embrace multiculturalism as a way of comforting its passengers, be they domestic tourists or international business travelers, but am encouraged that companies of their ilk might be open to contributing to and supporting folk arts and cultural heritage initiatives. Certainly something to follow up on.
Riffing off Nick Spitzer’s comments today at the meeting, millennials of my generation are yearning for something that they don’t quite call folklore, but is very much in the same vain. The DIY movement that has cropped up in cities nationwide, sometimes problematically associated with hipsters and gentrification (two revolutionary movements*), can contain elements of countercultural artistic production and/or contribute to the forging of individual and group identities. Internet-based global communities have developed cogent identities and contribute to positive initiatives, interactions, and understandings of a variety of specializations and interests, while also operating in “Wild West” fashion – you get the good the bad, and the ugly. To conclude, as Texas Folklife Executive Director Cristina Balli has oft repeated, the folk and traditional arts are the original “creative place making” activities that define communities and bring them into being. I am proud to be part of an organization that does this kind of work. At today’s meeting I was confronted with important questions that are helping me to consider how I can best contribute to a local community, organization, city, state, country and world that embraces the arts, especially the folk and traditional arts, as important ways of knowing and being.
* I mean revolutionary not in any positive sense, but rather as widespread movements that are undeniably altering the urban landscape and demographics across the US and internationally.