When Rosanne Cash, recognized by the Library as one of the most compelling figures in popular music, was asked to curate a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York, she graciously brought the American Folklife Center along for the ride. Cash asked AFC to help her curate a photo exhibit, which is being installed outside Carnegie Hall’s Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall. It will be in place in time for this Saturday’s concert featuring The Time Jumpers, which will be the first in Rosanne’s “Perspectives” series.
In a recent interview, she explained the concerts:
I’m really inspired by Southern roots music. Everything from blues to Southern gospel to country pop and Appalachian music. I was born in Memphis and my parents were Southerners, so when I was asked by Carnegie Hall to be a Perspectives artist for the 2015-16 season, I knew immediately that I wanted to curate a series of shows with Southern roots music as the theme. My album ‘The River and The Thread’ had recently been released and music from the Delta and Appalachia was all-consuming for me. I was so honored to be invited and delighted that Carnegie Hall was so enthusiastic about the theme.
Cash sees the concerts as an entertaining way to catch up on Southern roots music history. “I wanted to cover different areas of roots music, so I invited The Time Jumpers (October 4), Ry Cooder and Ricky Skaggs with Sharon White (November 4), and a new Alabama soul band called St. Paul and the Broken Bones (January 15, 2016),” she explained. “My own show, in which I’ll play my album ‘The River and the Thread’ in sequence, rounds out the series on February 20, 2016. In that group of artists we cover bluegrass, soul, country, blues, gospel, Appalachian music and more– I think people will be wowed.”
It was when she heard that the concert hall included exhibition space for photos that she thought of the Library of Congress, and especially AFC. “I called AFC director Betsy Peterson shortly after I was invited, told her the theme, and said, ‘start thinking about images to accompany this music!'”
The seeds for this project were sown during Cash’s residency at the Library of Congress in December 2013, when she met Betsy and the rest of the staff. That program, spearheaded by the Library’s Music Division and Poetry and Literature Center, included a concert at which Cash’s band performed “The River and the Thread,” much like the closing show of the Carnegie Hall series. “The first concert with the band at The Library of Congress was such a high,” she wrote at the time. “We performed my upcoming record in sequence, which was exhilarating.” She also participated in a songwriters’ round-robin in the Coolidge Auditorium with Amy Helm, Cory Chisel, Rodney Crowell, and her husband John Leventhal, which she called “a kind of musical combustion.” “The audience was so warm and the night charged with energy,” she remembered.
The final official program of the residency was an on-stage conversation with the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry (at the time Natasha Trethewey), which she also remembered fondly:
In the conversation with Natasha Trethewey, I learned that writing poetry and songwriting were identical in process. I knew this, as all creative work has a similar arc of inspiration, problem-solving, completion and editing. But it was exciting to hear Natasha verbalize it.
(You can watch the conversation between Cash and Trethewey in the player below this post!)
Cash came to know about the American Folklife Center as a result of AFC’s participation in the residency: as a way of welcoming her to the Library, AFC staff put together a display of materials in our collections that we thought might interest her. As she recounted, the materials made her think even more about the Library’s role in preserving American culture:
The curators were kind enough to bring some special items from the American Folklife Center to show us—instruments, field recordings and some old fan magazines of my dad, with photos of my mother and me and my sisters as children. It’s mind-boggling to think what this building preserves, and I’m so grateful they do.
The items we brought out for Rosanne included the disc sleeve for “Rock Island Line,” the famous field recording collected by John and Alan Lomax and their assistant at the time, Lead Belly; Rosanne’s father Johnny Cash recorded the song and released it as the first track on his first legendary LP from Sun Records. We found the fan magazines in the Christopher S. Wren Collection, which is made up of research materials for Wren’s book on Johnny Cash, including many interviews with Rosanne’s family members. (In addition to the pictures, the fan magazines Wren donated to AFC included Rosanne’s earliest publication: a poem she wrote at the age of 9.) The main instrument we brought out was Burl Ives’s guitar, which she and all her friends got to play.
We also remembered that AFC has two rare video episodes of TV’s Flatt and Scruggs Show featuring Johnny Cash in 1968, and we invited Rosanne to the AFC Research Center to watch them. She had never seen these clips, and they made a particular impression, especially because they captured Johnny’s legendary backing guitarist Luther Perkins on video, only a few months before he died. As Rosanne later told us, Luther was very important to her when she was a young girl, and it was moving to see one of his last performances to be caught on video. “I was thrilled,” she remembered.
As a result of this experience with AFC, Rosanne immediately thought of the Center when planning the Carnegie Hall exhibit:
I’m nearly obsessed with what the AFC has on their shelves–the carefully collected archives of everything that is important to the preservation of American roots music. I knew they could help find the pictures we needed to put in the glass cases at Carnegie Hall.
The principal work of looking for photos, preparing them for printing, writing captions, and delivering them to Carnegie Hall fell to me. Rosanne and Betsy made the final selections from among a small group I identified as being of possible interest, from among over a million digitized images at the Library.
At AFC, Ann Hoog helped me turn up beautiful southern landscapes captured by AFC fieldworkers in the Blue Ridge Mountains and in West Virginia, and Todd Harvey helped find arresting photos of Southern musicians captured by Alan Lomax. (We’re grateful to the Association for Cultural Equity for permission to use Lomax’s photos.)
In addition to AFC’s collections, I used the unparalleled body of public-domain photos available from the Library’s Prints and Photographs division. I found exceptional photos among those shot by Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration photographers such as Ben Shahn and Marion Post Wolcott, and exuberant photos of music and southern scenes by Carol Highsmith.
Finally, Rosanne herself supplied some striking photos, including some pictures by Leventhal of places important to Southern roots music, and a beautiful shot of herself as a toddler in her father’s arms—a moving portrait of two great roots musicians. (That photo also served as the frontispiece of a moving article Rosanne wrote about her Southern roots. You can see the photo and the article here!)
Rosanne said she enjoyed the process of working with the AFC curators. “It’s always a pleasure,” she said. “They understand what I love and how much respect I have for them. They’ve been so helpful and so welcoming. I feel I can just stop into the Center any time I want, have a cup of tea and see and hear priceless bits of history.”
Below, see Rosanne’s conversation with Natasha Trethewey.