If you happen to have seen the recent documentary Creative Feds, about federal workers who have musical careers which complement their federal jobs, you might have noticed a familiar face or two. One of the main characters in the film is AFC’s own folklife specialist Jennifer Cutting, who works here as a Research and Programs team member (as well as an ethnomusicologist and reference whiz). The documentary highlights her work for the center as well as her career as a bandleader, composer, and musician with the OCEAN Orchestra. (Full disclosure: as a member of Jennifer’s band, I also make cameos in the film, both in weird costumes and in plain clothes. And two of our other band members who appear in the film, Lisa Moscatiello and Rico Petruccelli, also had federal jobs at the time.)
So what was the background to this film? According to the Creative Feds website, the film was intended to show federal workers as both dedicated public servants and creative individuals, at a time when federal employment is often overlooked and even denigrated:
According to the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management, there are about 2.7 million civilian federal employees. At the same time, rank-and-file employees have faced challenges of operating on continuing resolutions with unknown budgets, sequesters, furloughs, hiring freezes, shutdowns, and denigration of public service as a profession. Public trust in the federal government is at an all-time low and the federal workforce itself is at its lowest morale in years.
This was the impetus for Creative Feds, a documentary project which explores federal employees who are as far from the stereotypical “faceless bureaucrats” as you can get. They are government employees by day who also pursue a creative calling by night and weekend. Whether they consider their creative work a hobby or a second career, they don’t see their federal work as a day job. Instead they bring their creative spirit into their federal work, and are equally dedicated to serving their country and their craft.
The film’s co-director, Erica Ginsberg, elaborated for us:
We began the project after the 2013 government shutdown. We really wanted to put a face on the federal workforce. Behind the bureaucracy are hard-working, dedicated people who make a difference to our country in large and small ways every day. While we chose to focus on Jennifer and Mark, there are thousands more like them — a Department of Defense employee who moonlights as a Shakespearean actress, a Department of Justice employee whose paintings have been shown in galleries, a Centers for Disease Control employee who is a published author, just to name a few. The fact that they lead artistic lives in addition to their work isn’t just a sweet story of folks who also have a hobby or a side hustle. What it shows is that large institutions need creative people who find ways to bring that creativity back into their work. In the case of federal workers, that is a benefit to us all.
To make their points, the film crew followed Jennifer and Mark Jefferson, whose career at the Export-Import Bank is complemented by his role as keyboard player for the D.C.-area band The Fabulettes. The filmmakers got footage at both the federal jobs and at music events, rehearsals, and recording sessions. Jennifer reflected on the footage they captured within the Library:
One thing that might be interesting to readers of Folklife Today is that the camera followed me into places where the public normally can’t go. So there are shots of me in the Jefferson Building stacks, both on the ground floor where we keep listening copies, and down underground, where we keep our original collection materials in climate controlled conditions. There are also shots of the Library’s magnificent Great Hall, where I often give tours as a staff docent, and of the Folklife Reading Room, where they captured one of my reference shifts.
The footage of Jennifer’s music career is equally compelling, as she explained:
They filmed me in my home studio, rehearsing with the band. They got me in the Tonal Park recording studio in Takoma Park, playing my accordion and directing the recording sessions for the vocals on my song “Steady As You Go.” And they followed the band all the way to West Virginia and documented our appearance on the great NPR radio show Mountain Stage. For us in the band it’s a great time capsule of that period’s high points, but it also makes the point that I and the other federal employees in the film work hard at both our careers, and have highlights in both areas of our lives.
Jennifer is quick to point out that she uses her skills as a bandleader here at the Library of Congress. When Jennifer proposed that AFC digitize our legacy card catalog, featuring information about the precious disc-era recordings made by John and Alan Lomax, Herbert Halpert, John W. Work III, Zora Neale Hurston, Sidney Robertson Cowell, Henrietta Yurchenco, Vance Randolph, and Helen Creighton, among many others, Jennifer oversaw it all like a producer, raising funds, assembling the team, and checking on everyone’s progress until the job was done. After using the Archive’s treasures in her own creative work, Jennifer helped conceive and execute the Archive Challenge performance showcase, first at Folk Alliance International and then here at the Library of Congress. In this ongoing series of events, we invite musicians in diverse genres to interpret music they learned from the AFC archive. (Stay Tuned–we’ll be blogging more about this soon! For now, you can see lots of videos of challenge performances at this link.)
So far Creative Feds is doing a great job of spreading the word about the federal government in general, but also the American Folklife Center. The film has played at 12 film festivals and hosted screenings across the country. It won Best Documentary at the Skyline Indie FilmFest in Winchester, Virginia, in 2017. Within a week of being released for free online in January, it was viewed by more than 5,000 people.
Jennifer is very glad she had a chance to represent federal workers, the Library of Congress, and the American Folklife Center in the film. “I believe that we bring everything we’ve done and everything we are to our jobs here at the Library,” she said. “And that’s a good thing!”