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Snapshots of AFC Women in the Field: Celebrating Our Own

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The following is a guest post by Jennifer Cutting.

Continuing on the momentum set by the American Folklife Center’s symposium Women Documenting the World: Women as Folklorists, Ethnomusicologists & Fieldworkers (September 26, 2019), we’d like to showcase some women ethnographers who are very close to home. This blog post takes a scrapbook-style look at photographs capturing moments in the lives of current AFC staff members as they undertook fieldwork in the U.S. and abroad. For some, fieldwork has remained an important part of our lives. For others, our fieldwork experience provided a meaningful springboard for careers in federal folklore policy, administration, and management; folklife reference librarianship; public programming work centered on cultural traditions; and the preservation, arrangement, description, and processing of fieldwork generated by other ethnographers. Here is a sampling of photographs of AFC women who happened to have someone on hand to document the documenter.

Betsy Peterson

Folklorist Betsy Peterson has been director of the American Folklife Center since January, 2012. As director, she oversees the AFC’s budget, programmatic planning, and collection development. She also works with the AFC’s Board of Trustees and develops collaborative relationships with related federal agencies and cultural organizations.  In this 1981 photo, Betsy is shown doing fieldwork for the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project (TSPFP), begun in 1979 with one of the first National Endowment for the Arts Folk Arts grants, under the direction of state park manager and folklorist/historian Bobby Fulcher. “It was my first paying job as a folklorist and it was an experience that changed my life. For me, working for Bobby was an invaluable crash course and an opportunity to observe one of the best field researchers or documentarians I have ever seen. His patience is phenomenal, his ears and eyes are unerring, and his curiosity does not quit.  But most of all, he truly listens.  He lets people talk and reveal themselves at their own pace, in their own time.”

Over a seven year period, the project produced a systematic and comprehensive survey of folk culture throughout Tennessee. Over 500 hours of audio documentation, over 8,000 slides and 2,000 photographs, and hundreds of old photographs were produced, copied and logged, and are housed at the Tennessee State Library & Archives. A selection of these materials are available on their website at this link.

Through the years, the project has been a model or template for several other state parks folk arts programs throughout the U.S. The visionary work of TSPFP had ripple effects far beyond the duration of the project: Much of the fieldwork from it formed the basis for the Tennessee program at the Smithsonian Institution’s 1986 Festival of American Folklife (now called the Smithsonian Folklife Festival). Betsy concluded, “TSPFP also proved to be an important training ground for a generation of folklorists, many of whom, like me, went on to life-long careers in folklore-related fields.”

Jennifer Cutting

Jennifer Cutting with Juan Jaime Boronat in Altea, Alicante, Spain, 1983.

Ethnomusicologist Jennifer Cutting from AFC’s Research and Programs team has been with the Center for 32 years working in reference, community engagement, visitor experience, and programming initiatives to introduce performing artists to AFC’s archival collections. Jennifer has also been a Library of Congress docent since 2013. She is shown here in Altea, Spain in 1983 with Juan Jaime Boronat, a maker and player of the dolçaina, a double-reed instrument in the oboe family, after Jennifer’s first visit and interview with Juan Jaime. To complete work for her Master’s degree in Ethnomusicology at the University of London (England), Jennifer moved to a small village in the province of Alicante, Spain, in 1982 to do fieldwork on the dolçaina and tabalet (drum) music played at Valencian festivals such as Moros I Cristians (Moors and Christians), Fogueres de Sant Joan (Bonfires of St. John), and Festes de Sant Jaume (Festivals of Saint James).

Fieldwork for a young woman in Spain involved several challenges. “Most of the instrument makers and bandleaders I was interviewing were men, and their first question was always: ‘Why are you in a foreign country alone?  Where is your father and your brother?’ Finally, I had to recruit a male cultural official to travel with me and explain what I was doing there, and this helped a lot. It also helped that he spoke Valenciano, because at first, I spoke only Castellano, which was politically a no-no because of the Valencians’ fierce sense of regional identity. And I must have looked pretty comical to the locals, straining to lug a clunky old Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder around.  It weighed 25 pounds, but seemed to get exponentially heavier every half a mile.”

Jennifer returned to England in 1984 and logged hundreds of hours interviewing musicians in London’s thriving folk scene about her real love… the use of rock arrangements and instrumentation in the performance of English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh traditional music… so although this double snapshot doesn’t represent her first love, it does represent her very first time in the field, and the life-changing experience of living abroad and doing fieldwork in another language.

Stephanie Hall

Stephanie Hall, Laura Hunt, Corpus Aquino Gallegos, and Beverly Morris. Photo by Miguel Gandert. First Published in Folklife Center News, Volume XVI number 4 (Fall 1994)

Folklorist Stephanie Hall has been with AFC for 30 years, starting as AFC’s first paid fellow, with stints as web designer and processing coordinator, and currently as a member of the Research and Programming team specializing in digital outreach and social media. In this photo she is shown with Colorado College librarian Laura Hunt and oral historian Beverly Morris as they talk with San Luis farmer Corpus Aquino Gallegos (holding the shovel). AFC periodically sponsors intensive, introductory field schools on cultural documentation in partnership with an institution of higher learning, and this fieldwork occurred during such a field school in San Luis, Colorado, in July, 1994.

Stephanie remembers, “What I was teaching at the field school were important archival techniques of arranging and protecting collection materials as well as the usefulness of computers in the field to create a database for field notes on the spot. What I was learning from interacting with people like Don Gallegos was something I will never forget. His family had passed down farming techniques learned from Native Americans on how to farm sustainably on the arid land in the high Sangre de Cristo mountain plateau. On his farm, water was carefully channeled from the mountain streams to create ponds and irrigation ditches. The ponds were used to grow marsh grasses. Once grown, the ponds were drained by shifting water to another field that would become a new pond. The former pond and its grass was plowed under to create fertile land for a new crop. When I put a shovel into the soil as Don Gallegos instructed – teaching participants how the water is moved from one field to another by doing it themselves — I saw black soil as far down as my shovel would reach. This was the precious legacy of soil passed on from generation to generation in the Gallegos family. That was in contrast to the terrible results of standard farming methods that had reduced what had been arable land to sagebrush, sand, and rock not far from where we were working.” (Learn more about this project at this link, in Folklife Center News, volume 16 no. 4, 1994.)

Before coming to the American Folklife Center, Stephanie did field research on deaf people’s culture in Philadelphia for her dissertation in the 1980s. She has also done research on divination practices among women, and ghost hunting on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Theadocia Austen

Thea Austen and Onnik Dinkjian in 2018. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Public Events Coordinator Theadocia Austen started working at AFC as an intern in 1990, was hired on contract a month later, and became a permanent staff member in 1991. As producer of all of AFC’s public events, which now number from 30 to 40 per year, Thea curates and produces concerts in our Homegrown concert series (formerly the Neptune Plaza concert series); produces lectures in our Benjamin Botkin lecture series; as well as producing symposia, meetings, and special events that are co-sponsored with other organizations both inside and outside the Library of Congress. In this photo, Thea introduces 88-year-old Onnik Dinkjian on the stage of the Coolidge Auditorium at the Homegrown Concert he performed with his son, oud player Ara Dinkjian, on July 3, 2018. (See the concert webcast here.)

For Thea, the Library of Congress and its concert stages are the field where she works with tradition bearers to fulfill the American Folklife Center’s mission “to preserve and present American folklife.” (See AFC’s enabling legislation here.) From interviewing traditional artists about their backgrounds to create contextualizing materials, to being an onstage presenter, to working with the Library’s Multimedia Office to ensure that AFC’s concerts become available to the public as webcasts on LC’s website, Thea’s work ensures that both the “preserve” and “present” aspects of AFC’s mandate are achieved.

“Working with the performers we present at the AFC is my favorite part of my job, and the most compelling for me. It’s an honor to have these incredibly talented and storied musicians at the Library of Congress. It’s often hugely meaningful to them as well that their government (through the AFC) recognizes their enormous contribution to the cultural landscape of the U.S. Onnik was especially dear. He sings in an Armenian dialect that is spoken now by only a few hundred people, but his songs are still vital and well-loved by the thousands of people who have heard him during his more than 60 years of performing all over the world.”

Michelle Stefano

Michelle Stefano interviews Mike Hinman in 2014. Photo by Bill Shewbridge.

Folklorist Michelle Stefano joined the Research and Programs team at AFC in 2016 to help promote the importance of living cultural heritage and cultural diversity to wider publics. Recently, she has been working on fostering more meaningful engagement with the Center’s archival collections in source communities.  Michelle is captured here in her first and only interview that took place in a canoe! It was the fall of 2014, and she was leading a documentary film project focused on the Bending Water Park of the Accohannock Indian Tribe on the lower Eastern shore of Maryland (Marion Station). In the photo, Mike Hinman, the Tribe’s Chairman and Historian, is explaining the system of water trails that make up much of the park. As a means of promoting the importance of Indigenous cultural landscapes and waterways as constituting living cultural heritage, the film was made as part of a larger award that honored the Accohannock Indian Tribe’s Bending Water Park from the state folklife program, Maryland Traditions, for which Michelle worked as a state folklorist.

“After canoeing through the water trails in the morning, we then documented the Accohannock’s Pau-Wau at Bending Water Park since the film was about the importance of the park – its landscapes and waterways – to its community’s history and heritage. During one interview with Clarence Tyler, a Bald Eagle flew overhead…it was a beautiful moment and was understood as a blessing for the event below.”

The resulting 6 ½-minute film is called Bending Water Park and Indian Water Trails of the Accohannock Indian Tribe, and it can be viewed here.

Comments (2)

  1. This is an inspiration!I have known some of you for years, but I never got a clear picture of what you did before you went to work at the LOC.

  2. AFC rock stars! It’s amazing to learn a bit about the journey’s that eventually led these amazing women to the library.

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