The following is a collaborative post by John Fenn, Thea Austen, Jennifer Cutting, and Stephen Winick.
At the Folk Alliance International (FAI) 2020 conference in New Orleans (January 22 to 26), four staff members from the American Folklife Center represented both the Center and the Library of Congress as a whole in multiple ways, to promote the visibility of our collections and educate conference attendees about resources and services. In addition to Folklife Specialists Jennifer Cutting and Steve Winick, who regularly attend this annual gathering, Thea Austen (AFC Events Coordinator) and John Fenn (Head, Research and Programs) were able to participate this year.
At the AFC Booth in FAI’s Exhibit Hall, we worked two-hour shifts in pairs for three days, equaling 12 hours total booth staffing time. While working the booth shifts over the course of three days, we met hundreds of folk artists, folk record labels, folk music journalists, presenting organizations, and researchers who dropped by to say hello and, in some cases, interact with AFC for the first time. Each of us answered questions and shared AFC and LC collections connected to the interests of our booth visitors.
A memorable booth interaction for Jennifer involved Canadian researcher Tony Montague. He’s working toward a Museum of London exhibit on one-legged Black street fiddler Billy Waters, a celebrity in 18th and 19th century London. Jennifer helped Montague locate a rare 18th-century dance treatise in LC collections that constituted the first primary source document mentioning Waters that Montague had encountered in 20 years of intensive hunting!
The heart of AFC’s presence at this year’s FAI—as in the past five years—was the Archive Challenge showcase, held on Saturday morning from 10:00 am to noon. This year the showcase featured 15 artists, each of whom performed a song or tune learned from AFC’s archival collections.
One of the benefits to musicians who perform in the Archive Challenge is that we shoot their performances on video and place the videos on the Library of Congress website. Although this year’s videos won’t be up for a while, we have years of previous videos online, and several of this year’s artists have played the challenge in the past. For example, Joe Jencks, who is principally known as a singer-songwriter on labor themes, performed “Take this Hammer” in this year’s Archive Challenge. Joe has also performed in previous Archive Challenges, including the version of “John Henry” you can see below.
In the months preceding their Archive Challenge performances, performers received personal guidance from Jennifer, Steve, and Thea, who steered them to collections most likely to contain interesting and inspiring music. In the case of Los Angeles-based Afro-Cuban roots music group Changüí Majadero, Jennifer recommended that bandleader Gabriel Alejandro delve into AFC’s online presentation Florida Folklife from the WPA, which includes field recordings of Cubans who were living and working in both Key West and Ybor City in 1939-1940. Ybor City, now a neighborhood within Tampa, was settled in 1886 by Cuban cigar companies to avoid the unionization of their workers. Gabriel found it to be a very interesting period of Cuban-American history, and after poring through all the field recordings of Cuban musicians, he chose a song called “El Sacrificio,” performed by Sesteto Encanto at Key West, Florida in 1940. Hear that field recording in the player below.
Eighty years after the song was recorded by folklorist Stetson Kennedy in Key West, Florida, it sprang back to vivid life again on our showcase stage in New Orleans, in a vibrant new arrangement created by an ensemble of Mexican and Cuban musicians, which will soon be available as a video on the Library’s website. Gabriel was attracted by the song’s laid-back groove, great melody and passionate lyrics, as well as the field recording’s surprising parallel to his own life and work. When introducing the song, he mused:
So, the composer of this song is actually a Mexican that lived in Florida with Cubans… and the funny thing is that I’m a Mexican-American. We have three Cubans in the band, a Puerto Rican, and another Mexican. So I feel like I’m the reincarnation of this man. When I saw this, I was like, wait… it’s a Mexican dude playing with some Cubans!”
Like Jennifer, Steve worked with several musicians to arrange their participation, including Walter Parks, who has a longtime interest in AFC’s Francis Harper collection of folk music of the Okefenokee Swamp region of Georgia. Parks arranges the haunting swamp hollers recorded by Harper from the Chesser family in August 1944. An accomplished singer-songwriter and musician, Parks worked for over a decade as guitarist and sideman to Woodstock legend Richie Havens. Parks first met with Steve at a previous Folk Alliance meeting, and has since come to Washington and listened to the Harper recordings in the Folklife Reading Room at the Library of Congress. His performance at the Archive Challenge was chilling, and we can’t wait to get the video online, which we hope should happen in a few weeks.
Another of the musicians both Steve and Jennifer have enjoyed helping is SaulPaul, a Texas singer-songwriter and rapper who performed “Amazing Grace” in this year’s Archive Challenge. In the 2018 Archive Challenge, SaulPaul performed “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” from Alan Lomax’s field recording of an unidentified Bahamian woman made in England in the 1950s. During the performance, SaulPaul talked about his experience preparing for his first Archive Challenge:
I was honored when they said, yes, I could do it. I even took a trip to DC to the Library, to check out the source material, and that was great. I played it on Burl Ives’s guitar while I was there! Frosty the Snowman!
Watch SaulPaul’s 2018 performance below.
Participants in the 2020 Archive Challenge represented a diverse range of geographic and cultural backgrounds: Cary Morin is a Crow tribal member from Montana; Lakou Mizik is an 8-member roots music group from Haiti that came together in the wake of the 2010 earthquake; Muddy Gurdy is a blues trio from France that uses the hurdy-gurdy as a second guitar; Lone Piñon is a duo specializing in orquesta típica, traditional string band music of New Mexico; and Crys Matthews is an African American social justice singer and songwriter.
Probably the best known group in this year’s challenge was Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, who are best known for playing Ungar’s composition “Ashokan Farewell” as the main theme for Ken Burns’s documentary miniseries The Civil War. Ungar also wrote the tune, and Ungar and Mason played throughout the series’ GRAMMY-winning soundtrack. Appropriately, for the Archive Challenge, Ungar and Mason chose to play Bill Stepp’s version of “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” probably AFC’s single best-known fiddle recording, which we wrote about in this post on on Folklife Today.
Jess Hayden (Executive Director of Susquehanna Folk Music Society) noted that our Archive Challenge showcase on Saturday had been “one of the most interesting and exciting explorations of the folk arts I had seen in a long time,” and invited AFC to partner with her organization to produce an Archive Challenge showcase and presentation on AFC collections at the 2021 Susquehanna Folk Festival (July 24 or 25, 2021) in York County, Pennsylvania. We are excited that this model is of interest to others, and are thinking strategically about how the AFC can help implement it in collaboration with other organizations.
Through these interactions and conference performances, and through further contact throughout the weekend, the FAI meeting was a stellar opportunity to create and continue to develop relationships between performing artists and the archive. As we often found, there are many musicians interested in traditional music who become aware of the richness of the AFC archive only because of conversations with AFC staff. “When you start talking to a musician, who clearly loves a certain tradition, it’s really exciting to let them know that there is a wealth of material in our archives they may never have seen or heard. You can see this lights a fire in their eyes,” Thea found. We were able to lay foundations with several excellent groups of musicians that include plans for future research with AFC collections, applications for grants, and possible performing opportunities. This was true with both newer and more established groups.
In addition to working with individual artists, we took the opportunity to explore further collaboration with Folk Alliance International as an organization. We met with Aengus Finnan, Executive Director of FAI, over an early breakfast on Saturday morning in order to discuss ways to further enrich the relationship between our two organizations.
It’s a relationship that goes back a long way; AFC won the FAI’s Lifetime Achievement Award back in 1998. In 1999, Folk Alliance and AFC co-sponsored the concert whose proceeds helped establish AFC’s Henry Reed Fund; the concert featured Pete Seeger, Tao Seeger, Christine and Dirk Powell, Geno Delafose, Stephen Wade, Hazel Dickens and Dudley Connell, members of the Henry Reed family, and others. Since then, AFC staff have worked to build relationships with a succession of FAI’s executive directors, and the visibility of AFC through collaborative activities with Folk Alliance has grown by leaps and bounds.
This relationship is nurtured each year by AFC staff members’ participation in the annual Folk Alliance International meeting. AFC has had a presence at these conferences at least since the 2001 meeting in Vancouver. AFC staff members have appeared on the program as speakers, giving informational talks on the value of the AFC archive, and we now organize and manage the Archive Challenge. Through our continued presence at Folk Alliance International, we have acquired valuable collections, gained important institutional allies, and raised awareness of AFC’s collections and services for thousands of individuals and organizations, making attendance at this conference a very worthwhile investment for AFC.