The following is a guest post by senior folklife specialist Nancy Groce.
Note: This post was updated in June 2023 to include the Kitchen Sisters oral history interview video.
During the pandemic, the American Folklife Center has gotten very good at presenting first-rate online concerts and lectures, but we were delighted to relaunch our in-person Botkin Lectures on September 15 with a major event in the Coolidge Auditorium here at the Library of Congress. The evening presentation, which was part of the Live! At the Library series, featured the renowned documentarians The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva) in conversation with their friend and collaborator, the Academy-Award-winning actor Frances McDormand. Fortunately, if you were unable to attend — or you want to hear it again – the entire event was recorded on video. You can watch it in the player below, or on the Library of Congress YouTube channel!
The event celebrated the American Folklife Center’s recent acquisition of The Kitchen Sisters archive — some 7,000 hours of interviews, oral histories, songs, and field recordings, along with photographs, notebooks, journals, “shards” of sound and research materials.
For two hours, the packed house listened attentively as Nelson and Silva shared mesmerizing stories about their adventures, played sounds clips from some their most colorful interviews, and screened behind-the-scenes images from their archive. With McDormand’s encouragement, they talked about their experiences as audio documentarians and pioneering radio and podcast producers and also reflected on their work as friends and collaborators.
The Kitchen Sisters apparently enjoyed the event as much as the audience. As Davia Nelson later wrote us:
What a night and what a collaboration! So much spirit and energy in the room. Never have radio, podcasting and archiving felt quite so theatrical and visual to me as when we sat onstage with Frances McDormand and shared Kitchen Sisters stories and pieces from our archive with her and the hundreds who came and lit up the Coolidge Auditorium that night.
Nikki Silva added:
What keeps coming to my mind about our event and time at Library of Congress is the word “thrilling!” And so many mixed emotions — nerves, pride, astonishment, joy, gratitude. I was so moved by the remarkable Library staff who welcomed us with such warmth and enthusiasm and by all of the many friends and supporters who were there to celebrate and witness the occasion. I especially feel a deep sense of peace and accomplishment knowing that the hundreds and hundreds and of voices and the stories people entrusted to us over these many years will be preserved, accessible and appreciated into the future. This is such a lifetime honor for us.
In the post at this link, Folklife Today highlighted The Kitchen Sisters’ many accomplishments and awards and also discussed the distinguished career of their friend and collaborator Frances McDormand, who has served as “the voice” of many Kitchen Sisters podcasts and NPR specials over the past 15 years.
The September 15 Botkin Lecture was the culmination of several days at the Library for The Kitchen Sisters. During their visit, the California-based duo had the opportunity to meet many of the AFC staffers who will be working on preparing and archiving their collection to make it accessible to future LOC patrons and researchers. They also sat down with AFC’s Nancy Groce and Jesse Hocking to videotape a background interview. (Scholars and artists involved with AFC’s public programming are often asked to set aside a couple of hours during their visit to record an in-depth interview about their careers for the archive, which are then added to AFC’s collection to enrich our holdings.)
The Thursday night Boktin ended with Frances McDormand reading a passage from The Kitchen Sisters’ upcoming book Show the Girls the Snakes: The 12 Commandments of Storytelling. It recounts an interview they did early in their careers with Les and Stevie Liebenberg, a father/son team of lumberjacks living in a remote cabin in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. It was late at night, Davia and Nikki hadn’t let anyone know where they were going and the interview was not going well. That is, it wasn’t going well until they discovered the duo’s true passion – training performing rattlesnakes! The resulting interview includes the Liebenbergs’ descriptions of training their snakes to pull miniature Conestoga wagons and dangle from a trapeze wearing señorita gowns. It also expresses the Liebenbergs’ excitement that the show had been growing increasingly popular at Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs and on the Lumberjack Rodeo circuit. Add a lot of background rattling, and the audio story is a must-listen!
Even without the snakes, the presentation by Silva, Nelson, and McDormand to a full house in the historic Jefferson building made for a truly memorable evening. You don’t have to take our word for it! Watch the video of the event in the player below, or at this link on YouTube!
During their visit to the Library of Congress, the Kitchen Sisters were interviewed by AFC staff members Nancy Groce and Jesse Hocking about their careers as pioneer radio and podcast producers, fieldworkers, and audio documentarians. Find the interview in the player below!