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Missouri Friends of Folk Arts Collection Comes to AFC

The American Folklife Center is delighted to announce the acquisition of the Missouri Friends of the Folk Arts collection from Julia Olin and Barry Bergey. Barry and Julia wrote the following blog post to introduce the collection to researchers at the American Folklife Center.

Cover of a folk festival program pictures a musician, a dancer, and a man on horseback with the words: Frontier Folklife Festival 1982, a free festival highlighting the music and crafts of the American West

Frontier Folklife Festival program cover from 1982

In October 1971, bluesman Johnny Shines’ car broke down in St. Louis on his return to Alabama from Chicago. A few local friends, who were aficionados of blues and old-time music, decided to sponsor a benefit concert to help pay for his repair costs and get him back on the road.  At the time, no one imagined that this single gesture would lead to the formation of an organization that would document and present traditional arts in Missouri for over decade. But out of this concert grew Missouri Friends of the Folk Arts (MFFA), which accomplished just that.

Missouri Friends of the Folk Arts was officially incorporated in 1973 as a volunteer effort. Over the next 14 years, the organization accomplished a great deal in Missouri. It produced a series of major festivals on the grounds of the Gateway Arch, released a double album of music entitled “I’m Old but I’m Awfully Tough: Traditional Music of the Ozark Region,” and sponsored concerts, radio programs and exhibitions.

MFFA’s accomplishments included many landmark musical events. For example, they staged a concert reuniting Henry Townsend and Roosevelt Sykes, who hadn’t performed or been recorded together for over 30 years; this was followed later by historic reunions of Henry Townsend with Yank Rachell, Big Joe Williams, and Robert Jr. Lockwood. They were the first to present the Grammy-nominated guitarist and songwriter Norman Blake as a featured performer. They also tracked down and presented Lee Finis “Tip” McKinney, who was the lead singer with Pope’s Arkansas Mountaineers string band recorded by Victor in 1928.

Two men play guitars, a man plays piano, and a woman sings

Robert Jr Lockwood, Yank Rachell, and Henry and Vernell Townsend perform at Gateway Arch, 1983. Photo by Barry Bergey

Members of MFFA performed groundbreaking fieldwork in communities across the state. They documented many important traditions, including diverse Missouri fiddle styles, French American music in some of the region’s oldest settlements, St. Louis blues and gospel music, and Midwestern German American craft and architectural heritage.

Two men play fiddles, one plays guitar. In the corner, a man and a woman are taking notes.

Recording Old Mines fiddlers in Roy Boyers’s barbershop. Photo by Barry Bergey.

MFFA also created exhibits, conferences, and festivals. They co-sponsored a then-innovative exhibition examining quilts from an aesthetic perspective. Their fieldwork in the early French settlement of Old Mines led to a 1976 festival featuring a broad array of Franco American traditions of North America, a first of its kind. As a result of its collaboration with the National Park Service on the Frontier Folklife Festival, in 1978 the Missouri Friends of the Folk Arts and the National Council for the Traditional Arts organized a precedent-setting national conference on folklife programs in National Parks.

A woman stitches on a quilt while festival attendees look on

Quilter, 1978 Frontier Folklife Festival. Photo by Joe Matthews.

In June 2022 the Missouri Friends of the Folk Arts archive was transferred to the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress for processing and preservation. The archive consists of over 700 audio tapes, hundreds of photographic negatives and slides, and four boxes of correspondence, newsletters, and program materials.

A man stands onstage before an audience with the iconic dome of the Old St. Louis County Courthouse in the background

Tim Tallchief performing at the 1980 Frontier Folklife Festival. Photo by Joe Matthews.

Of particular interest to researchers and scholars will be the material documenting the distinctive traditions of Missouri. These include the distinct French-speaking communities in the mid-Mississippi Valley; recordings of the still-thriving and varied Midwestern and Ozark fiddle, ballad and string band styles; and performances and interviews featuring the rich blues and gospel heritage of the St. Louis region.

The archive also includes tapes from the Frontier Folklife Festival, which include musical and storytelling genres from across the region and beyond. Just a few of the traditions found on these recordings are Native American, Cajun and Creole, early Country and Bluegrass, Irish music, various Hispanic genres, Appalachian music, and Cowboy songs.  At least 30 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellows are among the artists recorded in festival performances and workshops.

Archivist Steve Green appraised the archival material and summarized his findings by saying: “The MFFA collection represents a valuable cultural resource for the nation and should be preserved in its entirety….” We are delighted to send this collection to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, which will surely meet that worthy goal.

6 Comments

  1. Heather Hodges
    January 23, 2023 at 12:57 pm

    What a great collection!

  2. Ellen Gomez
    January 24, 2023 at 8:42 am

    Kudos to Julia Olin, Barry Bergey, Jane Vidrine, Kathy James, and all who diligently worked to preserve this music. The Frontier Folklife Festival was a real treasure!

  3. Liz Shepard
    January 24, 2023 at 10:01 am

    To both Barry and Julia,
    Your introduction is splendid. A clear overview of what MFFA accomplished within 14 years – and in many cases, just in time. I’m honored to have been
    a small part of MFFA in its early years. What the MFFA documented from the Midwest heritage of music, dance, art, storytelling can never be replaced. Bravo to everyone who did their best to save these traditions.

  4. Geoff Seitz
    January 24, 2023 at 11:21 am

    Thank you Barry. Julia, and everyone else involved in the collection and preservation of this great treasure. For those of us who saw a lot of these events and moments unfold, this is good news to know this collection will be preserved. The MFFA was and is a unique and persistent supporter of the Folk arts and is invaluable to the heritage of our country and culture.

  5. Lindell Blackford
    January 26, 2023 at 12:51 pm

    Thanks to Barry and Julia for this. What a wonderful collection, brought back many good memories. A real treasure trove.

  6. Don Grundy
    January 29, 2023 at 1:29 pm

    I’m an enthusiastic beginning mountain dulcimer player.
    With all of the people coming from Kentucky and Tennessee
    I have to believe that mountain dulcimers were with them.’
    I find nothing.
    Thank you,
    Don

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