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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.