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Billy MxCrea African American performer photographed with KJohn A. Lomax for a Library recording trip, Jasper, Texas, 1940
Billy McCrea with John A, Lomax on a recording trip, Jasper, TX; photo: Ruby Terrill Lomax. 1940

“We have our work cut out for us”: A Conversation with Sarah Bryan, Executive Director of the Association for Cultural Equity

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Among the many fruitful relationships that help sustain the work of the American Folklife Center, our long-standing collaboration with the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) in New York has been particularly exemplary. ACE was established as an independent organization in 1983 to promote research and engagement with world expressive traditions by Alan Lomax, pre-eminent world music collector and one-time employee (from 1937 to1942) of the Archive of American Folk Song in the Library.  ACE has been, and remains, committed to Lomax’s vision “to stimulate cultural equity through preservation, research, and dissemination of the world’s traditional music and dance, and to reconnect people and communities with their creative heritage.” Following Lomax’s retirement from ACE in 1996, his daughter, ethnomusicologist Anna Lomax Wood, stepped in as Executive Director and remained in the position until her retirement in January 2022; she remains active in ACE’s programming initiatives. In Spring 2023, folklorist Sarah Bryan moved into that same role at ACE, after leaving her position as Executive Director of the North Carolina Folklife Institute. In the following interview, she discusses her visions and evolving plans for the organization.

Sarah Bryan photograph
Sarah Bryan, folklorist and Executive Director, Association for Cultural Equity, New York; courtesy of: Hal Pugh.

Guha Shankar: Welcome, Sarah, and thank you for taking the time to talk to us. I really appreciate the opportunity to let readers hear directly from you about your background, the ongoing intiatives at ACE and anything else you would like to shareIt’s invariably the case that publicly available biographies leave out a great many interesting details about folks. So, are there not-so-obvious talents or passions that we ought to know about?  

Sarah Bryan: First, thanks so much for the opportunity to talk about the Association for Cultural Equity, and a bit about myself! This is especially fun for me because about 25 years ago, around the time I finished college, I was a summer intern at the American Folklife Center. It was such an incredibly fun summer; I’m afraid I spent more time pulling and listening to favorite recordings than I did fulfilling actual work [NOTE: Falling prey to earworms in the collections is an occupational hazard and privilege for AFC staff, as well]. But my supervisor at the time, Ann Hoog [currently Head, AFC Collections Processing], was very understanding! And I’ll never forget the feeling of listening to a first-generation preservation reel of the fiddler Marcus Martin, from Swannanoa, North Carolina, playing “Lady Hamilton” for Artus Moser in 1946 [NOTE: Moser’s field recording of the tune was made on a 10” lacquer disk – AFC 1948/003: AFS 7976, side B]

Disk sleeve of Marcus Martin’s fiddle tune, “Lady Hamilton,” recorded in Swannanoa, North Carolina, March 1946 (AFC 1948/003: AFS 7976, side B)

I’m a folklorist (MA, Folklore Program, UNC Chapel Hill, 2003), and in addition to my work at ACE I’m also an old-time musician (fiddle, banjo, guitar), and a collector of 78 rpm records and old photos. Lifelong interests are what led me to be a folklorist. Most fundamentally, I had the blessing of knowing many elderly relatives when I was growing up, and even as a small child I understood the value of hearing and saving their stories. Three-quarters of my family is from rural and small-town South Carolina and North Carolina, and the other quarter is Cuban-Norwegian from Havana, so there was no shortage of interesting family oral history.

I’m not sure that any of my passions qualifies as ”not-so-obvious,” because I tend to plaster my social media with pictures of the things I love – animals, 78s, and Carolina basketball. For about the last five years, my dear friend and research partner Hal Pugh, who’s a potter and historian, and I have been documenting folk gravestone-carving traditions in the South, sharing many photos on Facebook. And I’m very excited that Hal and I have a book coming out next year from UNC Press, a history of Southern folk pottery – or perhaps more accurately, a social history of the South as told through folk pottery.

Nearly a year into the job now, what has the transition from the North Carolina Folklife Institute to ACE been like for you? What are the similarities and differences between them in terms of aims and scope?

For most of my career, that is, before coming to ACE, I worked for the North Carolina Folklife Institute (NCFI), which is a small but tenacious nonprofit that has worked with and for North Carolina’s tradition-bearers for fifty years. I loved working for NCFI, and while it was difficult to navigate through the capacity challenges inherent in the life of a very small nonprofit, the opportunity to work with such great traditional artists and colleagues in the field made all the hard work worthwhile a thousand times over.

Sarah Bryan (center-left) with descendants of Mitchell’s Christian Singers, and music historians Alvin and Elijah Woods, at the dedication of a Legends & Lore marker commemorating the gospel tradition of Kinston, North Carolina. Bryant donated records from her pesonal collection to a local archive, 2003; photo: Zoe Van Buren.

When the opportunity to apply for the position of Executive Director of ACE came up, it felt too good to be true, in that I had the chance to work with one of the most important traditional music collections in the world, and to be part of carrying on the legacy of Alan Lomax and the hundreds of musicians, storytellers, and dancers who shared their art with the world through him.

ACE, like NCFI, also has a small staff (there are four of us), but we punch above our weight for an organization of our size. We’re the digital steward for collections that are global in scope and we serve communities around the world in preserving and connecting with their folk heritage. We’re one of only five US organizations who are accredited by UNESCO to advise its committee on intangible cultural heritage. Our YouTube channels have more than 100,000 subscribers and receive millions of hits. For many years ACE has also been at the forefront of the musical repatriation movement which aims to both return ethnographic recordings to their communities of origin and acknowledge those communities’ authority to define and represent their cultures on their own terms.

A huge part of what makes ACE able to do the things we do is the expertise and talent of my co-workers – Curator Nathan Salsburg, Managing Director Kiki Smith-Archiapatti, and Program Coordinator Michael Cormier-O’Leary. Both individually and collectively, they’re a real pleasure to work with, and after so many years of being the sole employee in my previous job, it feels amazing to have such incredibly capable teammates. We also receive great support from our Board of Directors, and Anna Lomax Wood, all of whom are deeply committed to ACE’s mission.

What ongoing initiatives at ACE would you like to highlight? And what roles do ACE colleagues play in these projects?

The Lomax Digital Archive continues to grow, as more of Alan and John Lomax’s field recordings are digitized and cataloged, through our partnership with the American Folklife Center.

We have several repatriation projects underway or about to begin, with source communities in Florida, Alabama, and North Carolina. We’ll not only present local institutions with high-quality digital copies of recordings made there, but will help promote – through workshops and technical support – the documentation of contemporary traditions by members of those communities.

We also continue to expand the Global Jukebox, a wide-ranging resource that traces the interrelations of creative traditions from around the world. Anna Lomax Wood leads the development of the Global Jukebox, and we hope readers will visit the site to explore its newest updates.

Nathan and Michael are the creators behind our podcast, Been All Around This World. The show highlights special areas of Alan and John Lomax’s collecting careers and explores what these recordings and the artists who made them have to tell us about contemporary themes. You can listen and subscribe on all the major podcast platforms.

[Santa Fe Blues” is a track in the Southern States collection at AFC that is included in podcast episode No. 22. It was recorded in the Clemens State Prison Farm, Texas, in 1939.

In 2023 we launched an online speakers’ series called Tradition Talks!, which highlights the work of people in many fields who are taking cultural documentation practices in new and innovative directions. Our inaugural speaker was genealogist Nicka Sewell-Smith, host of the web series BlackProGen LIVE, and in November we hosted Instagram and TikTok star Landon Bryant, whose videos explore the mysteries and manners of Southern cultures. We’re about to announce our 2024 lineup of Tradition Talks guests, so please watch our social media!

What plans are you making for future projects?

Regarding our future plans, this is a pivotal time for ACE as we chart our course for the coming years. We look forward to expanding our signature programs while exploring new ways to support communities in the documentation and preservation of their heritage. We’re also exploring collaborations with a variety of public- and private-sector partners to create new ways to put our collections at the service of even wider audiences. We’re looking forward to developing partnerships to make available many more of the Lomaxes’ 1930s field recordings. As so many of these recordings are unpublished, it’s going to be so great to introduce these into the wider world.

What challenges do you/ACE have in front of you?  Do you get the sense, from your conversations with colleagues, that the concerns you have resonate with other cultural heritage organizations?

I do! I think cultural heritage organizations have never been more crucial than they are today. In so many ways, at a national and global level, this is a scary time to be alive. With the incredibly precarious state of American democracy, and the tragedies going on in countries currently at war or under attack, and the constant acceleration of climate change, we need so badly both to listen to each other, and to safeguard heritage. That’s where folklorists, archivists, and like-minded colleagues come in. Folklorists and other cultural documentarians listen respectfully to people of all backgrounds and beliefs, which is a rare skill, but one that would go a long way to healing so many divisions that confront us all. And we’re also guardians of key elements of the creative and cultural record. The last several years have taught us that the survival of the cultural record is never truly assured. On that note, I can point to catastrophes ranging from the wartime destruction of historic sites to the threats to world cultures posed by natural disasters to unforeseen tragedies like the fire in 2018 that destroyed the irreplaceable ethnographic collections of the Museum of Brazil. We’ve got to document, preserve, digitize, and share like never before. We have our work cut out for us.

Thanks so much for your time and insights, Sarah. Do you have any parting thoughts  for us?

Thanks so much for including me! In closing, I’ll point readers to a tiny sample of the music that the AFC and ACE work with – a recording that I’ve loved for many years. It’s a beautiful version of “Diamond Joe,” sung by Charlie Butler, who was incarcerated at the State Penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi, and recorded by John Lomax and Ruby T. Lomax in 1939: https://www.loc.gov/item/lomaxbib000377/

Comments (4)

  1. Thank you, Sarah, for these [mostly] optimistic and [entirely] forward-looking comments. Your many years of experience supporting and encouraging grass-roots cultural expression make you a perfect fit for the tasks ahead at the Association for Cultural Equity. I’ll join Guha and many others to wish you well!

    • Hear, hear, Carl! Well said.

  2. Carl, thank you! And Guha, thank you again!

  3. Sarah, this is so inspiring! You have succinctly summarized the many areas of ACE’w involvement with both skill and panache’. Great to learn also that you are also a musician! So am I, well sorta, will be in touch separately. And it’s truly uplifting to see such a small outfit produce so much high-quality work. Best, John Lomax III, The Lomax On Lomax Show

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