The following is a guest post from Tom Rankin, a member of the AFC Board of Trustees. A folklorist and photographer, Tom is Director of Duke University’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts, and was formerly the Director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke.
Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who held his seat from 1978 until his departure last month, left his indelible mark on the American Folklife Center. More than a few times I wrote to Senator Cochran (whom we all grew to call “Thad,” a testimony to his accessibility and humility) to ask him to help with the permanent authorization of the American Folklife Center.
In the beginning, and for over two decades, AFC had to rely on budgetary reauthorization every two years. In 1998, on the precipice of expiration for one of these two-year periods, I wrote to Thad to ask that he support permanent authorization. My explanation and rationale was simple: AFC was a vital component of the Library of Congress charged with stewardship of cultural heritage, and its collections held some of Mississippi’s most treasured folkloric jewels, deep reflections of the state’s complex history and enduring creativity.
In my letter, I cited the abundant recordings of black Mississippi voices made by John and Alan Lomax, from the Parchman blues and work songs to sacred sounds to the Greenville, Mississippi river and roustabout songs. I mentioned the state’s sacred harp traditions, which are so well documented and recorded in AFC collections. And I explicitly referenced the Herbert Halpert and Abbott Ferris 1939 folksong tour that gathered a plethora of Mississippi fiddle music, some of it very close to Cochran’s own home county of Pontotoc.
I also noted the canonical and deeply influential Mississippi John Hurt sessions, recorded by engineers at the Library of Congress in 1963. Included in those recordings is “Avalon Blues.” Homesick and a long way from home, Hurt sings about his hometown of Avalon in Carrol County, Mississippi. Hurt first recorded the song in 1928, and the identification of Hurt’s hometown as Avalon, combined with his sobriquet of Mississippi John, allowed later collectors to find him and bring him to the Library of Congress. I ended with the Hurt recordings, mailing a letter that asked for Senator Cochran to do all he could to permanently authorize the AFC.
Not long after that, I received an encouraging handwritten response from Thad
Thank you for the letter about the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
I’m actively supporting a permanent authorization, and I hope we can convince the Senate, and even the House to approve it.
Congratulations on your new, impressive job at Chapel Hill!
Senator Cochran was as good as his word. On March 4, 1998, at a meeting of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, Thad had already spoken in support of permanent authorization for AFC. Later, he introduced a bill in the Senate to that effect. It was Thad’s language from the Cochran bill which was included in the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill for 1999, granting the Center permanent authorization. Without Thad’s persuasive arguments on our behalf, and his own and his staff’s diligent work on the legislation, AFC might not have achieved this important milestone.
Months later, while in Washington for an AFC Board of Trustees meeting, I made an appointment to see Senator Cochran and give proper thanks for his transformative action on behalf of the AFC. Thad Cochran’s Senate office was welcoming, and naturally so. From Doris Wagley, his scheduler, on through his entire staff, the office was the opposite of intimidating: a space set up to be of service to all who entered. Thad Cochran set that tone, and you were as likely to run into a Pulitzer Prize-winning Mississippi author or well-known musician or painter as you were a lobbyist from the cattleman’s association. Senator Cochran is an old-style intellectual, an avid historian, a reader of anything that comes from Mississippi, and a whole lot more.
Senator Cochran once remarked to a Mississippi friend of mine that I was his ‘favorite Democrat.’ The truth is that Thad Cochran has many favorite Democrats, many favorite Republicans, and a long list of favorite Independents. As much as he—like all other Washington politicians—has had to operate within the realities of political party, he has always looked to what is best for Mississippi, regardless of who comes knocking. He was called by some a “quiet persuader” for his effective legislative work. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy reflected on Cochran’s career, telling the New York Times, “I assumed we would serve out our time together here,” adding, “He has always, always, always kept his word.” The American Folklife Center “always, always, always” had a friend in Senator Cochran, and his transformative act of pushing for permanent authorization in the late 1990s is a lasting testimony to his work on behalf of American folklife and the American people.