For over thirty-five years, filmmaker, author, and radio show host Alan Govenar has been documenting the National Heritage Fellowship, an extraordinary program that honors the artists who keep folk traditions alive in the US. From Native American musicians to African basket makers, from circus performers to Korean dancers, these men and women honor their cultures through practice, performance, teaching, and community work. Extraordinary Ordinary People is a journey through their lives, their art, and their enormous contributions to the vitality of this great land. •Availability: Opens September 15, New York City, Cinema Village. A First Run Features release. •Thanks to Kelly Hargraves, First Run Features, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Talk about the National Heritage Fellowship. What’s it for? Who started it?
AG: When Bess Lomax Hawes became the director of the Folk and Traditional Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts, she saw the need to recognize folk and traditional artists nationally. She wanted to recognize folk and traditional artists, but not simply give lifetime achievement awards. Of course the awards do celebrate careers and many years of work that different individuals have undertaken and the way in which they passed on these traditions from one generation to the next, but Bess thought it was necessary to recognize traditions as well as individuals. She didn’t want to just give one award to a fiddler. She wanted to show the diversity of fiddling as it existed in the US. So there would be many folk fiddlers and many blues musicians, many conjunto musicians, different people who made traditional crafts forms like basket making and bobbin lace making. It was difficult for her to get the endowment to start this program, and when it started in 1982, there was lots of discussion within the field of folk and traditional arts: Was this a good thing, or would it have negative effects on these traditions? Would valorizing people help or hurt? I think as it’s played out over the last thirty-five years it’s been quite an extraordinary program.
DT: Why would it hurt?
AG: Singling out an individual who’s part of a group that’s been unrecognized sometimes creates tensions within the group. Initially the award was $5,000. Over the years it went to $10,000, and now its $25,000.
DT: Let’s talk about the values inherent in the award, beginning with the concept of America as a melting pot.
AG: What I realized in doing this was that for me, the metaphor for America was kind of a crazy quilt of the cultures of the world. Within that quilt there were these traditions that were structured but also improvised. Some were radical, some were conservative. It was this uncanny juxtaposition of everything I thought I knew but found I didn’t understand.
DT: How about the value of tradition?
AG: Traditions define who we are. At the core of culture is tradition. Traditions help us clarify our sense of right and wrong, and imbue the world with meaning. In this way traditions shape the people who carry them on and the communities in which we live, work, and play. These National Heritage Fellows are exemplars, they’re ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They’re leaders, they’re teachers, they’re community workers, they’re people who are committed to not only preserving cultural traditions but also perpetuating them and embarking on new innovations to make them more vital and relevant to the world in which they live.
People have a mistaken image of folk art and folklore as being static and dead, when it’s very much alive. That’s not to say that some traditions haven’t passed on or vanished because they’re no longer relevant, but every tradition in this movie is still very vital. And it’s because people are not only carrying on what they learned, they’re adding something new. They’re always becoming new. They’re adding new verses to songs, they’re creating new stitches, they’re designing new quilt patterns, they’re innovating, creating. They’re artists.
DT: Some of the artists adhered to strictly traditional forms, like the Korean dancer, while others like the African basket maker introduced modern elements into the tradition, while still others began their own traditions, like Sidiki Conde and the gentleman who claimed to have started Zydeco. Introducing innovations into a tradition always begs the question of what are the tradition’s forms and what dangers does that present to the traditional forms?
AG: I think the parameters of what’s acceptable is determined by the individual and relationship to his or her family or community. The level of interaction determines that. From my point of view, people see a need and they’re creators, they’re artists in the bigger sense. A person who was a big influence on my thinking was Marcia Tucker, who founded the New Museum in New York. Some of the early shows that Marcia did in the ’80s exhibited people who might be called folk artists side by side with people who would be called contemporary artists. Marcia saw these distinctions between folk and fine art as being artificial. It’s a hierarchy, a social hierarchy, because the education process is different. Fine artists go to art schools, and folk artists learn from their grandparents. But in the end they’re both creators. They’re both driven by the artistic impulse. That’s the bigger point here.
In the movie, Bill Monroe says, “I wanted to invent my own music,” and that’s bluegrass. To think that this individual did that! He took mountain music, hillbilly music that he’d heard on records and live performance, and made it into something completely new. Earl Scruggs introduced the idea of playing the banjo in a different kind of way. Like Sheila Adams says, “This is where bluegrass banjo was born.”
I think each and every performer brings something new. Even the Korean dancer, who’s in New York City, is not only influential to the perpetuation of Korean dance but she’s also featured in programs at the Joyce Theater. She’s a contemporary dancer, and within that world she is bringing something new. Her gestural identification with the tradition brings it to a new level.
DT: What is the function of art in preserving identity?
AG: I think that the soul of our identity is our language and our use of language, and that’s where these traditions become the most fragile, because without the language—particularly of immigrant cultures—the traditions will wither. The languages are part of the cultural wetlands. D.L. Menard [Cajun] makes the comment in the movie, “We were a poor people and they didn’t want us to speak French in the schools because we didn’t speak correct French.” Ironically, linguists are tremendously fascinated by people like D.L. Menard or Canray Fontenot [Creole]. My wife and I brought Canray to Paris. Our friend Michel Fabre, who was a professor at the Sorbonne, had devoted himself to writing about African Americans in France. He was a biographer for Richard Wright, among others, and translated works of the Harlem renaissance into French. He wanted Canray to come to his graduate seminar because he wanted people to hear the French that he spoke. Michel would listen to Canray and say, “I don’t know how he does this, but he’s speaking medieval French. He’s singing songs from the medieval era.” So it’s language at the core of identity, I think, and tradition is a way in which language gives life to tradition.
We live in a world where immigrant cultures are constantly being pressed to assimilate. What’s amazing to me about the people in the movie, and part of what kept me documenting them for so many years, is that they understand this. They understand this delicate balance between carrying on traditions and assimilating. It’s like when Charles Carrillo says, “We’re not famous. We just do this because it matters.” That’s what it’s all about. It’s striking that very delicate balance between the pressures of assimilation with cultural preservation and at the same time trying to maintain a good life. To do well. To have a good family, to be prosperous and to flourish. To make a living. Not everyone can do that. There are people in the movie who struggle to make a living, and we can’t overly romanticize this process, because individuals like Sidiki Conde are struggling. There’s Alex Moore, who died in poverty.
DT: The film included an amazing array of people, ideas, and formats, yet you achieved a remarkable unity of feeling. Did you have a clear idea that you wanted to communicate? What was your organizing principle?
AG: The organizing principle revealed itself to me. I’ve been documenting the Heritage Fellows for so many years, and I had been on the committees that selected them. On our website, mastersoftraditionalarts.org, which was developed before the film but goes with it, there are over five hundred little movies, and you’ll see little bits and pieces of things that we edited. So over the years I’ve worked with a number of different editors. On this film, editor Jason Johnson-Spinos and I worked really closely together. We wrote the script together. He jokes with me that he was born the year I started Documentary Arts, but he’s very sensitive to what I’m thinking, and he’s very sensitive to how to piece all of this together. I wanted to have a narrative and at the same time to bring into it as many different people as I could without it just seeming like mishmash, so there were certain threads that I developed.
When I met Sheila Kay Adams, she became a principal for me, because she’s a storyteller in addition to being a wonderful banjo player and flat-foot dancer and ballad singer. She’s also a writer, who’s written a couple of novels that have been successful. She had a voice that for me was totally unexpected—to hear an Appalachian woman telling you this story! For me there are not enough women in media, and there are not enough women narrators and voices on the radio, even public radio. I wanted there to be someone who would catch you a little bit by surprise but who would tell it like a story. I wrote the script, but Sheila joked with me that she had to Sheila-fy it. And that was great. I wanted that. So the threads became the stories, and I wanted to have more in-depth stories balanced with more sweeping overview. I wanted the viewing of the movie to be both an emotional kind of visceral experience but at the same time an intellectual journey. A lot of my work is focused on the tension and balance between art and ideas.
DT: You spoke earlier about documenting these people for so many years. What is your history with this project?
AG: My work on this began in the ’70s, with my BA, which had an emphasis on folklore studies. I had grown up in the inner city of Boston in a world that was Jewish and Black. There was tension between cultures, and I was very much interested in cultural understanding as a vehicle to make a better world. I didn’t know quite how or didn’t really understand this process, and that got me interested in folklore.
I did a paper for a class on a hunchback dwarf tattoo artist in a wheelchair, who later became the subject of my first book, Stoney Knows How, and my first film, Stoney Knows How, which was shot by Les Blank and premiered in New York in 1981 at Film Forum. During that period there was the idea that there needed to be public folklore, meaning that folklorists needed to work in communities but it had to be validated within the government. A man by the name of Archie Green worked and pushed and lobbied, and in 1976 there was a passage of the Folk Life Preservation Act, which created the American Folklore Center at the Library of Congress.
In the ’30s, Alan Lomax and his father, John Lomax, had done work with the Library of Congress, but there was not a formal program within that entity. That led to the creation of this Folk and Traditional Arts program at the NEA. In the ’70s I started organizing little folk festivals and documenting people. In Columbus, there was this old woodcarver, Elijah Pierce, who had a barbershop and did these amazing wood carvings. I was part of a group of people who nominated him for one of the first National Heritage Fellowships, which he received in 1982.
As the years went on, I moved to Texas to get a doctorate at the University of Texas Dallas in 1980, and that’s where Bess Lomax Hawes and the Lomax family lived. There hadn’t been much activity related to folklore studies since the ’30s, and the Lomax family had kind of moved away, but Bess was very interested in seeing more work being done. As I started doing research in Texas, I realized the immensity of what was there that wasn’t being documented, so in the ’80s I organized folk festivals and did radio shows on Texas traditional music for the regional NPR. That grew into a bigger interest in radio, and in the late ’80s I did a 52-part radio series called Masters of Traditional Music, which was funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It enabled me to travel around the country documenting National Heritage Fellows. That was the beginning of my journey and it continued over the years. I’ve probably interviewed 350 or more National Heritage Fellows.
DT: How do people get nominated for the fellowship?
AG: Anyone in the US can nominate anyone for a Heritage Fellowship, professional or not. The panel meets every year, and they’re very diligent at what they do. They’re constantly looking at balance; they want a balance between men and women, they want a balance in terms of cultural diversity. With that as a kind of guiding principle, they’re open to anyone who is extraordinary at what they do and is a master of a traditional artform.
[To learn more about the National Heritage Fellowship program or to make a nomination, click here.]
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