I was excited to join other state folk arts coordinators in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4 for the National Heritage Fellowship Awards Concert. The night before the concert, the National Endowment for the Arts held an awards ceremony and banquet for the recipients in the Library of Congress. What a spectacular and fitting place to honor living national treasures.
Andy Statman of Brooklyn is a master klezmer musician. This emotionally charged music developed for generations in eastern European Jewish communities and nearly disappeared, but it made a comeback in the U.S. in the mid-20th century. Andy was invited to play a piece during the banquet in the Great Hall, where the reverberating tones of his clarinet fell on a rapt audience that included his children and grandchildren.
In addition to klezmer, Andy has mastered a musical style familiar to many Kentuckians: bluegrass mandolin. At the concert, he played several numbers with his band and with other honorees like accordionist Flaco Jiménez and slide guitarist Mike Auldridge. Together, they played traditional standards and some surprises, like the surf classic “Walk, Don’t Run.”
Fervent applause followed these performances. Surprisingly, the non-musical artists were met with equal excitement. A shipwright, a basket maker and, yes, dog sled makers Paul and Darlene Bergren each got their moment in the spotlight with folklorist/emcee Nick Spitzer.
Several Kentuckians won National Heritage Fellowships in the past, including Bill Monroe, Lily May Ledford, Jean Ritchie and Eddie Pennington. Though no Kentuckians received an award this year, it was impossible not to feel some connection with the honorees. Among this audience, many probably felt proud to live in the nation that produced these masters. The audience’s enthusiasm crossed cultural, geographic, ethnic and social boundaries we all live with most of the time.
The National Heritage Fellowship is the highest honor for traditional artists in the nation. As soon as I returned to Kentucky, I joined the arts council staff in coordinating the Governor’s Awards in the Arts ceremony, where the highest artistic honors in the Commonwealth are presented. The Oct. 9 ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda had the same energy I experienced a few days before in the nation’s capital: “These are our people, the bearers of our culture.” Family and friends of master basket maker Leona Waddell were thrilled to see her receive the Folk Heritage Award. In addition, people she had never met before were captivated by her presence, her sincerity and her gratitude at being recognized for her life’s work.
Maybe you or someone you know deserves one of these awards. To learn more about the cultural heroes of Kentucky and the U.S., visit these links:
Mark Brown, Folk and Traditional Arts Program Director