Folk and Traditional Arts

The crowd goes wild – for dog sled makers

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.

Library of Congress great hall

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

Categories: Folk and Traditional Arts | Tags: , , , , ,

An apprentice’s dream

When things “don’t go according to plan,” it typically invokes a negative thought. But my unplanned adventures with Grand Ol’ Opry star Bobby Osborne, through the Kentucky Arts Council’s Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, were quite the opposite.

What were going to be bimonthly mandolin lessons and history chats turned into performing with one of the most famous artists in bluegrass music history.

I was able to perform at venues and locations throughout the South including: the Ohio Valley Opry; Mount Airy, North Carolina; the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History; the Kentucky Coal Rally; and the highlight, the world famous Bean Blossom Bluegrass Music Festival.

Bobby and Cory perform during the “Makings of a Master” debut at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History.

My experiences with Bobby were not limited to just musical ones. I believe it would be safe to say that I learned just as much, or even more, about the history of the music I was playing than the music itself. I was able to learn about the history and source of some of the most popular songs in bluegrass and country music. Also, I learned facts, stories and legends about some of the most famous icons in music; all told from a first-person perspective by a man who was there.

My experience with Bobby Osborne, through the generosity of the Kentucky Arts Council’s apprenticeship grant, has been a literal dream come true. I was able to be a part of something that many young musicians only dream of, and I am humbly thankful.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to: Mark Brown, Bob Gates and everyone at the Kentucky Arts Council; Bobby Osborne and all the members of the Rocky Top Express, and all of the other countless friends and family who have supported me through the amazing twelve months of my apprenticeship. You all have my deepest heartfelt thanks and gratitude.

And to all the other young musicians out there, dreams do come true.

God Bless and keep on picking!

Still dreaming,

Cory May, folk arts apprentice 

To learn more about folk arts apprenticeships in Kentucky, visit the Makings of a Master exhibition when it travels near you. The next application deadline for the apprenticeship grant program is February 15, 2013.

Categories: Folk and Traditional Arts, Performing Arts | Tags: , , , , , , ,

What Happens To The Stories When The Project’s Done?

With three oral history/photography projects under my belt, I’ve been able to see that they don’t simply disappear into the archives. There is so much life left in them!

My first project I completed on my own simply because as a Michigan girl in Kentucky, I was fascinated by the subject. It took several years, in several places, as I followed tobacco farmers through the year as they raised their crops. My research wasn’t about the technical aspects of growing tobacco, nor did it focus on the history of tobacco or health issues.  It concentrated on family and community and how everyone became immersed in producing a crop that for generations had put food on tables, shoes on feet and sent children to school.  It wasn’t about smoking or big business. It was about survival and working together to help our friends and neighbors.  And it’s changing. Today’s growers want a way to show their grandchildren and future generations what they did to earn an honest living and provide for their families, often for five or six generations or more.

“Friends” by Carol Shutt

Some of the images from this research have been sold as art pieces. People either have fond memories of their years helping raise the crops, or they want nothing to remind them of the backbreaking work. Most people tell us they like the memories and owe more than we can imagine to the money raised from selling tobacco. These images and many others are going into a book so that families can share this heritage with family members. This research will live on for a long time.

My first official Community Scholars research involved quilters in a nearby county. The research didn’t focus on patterns or techniques. Instead, I looked at the quilters themselves, their quilting history, family quilting memories, why they quilted and what they did with their quilts.  No one had looked at it quite this way before.

Their stories were all very different, but they all quilted so they could give this symbol of love to friends and families. A few sold a quilt on occasion, but most had never sold a single one. Many made quilts from their children’s favorite clothes. Some turned tattered quilts made by loved ones into things like stuffed teddy bears for the family when the quilt could no longer be patched. Their gifts of love were handed down from one generation to another, even when they could no longer serve their original purpose.  The quilters said they were so happy that someone appreciated them and their history, rather than just the pattern or the skill. Each and every one held special memories of their quilting experiences. Their stories and pictures were made into a book, which was given to each quilter I had interviewed. The area arts council has the rest to sell, so the story can be passed on.

My third project is definitely my most unusual one. I received a grant to research funeral traditions in a county in southeastern Kentucky. The experiences with this research have been amazing!  It’s not a topic that many people like to talk about…or so I thought.  I carried this research out in an area that has often been stereotyped in the media and never in a good way. Again, as a Michigan girl who after 20 years in Kentucky still talks like a Michigan girl, I was an outsider and talking about an unpleasant topic. The first week we tried to do interviews, no one showed up even when they had an appointment. We tried again a month later and this time, through a great deal of help from my fiscal agents and some local people I had met the month before, we were able to find folks willing to talk to us. Over the course of a year and a half, we compiled interviews from a good representation of people from the area. Word spread that it was okay to talk with us, and we ended up with wonderful pictures and information. The project has since expanded beyond the area of my funded research, simply because it’s been so fascinating that I can’t stop. It’s now “Funeral Traditions of The South” and has turned into a touring exhibit shown in a college, two churches, to a camera club and in a public library. It is scheduled for other venues in the coming year, including the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park as part of a larger oral history event. This research will also become a book, simply because people really are interested in the topic. In this research, the goal was not only to preserve our heritage but also to educate. Across the board, we all seem to think everyone “does it” the same way. That is oh, so wrong!  There are as many different traditions as there are people!  This research will also be around for a long, long time and in this case, the research itself will never end until I do. I’m always finding new information to investigate and preserve.

Community Scholar projects document folklife in our state. We have many cultural traditions that differ from one group to another and need to be preserved and shared, to educate us about each other and to pass on to future generations. Understanding what lies behind our actions and customs helps us live better with our neighbors.

So what will I do now? I’m going back to the beginning, because the stories keep changing with the times! The projects may never be done.

If you have interest in learning more about any of this research, please contact me at or call 606-780-9440. Examples of my photography, and my personal blog can be found at

Carol Shutt, photographer and Community Scholar

Categories: Folk and Traditional Arts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Helping communities find cultural assets

I am a folklorist. To get here I survived a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology and a master’s in folk studies. The price to pay: countless hours spent conducting fieldwork, writing papers and studying; an obscene amount of student loan debt; a plethora of sleepless nights; thousands of photos taken; hundreds of books read; dozens of Mariah’s galaxy ice cream pie “therapy” sessions with colleagues; twenty pounds gained; and one comprehensive exam passed. It was a hard road, but I can honestly say that I’m glad that I took it. I could have made more money doing just about anything else, but that’s what makes this discipline special. We’re here because we really want to be. Folklorists joke about the prospect of making the first “folklore million,” but it’s really not about money. It’s about the love of life, culture, gestures, speech, food, tradition, beliefs, diversity and all the other aspects of daily life that can so easily be overlooked and forgotten. I’m honored to have the opportunity to use my skills as a fieldworker, writer, photographer and videographer to support, promote and conserve the traditions and culture that color the tapestry that is the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

My primary goal since joining the Folklife team in January has been caring for and growing the Kentucky Community Scholars Program. The program trains community experts in the folklorist’s skills of conducting cultural surveys and applying what they learn in order to enhance their heritage tourism efforts and educational programs. Overall, the program is a beginning step for communities in documenting and presenting their cultural resources. The long-term result is a growing network of local cultural researchers who continue to learn from each other and share the results of their fieldwork with the people of Kentucky.

To fulfill this goal, my first objective was to plan and implement a Community Scholar training session held in Louisville, Ky. at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage in March and April. This session turned out to be one of our biggest and most diverse groups yet. In order to host this workshop in Louisville, the Kentucky Folklife Program partnered with the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage and the Jefferson County Public School System. Through this partnership, the Community Scholars Program was offered as a professional development opportunity for Jefferson County educators including Azucena Chamberlain, Harlina Churn-Diallo, Rosemaria Maum, Valeska McNeill and Lynette Taylor. Two participants, Julie Barksdale and Rebecca Brown of Irvington, Ky., completed the course with intentions of using the skills they learned to conduct their own city-wide oral history called the Irvington Heritage Project. Other graduates included community members Marna Miller, Erma Bush, Casey Henry, George Eklund, Judith Owens-Lalude, Connie Harper, Stephanie Moyer, Tony Dingman, Scott Scarboro, Vicki Kastanis, Shannon Floyd, Taylor Killough, Maggie Poe and Mary Cartledge-Hayes.

Community Scholars Louisville class

Each graduate completed the six-session workshop and fieldwork assignments, which included interviewing, photography, archiving, interpretation and presentation. Their projects topics ranged from urban agriculture, family history, writers groups, historic reenactment, dance, the Louisville Greek Orthodox community and folk art. Participants gained experience which can be used in historical societies, tourism sites, festivals, libraries and other community organizations and programs.

Based on the passion, dedication and diligence presented by this group, I have no doubt that they will be capable of preserving aspects of their local culture and create positive, lasting change within their own communities.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My secondary objective was convening all the graduates for a reunion. This program is twelve years old, and there are over one hundred scholars across the Commonwealth. It was time they all met face-to-face again. On Saturday, June 16, scholars met to gain new skills, share fieldwork and presentations and gain new insights into working towards community and cultural sustainability. As legacy of this meeting scholars have been invited to contribute blog posts about their work in their communities. Look forward to learning more about the great work they do in future posts on Creative Commonwealth.

Amanda Hardeman, folklife specialist

Categories: Folk and Traditional Arts | Tags: , , ,

The Makings of a Master: Kentucky Folk Art Apprenticeships

“I can’t remember the first story I ever told.  If I ask you when did you have your first drink of water?  You don’t know, but you drink water.  That’s like me and stories, I grew up with them.”

Octavia Sexton, master storyteller (pictured, left, with apprentice JJ Bryant).

Working on an EXHIBITION? What an intimidating word. By presenting information in new ways, you have an opportunity to shape public perspectives, individuals’ opinions and thoughts about a topic. Over the last several months as I listened to audio interviews of Kentucky master traditional artists and their apprentices, there was never a moment of taking this project lightly.

As my coworkers and I revisited over 60 master/apprentice pairs funded by the Kentucky Arts Council over the last 20 years, an idea began to emerge: a theme or “big idea” as it’s known in museum studies. Master artists and their apprentices share a unique relationship that goes far beyond sharing techniques and skills.

Folk culture lives within these relationships, at the time and place where masters are made. Continuity and change come together during an apprenticeship. That is why the Kentucky Folklife Program makes every effort to document each one.

So, working on an exhibition is exhilarating, but there are sad moments sometimes. That quote above by Octavia Sexton–get this–had to be cut from the script. How could I? So many great quotes, pictures, artifacts, videos had to be left on the cutting floor. There is only so much time in the day, we know, and so much attention span and so much space, so we moved forward chopping away with hopes that removing content might strengthen the content that remains.

Don’t fret, Octavia’s apprenticeship still makes an appearance in the panels. And there will be plenty of opportunities to experience master/apprentice relationships beyond the panels, art works and videos. On Sept. 15, 2011, The Makings of a Master: Kentucky Folk Art Apprenticeships will open at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History with Thursday night concerts and Saturday activities. The exhibition will remain there for the rest of 2011, then tour statewide for three years. So check out the exhibition, meet the artists, and experience the relationships–the conduits of folk culture–that make up these apprenticeships.

Mark Brown, folklife specialist

Categories: Folk and Traditional Arts | Tags: , , , , ,

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: