From February through July, 2019, New York Folklore engaged in a unique partnership project through the United States Department of State and the non-profit organization, World Learning. Involving both a virtual exchange and an in-person exchange, New York Folklore partnered with Youth of Osh of Kyrgyzstan and the US-based Schoharie River Center, as well as Utica College and Duanesburg High School, to involve almost thirty youth and young adults in an exploration of cultural heritage from the vantage points of New York’s Mohawk Valley and the Alay Valley of the Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan.
The project came to fruition with two back-to-back visits by a small delegation from each country. The first visit took place in June 2019, as three Kyrgyz students and two adult leaders were hosted by New York Folklore. After a whirlwind afternoon in New York City, the group was transported to the rural Mohawk Valley to experience the region’s traditional art activities involving textiles, stone, and wood. They attended and participated in the Cooperstown Community Dance, explored the Schoharie Creek watershed by canoe and on foot, and examined the region’s vernacular architecture. As one of the goals of the project was to participate in a service project, the Krygyz and American students worked together to create a timber-framed sign kiosk that they were able to donate and erect for a youth program in Middleburgh, New York. Toward the end of their visit the project presented a mini folklife festival with crafts demonstrations, and music and dance performance that took place at the Duanesburg High School in rural Schenectady County.
Kyrgyz and US exchange participants in high spirits after hiking Vroman’s Nose Trail in Middleburgh, NY
As a counterpart of the June visit by Youth of Osh and their students, New York Folklore Executive Director Ellen McHale, Schoharie River Center Director John McKeeby, and three students traveled to southern Krygyzstan in mid-July for a ten day visit. In keeping with the shared themes of cultural heritage and tourism, we were treated to hands-on workshops with folk artists and fine craftspersons; explored the building technology of the yurt (and got to both build one and sleep in one); and explored the Alay Valley through hiking and exploring its high pastures. A service project took the form of erecting a series of three signs that provided tourism information to those hiking the base of Lenin Peak. At the trip’s conclusion, Youth of Osh staged a community folk arts festival that included traditional music and dance performances, folk arts demonstrations, and children’s games and other activities.
Learning (and playing) a Kyrgyz children’s game with US and Kyrgyz participants. Conor Landrigan of Utica College is performing.
Feature image: Foodways Dinner in a yurt with Kyrgyz and American participants, June 2019
Lessons learned are too numerous for enumerating in this forum. For my part, and for New York Folklore, our circle has widened and there are possibilities for future shared projects and initiatives. We have also made dear friends with Youth of Osh, an important organization that works to ensure a brighter future for Kyrgyzstan and its youth. For the participating young people, they were able to experience another culture – either directly or indirectly. What was perhaps most energizing for the participants, however, was that through the vehicle of cultural exchange they were able to learn about their own culture and to gain a greater appreciation for the dynamics of folk arts and folklife in their home countries.
MANY staff lent a hand at the Water/Ways installation workshop at the Erie Canal Museum on June 27 with representatives from host sites to learn how the pieces go together. Carol Harsh, Director of the Museum on Main Street Program for the Smithsonian Institution (pictured front right) led the workshop.
The Museum Association of New York is so very proud to announce that last week we helped the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse install Water/Ways, the first Smithsonian Institution Museum on Main Street (MoMS) exhibition in New York State. MoMS exhibitions are designed to share the resources of the Smithsonian and act as catalysts for community conversations. In partnership with state-wide service organizations, MoMS invites small museums to participate in a national exhibition program and create education programs and cultural events that center on local culture and history.
Water/Ways explores the connections between human beings and water—focusing on the environment, culture, and history. Each host museum will add to the Smithsonian’s exhibition with an exhibition from their collections to tell the story of the importance of water in their own communities. MANY has partnered with New York Folklore to develop folk arts programming that will infuse the Water/Ways exhibition with local stories. New York Folklore Director Ellen McHale shared with me what she thought about the importance of our partnership:
“History” is a moving target as it can be what happened 200 years ago, and also what happened 20 years ago. Too often, the lens of history is conceived of narrowly – omitting the voices of women, children, the poor, people of color, immigrants, marginalized groups of all sorts, etc. My goal, and the goals of my folklore and museum colleagues, is to infuse the nationally focused exhibition with local voices, to provide relevance for today’s current audience demographics while including the overarching humanities themes of the exhibition. For the story of water in New York State, it is very important to include the voices of our Native populations who have important connections to water and who have maintained residency in our communities from before European colonization and into the present day. It is also important to include the voices of our most recently-arrived residents.”
There are six museums where you will be able to see the Water/Ways exhibition in the next ten months. To learn more about Water/Ways click here. The exhibition opened to the public at the Erie Canal Museum on June 29 and will open at Wells College in Aurora in partnership with the Aurora Masonic Center and the Village of Aurora Historical Society on August 24, at Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village on October 5, and at the Chapman Museum on November 23. In 2020, the exhibition opens at the Hudson River Maritime Museum on January 11 and at its final New York venue, the East Hampton Historical Society on February 29.
I hope you will find time in your schedule in the coming months to visit these museums, see the exhibition, and participate in the programs. Generous funding and support from our sponsors allowed us to produce a coloring book for family audiences and an app by OnCell that shares information about exhibitions and programs.
2019 is the tenth year of my tenure on the board of directors of New York Folklore and my fourth as president. When I first joined, at the invitation of past president Gabrielle Hamilton – who steadfastly saw us through the recession of 2008 and the lean years that followed it – I was serving as folklorist for the Westchester County Arts Council. In that capacity, I explored various modes of engagement in community collaborations, cultural development and outreach to some of the leading traditional artists in the region. Not surprisingly many were immigrants. My own grandfather was a stateless Armenian immigrant, architect, designer and draftsman. The generosity of this land made his life in New York – and mine – possible. It is with great concern and foreboding that I watch and read about the events of our time in which mean spirited and narrow-minded opportunists try to set us against one another, playing on fear, greed, and resentment, when what we need in these times of challenging social, political, economic and climate crises is bravery, imagination and empathy.
Instead of a society based on exploitation, extraction, waste and violence, we need to envision a world where all manner of conservation of resources, culture, ideas and people is the standard. It is in this spirit that I have dedicated my own professional life to appreciation and promotion of diverse expressions of culture and ideas. That, in my view is the place of Folklore today. It is not a relegation of old quaint ways to the realm of museums and historical societies. Folk culture is living culture, only relevant if it is practiced, shared, and passed on to others. Certainly times do change and older ways give way to newer ones. As folklorists, we recognize that, but in so doing we honor the spirit of what has made family and community culture an essential part of our state and national history and character.
On a further thought, I want to express that in these extraordinary times, we need to think in much more ambitious terms. I recently saw the short film by artist and filmmaker, Molly Crabapple about the Green New Deal released on the Intercept website featuring text and narration by our newest congresswoman from Queens, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It not only asks us to imagine something other than a dystopian future of ruin, but also that the arts (and folk arts) can and should play a vital role as artists did during the original New Deal. In that spirit, I call upon New York Folklore, its members and supporters to imagine and work toward a future in which the traditional arts and culture we celebrate play a vital role in building a more sustainable world that values true conservation (of culture as well as the environment), that supports immigrants, whose imaginations (and labor) are going to be needed to fix this broken world, and values education above all to foster future generations and share the best of what we know.
Tom van Buren, New York Folklore Board President
As New York Folklore turns 75 in 2019, and our journal celebrates its 75th year of publication in 2020, I invite our supporters and readers to join us in celebration! This is also a time to look back on our rich history, and remember the people who helped us reach the place we are at today.
We were founded in 1944 as the New York Folklore Society (NYFS) by a group of interested scholars, foremost among them Harold W. “Tommy” Thompson and Louis C. Jones. Dr. Thompson trained an entire generation of New York State educators about the value of folklore as a mechanism to reach students learning about New York State literature and culture. He was always concerned about public involvement in folklore, and he brought folklore to public audiences in New York’s Capital District by hosting a long-running, call-in radio show about folklore on WGY in Schenectady in the 1950s. As described by Louis Jones, Thompson’s course at the New York State College for Teachers was the very first undergraduate course in American Folklore in the nation. Thompson’s enthusiasm for folklore and its expression through the oral traditions of New York’s families, neighborhoods, and communities created an audience that extended beyond the classroom to the state at large.
Co-founder, Louis Jones, an authority on folk art, crafts, and the supernatural, was the director of the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown from 1947 to 1972. Jones promoted the vital connection between folklore and history and its relationship to public history, making the argument that museum professionals should embrace folk culture and social history and shy away from the current focus on “elite” individuals. He affirmed the importance of the narratives of working people, immigrants, and those whose stories had been heretofore largely ignored by historians and museum professionals. This pairing of literature and social and cultural history, and a concern for engaging the public in the recognition and enjoyment of folk cultural expression, continues to influence folklore scholarship in New York State.
Dr. Thompson and Louis Jones helped lay a strong foundation for us in 1945, to grow and build on through the years and continue to do so in the future. Over the next two anniversary years, we hope to provide increased opportunities for New York’s programs and professional development trainings to more fully engage constituencies throughout the state.
This fall, a gala 75th Birthday Celebration will take place at the Bethany Arts Community in Ossining, New York, on Saturday, November 16, 2019. Please plan to attend. Watch our events page and follow us on social media for details. We look forward to seeing you there!
On Monday, May 13, eleven folklorists congregated at the New York Folklore offices in Schenectady to learn the ins and outs of DSLR photography. The two-day workshop was led by Guha Shankar of The American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, who explained to us the interrelations of aperture, exposure, and ISO, as well as techniques for managing light and flash photography. We also explored the nuances of ethnographic photography, and strategies of photographing tradition bearers in natural settings in a non-intrusive yet engaging way.
The workshop had a healthy mix of instruction, hands-on fieldwork, and review and critique of our efforts with the unfamiliar DSLR cameras. After the initial overview of photography from Guha, we carpooled to Armando & Sons Ironworks, and were treated to a fascinating tour of the shop.
A folklorist paparazzi! Workshop participants practice photography at Armando & Sons Ironworks
Our goal was to practice photography in a natural ethnographic setting, and develop our own photography skills rather than adjust the environment to pose less challenges for us. I found that the two most challenging aspects of photographing at Armando & Sons were the multitude of light sources (each requiring a separate white balance in order to appear true white) and the fast pace of a metalworker in action. Each photographer experimented with their camera settings in order to compensate for the environmental factors.
Later during the workshop we visited and photographed the Electric City Barn in Schenectady, an impressive space designed to enable a variety of artists (carpenters, studio photographers, theater actors, dancers, textile artists) to practice their craft. Next was Perreca’s, a 105 year old authentic Italian bakery, with its wooden work surfaces covered in flour and texture from decades of nonstop use. Each of these locations provided their own challenges of lighting, space, and motion, to be overcome by the photographers’ wits and camera settings. Each provided an intriguing look behind-the-scenes into the history of the businesses and the stories of the people who run them.
Guha Shankar assists Beth Bevars with her camera at Armando & Sons Ironworks
After our photography sessions in the field, all returned to NYF for critique, review, and photograph analysis. We examined how different camera settings were successful or unsuccessful in specific situations, and considered how to improve in future ethnographic photography situations. By the time the workshop wrapped up, we had absorbed lots of information and had taken a great leap ahead in the ongoing process of learning DSLR photography and its application to ethnographic fieldwork.
This photography workshop was sponsored by NYSCA Folk Arts through its Mentoring and Professional Development Program. We are indebted to Guha Shankar and the Library of Congress, and Robert Baron of the Folk Arts Program of the New York State Council on the Arts.
Many talented folk music groups are touring New York State in 2019. Below, find a sampling of upcoming performances, and get your tickets before they’re gone!
Click to view.
Picker’s Paradise: From Balkans to Bluegrass | featuring Tamburaški Sastav Ponoć (Pittsburgh, PA) and Danny Knicely’s Next Generation (Virginia)
5/10/2019, 7:30 pm and 5/11/2019, 7:30 pm at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Troy, NY
6/22/2019 and 6/23/2019 at Lake Placid Center for the Performing Arts, Lake Placid, NY
General Admission: $15
Student Tickets: $5
Check with performance venue to confirm dates and times.
Dust off your best dancing shoes and join us, in partnership with the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, for a fun-filled evening of dance and music that celebrates two virtuosic string music traditions—bluegrass and old-time from the mountains of Virginia, and Balkan music known as tamburitza from the urban community halls of Pittsburgh. Whether you are a beginning-level dancer eager to learn, active in the local contra scene, or a Balkan dance enthusiast, this special evening presents an exciting opportunity to learn traditional dances from master dance teachers and try the steps you learn to the playing of two great bands.
Country Blues and Dance | featuring Phil Wiggins Blues House Party (Takoma Park, MD) and The Harris Brothers (Lenoir, NC)
5/31/2019 and 6/1/2019 at Flushing Town Hall, Flushing, NY
Check with performance venue to confirm dates and times.
Throughout the Piedmont and Appalachians, shared musical traditions have existed for centuries that were equally popular among rural blacks and whites. This program explores the roots and connections of these regional rural music and dance traditions as expressed in the artistry of contemporary masters of tradition. Phil Wiggins, the nation’s foremost player of acoustic blues harmonica, leads an ensemble featuring Piedmont blues sounds that were once a staple of rural dance parties. With master dancer Junious Brickhouse, they “reconnect the dance with the dance music,” now most often experienced in concert (without dance). North Carolina songsters extraordinaire, The Harris Brothers, a delightful two-man band with a suitcase drum, draw from the many currents of vernacular music, including old-time, bluegrass, country, and mountain blues, that they were exposed to growing up in the North Carolina foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a hotbed of traditional music.