Each year, the Public Programs Section of the American Folklore Society joins with the AFS Executive Board to award the Benjamin A. Botkin Prize. This annual award honors an individual for significant lifetime achievement in public folklore. New York Folklore joins with the folklore community in congratulating North Country folklorist, Varick Chittenden, for receiving this highest honor at the 2021 Annual Meeting of the American Folklore Society, held in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
This prize is given in recognition of the work of Benjamin A. Botkin (1901-1975). An eminent New Deal-era folklorist, national folklore editor of the Federal Writers’ Project in 1938-1939, advocate for the public responsibilities of folklorists, author and compiler of many publications on American folklore for general audiences, and head of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress from 1942 to 1945, Botkin had a major impact on the field of public folklore and on the public understanding of folklore.
Prize recipients are nominated by their peers with the following criteria:
- Engagement of a broad public audience in the materials of folklore
- Impact on the field of public folklore: development of models, methodology, visibility, advocacy
- Impact on communities/constituents and their traditional culture
- Contributions to the body of materials of folklore/public folklore
- Quality of their scholarship
- Quality of their public programming and presentations
- Their impact on the discipline of folklore
Varick Chittenden aptly deserves this honor. Here is some of the nomination that was submitted to the American Folklore Society for consideration:
“Varick was born and raised in Northern New York. As a native New Yorker, he has devoted his life’s work to raising the value and understanding of the traditional culture of New York’s North Country. He made his first career as a professor of American Studies and Folklore at the State University of New York at Canton, a school that attracts rural students, those who are first generation college students, and students that are largely from the Adirondack or North Country region. As a professor, he encouraged folklore collecting by his students and focused the lens of folklore and folklore scholarship on his own community. After obtaining a degree from the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Folk Culture (1976), Varick created the Center for North Country Folklife, and the following year he organized the first Festival of North Country Folklife.
Expanding his vision ever wider, Varick founded the non-profit Traditional Arts of Upstate New York (TAUNY) in 1986, as a collecting and presenting organization that now serves as an important cultural organization for the region and for the state. There is no other folklore or folk arts organization that so completely serves the North Country of New York. Today, through his vision, TAUNY is a vibrant arts center that offers folklore and folklife research, exhibitions, ongoing programming, and collections preservation and maintenance. Housed in a former Woolworth’s Five and Dime, the TAUNY Center serves as an important economic driver for the small city of Canton. To read more about their work, visit their website https://tauny.org/
From 2000 until 2020, Varick served as a columnist for the New York Folklore Society’s publication, Voices: the Journal of New York Folklore. In keeping with the original format of the journal and its original column of Upstate/Downstate (for which Benjamin Botkin was the “Downstate” writer), I asked Varick in 1999 to be our “Upstate” columnist (opposite Steve Zeitlin’s “Downstate). For twenty years, Varick graced our journal with his illuminating writing about the North Country, its communities, and its folklore and folk arts.
Varick is an innovator who is a leader for the field of folklore. He has worked to create curriculum connections for North Country folklore with k-12 educators; he has trained folk artists to be better entrepreneurs in a partnership with then- NY Senator Hilary Clinton; and he has created two programs for public recognition of North Country people and landmarks: The North Country Heritage Award and The Register of Very Special Places (RSVP). RSVP has been an influencer for the current Legends and Lore Program of the Pomeroy Foundation, a program that began in New York State but went national in 2019. From its beginning, Varick served as an advisor to this program that provides cast iron “markers” for locations that are connected to local historical and contemporary legend.”
Varick was one of the nation’s pioneers in the movement of focusing on the folklore of one’s own area. In 1979 he wrote that one of the goals of the Center for North Country Folklife was to foster this new movement – “to collect and record the experiences and folk traditions of the North Country; not just for future generations, but for the enjoyment and enrichment of those living here now.” New York State and its North Country have benefited from the visionary leadership of Varick Chittenden. The next time you see him on the streets of St. Lawrence County, give him your congratulations.
The July 23, 2020 release of Taylor Swift’s new album, Folklore, begs the question, “What is folklore?”. Refinery 29, the media and entertainment company dedicated to women’s perspectives, asks, “what does folklore mean anyway?” Natalie Morin, writing for Refinery 29, explains that “folklore is the traditional customs preserved among a community, like stories, legends, songs, sayings, dances and popular beliefs,” and also “folklore is a belief that’s been widely circulated and well-known without any supporting evidence.” (Morin, Refinery 29, July 23, 2020).
As the Executive Director of New York Folklore – New York’s statewide organization for the field of folklore– I am writing to suggest a more accurate portrayal of folklore and its role in human life. While often portrayed as “inaccuracies,” or “quaint and old-fashioned,” folklore is much more than that misunderstood characterization. Although folklore does connect people to their past, the expression of folklore is an integral part of life in the present. Its manifestation is at the center of the idea of culture. While folklore may include, as Morin states, “traditional customs,” as well as ideas that are not backed up by “evidence” (the multiple reports of Bigfoot occurrences nationwide, for example), folklore is, more accurately, the human, creative responses to very real, lived experiences. Perhaps Laura Snapes’ review in The Guardian, (July 24, 2020) gives us the best rationale for the album’s title when she says that Folklore shows an “authentic” side to Swift.
“Authenticity” is an important concept to folklorists and those who follow and study folklore. Every group of people that shares a sense of identity shares folklore as part of their identity. Folklore is the “authentic” way that people comment upon their shared experiences. Folklore during the current COVID-19 pandemic is all around us and it is easily apparent in the ways that people are responding creatively to their experiences. Folklore is visible through the creative fabrications of the home-made facemasks. Folklore is expressed through the changing ways that teens and schools are marking an important rite of passage by creatively re-working high school graduation ceremonies. Folklore is visible in the Black Lives Movement through the memorials and street art created by communities expressing their grief over the murder of George Floyd, and through the ways that the shared experience of being Black in America is commented upon and creatively expressed through folk narrative, folk art, folk music, and practice throughout the Black community – no matter the geography, social class, educational attainment or age of the individual.
I ask those who are intrigued with Taylor Swift’s new album, Folklore, to use this moment as a stepping-off place to find out about folklore in your own communities. Folklorists are working throughout New York State – in arts organization, museums, universities, and libraries – to draw attention to the diverse ways that folklore is apparent in our communities and to support folklore and folk arts at the grassroots. One doesn’t have to look far, as there are vast resources at your fingertips – including New York’s statewide organization, New York Folklore (www.nyfolklore.org), the American Folklore Society (www.afsnet.org); and the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, (www.loc.gov/folklife). Like Swift’s song titled “Cardigan,” you may find that folklore is that part of yourself that is familiar and well-worn, yet evocative and deeply meaningful. Folklore is complicated.
On May 1, 2020, New York Folklore and folklore programs across New York State will launch a collaboration to present traditional arts and culture from throughout New York State. Each weekday in May, from 4:00 -4:30 p.m., traditional arts activities will be presented through a livestream from New York Folklore’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/New-York-Folklore-76410462500/
“May 2020: 20 Folk Artists/20 Days” amplifies the artistic excellence found within New York’s communities. To view this daily initiative, simply tune in to New York Folklore’s Facebook page each weekday in May from 4:00 – 4:30 p.m. to experience a free, live-streamed event by one of New York State’s folk artists or tradition bearers.
The initiative showcases the artistic excellence and diversity of traditional arts and culture in New York State. Folk arts and cultural expressions are nurtured and perpetuated within communities. They are shared by those who have common regional affiliations, ethnic heritage, occupations, avocational interests, gender, and many other identifiers of interconnection. Artistic excellence is determined by a shared community aesthetic with innovation occurring within the bounds of the interests and concerns of the shared community.
Partners: Coordinating and partnering organizations from throughout New York State include the following: New York State Fiddlers Hall of Fame, Glow Traditions, Long Island Traditions, Los Pleneros de la 21, Arts Mid-Hudson, Brooklyn Arts Council, Arts Westchester, Center for Traditional Music and Dance, Rochester Institute of Technology, and The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE). Presenting folklorists and cultural scholars include Karen Canning, Andrew Cowell, Hannah Davis, Julia Gutíerrez-Rivera, Elinor Levy, Jorge Arévalo Mateus, Ellen McHale, Chris Mulé, Aaron Paige, Naomi Sturm-Wijesinghe, Emily Socolov, Valerie Walawender, and Christine Zinni.
The “places” that are important to us are currently in a state of re-definition. As we experience social distancing to address the Covid-19 pandemic, our work spaces and our personal spaces are now one and the same. My kitchen table – that place where pies are fashioned and family dinners are shared – is now a two-person office replete with dueling laptop computers. The separation of work and personal – that idea of work/life balance – has been upended as our working lives and personal lives have become more closely intertwined. In many ways, we have returned to that pre-industrial, agricultural past, when families toiled together within the home space towards the shared goal of family economic stability. Like the farming community that surrounds me, my waking hours are no longer regulated by the ringing of an alarm clock but rather by the rays of sunlight that come through my window in the morning.
It is important for people to develop a sense of place. We situate ourselves within the natural and social worlds and we form our identities through the intersections that we find there. “Place” informs us. It shapes our culture and our sense of being. We belong to places and we fashion our identities through the places that we inhabit.
As we struggle to reshape the everyday, our places are shown into sharper focus. When we return to what is “normalcy” – and that moment will come- we need to keep our heightened awareness of ourselves in situ. What have we noticed about our places and what about our places sustained us? For me, I will want to retain the calm that comes through a road without traffic, the ability to hop up from where I am sitting to take a hike through the nearby nature preserve, and the connections I feel to my family and neighbors who are similarly impacted by our social distancing. We need to remember this moment so that when we return to our places of work, we bring our place-based sensibilities with us.
Annually, Grupo Folklórico de Poughkeepsie (GFP) brings the culture of Oaxaca, Mexico to the Hudson Valley at its La Guelaguetza festival. La Guelaguetza festival celebrates the unique folklore of Oaxaca, Mexico, which is a region of Mexico noted for its various indigenous communities.
The festival provides a window into authentic Oaxacan dance, music, and food, that is held in “Oaxakeepsie” (the nickname given to Poughkeepsie because of its large number of Oaxacan immigrants). GFP began presenting La Guelaguetza in 2008, as a grassroots effort to bring the festival to the local community.
The festival begins with a parade of all the dancers, dressed in colorful traditional costumes and led by the Corn Goddess. Each group represents a different region of Oaxaca. Because La Guelaguetza is a celebration of harvest and sharing, offerings of fruit and flowers are shared with the audience throughout the festival.
After the introductory parade, the dancing and music begins. The colorful costumes and traditional props are breathtaking. Bilingual masters of ceremony provide the festival’s context by introducing and explaining the meaning of the dances. The lively dance performances and live music allow the audience to see, hear, and participate in the traditional customs of Oaxaca, Mexico.
La Guelaguetza Poughkeepsie is truly a community effort. GFP (under the direction of Felipe Santos) works with Arts Mid-Hudson and Dutchess County Tourism to provide this festival free to the thousands of people who enjoy it. La Guelaguetza immerses enthusiasts of traditional music and dance in the rich traditions of Mexico’s Oaxaca state. In 2020, the festival will take place on Sunday August 2, at Waryas Park on the Hudson River waterfront. Please follow them on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pokguelaguetza