Monday, October 24, 2011

Congratuations to Professor Erika Brady

Erika Brady, Professor of Folk Studies at Western Kentucky University, was awarded the 2011 Kentucky Governor's Awards in the Arts-Media Recipient.  Congratulations, Erika! 

Friday, April 22, 2011

County Music Legend Hazel Dickens dies at age 75

I remember the first time I met Hazel Dickens.  I was attending a screening of It's Hard to tell the Singer from a Song at an Appalshop fundraiser in Washington DC.  It was 2001 and I was a new professor at George Mason University.  I went forward to meet Hazel and get her autograph.  During this brief encounter I told her I taught Appalachian Folklore at GMU and would love to have her come to campus to perform.  I'll never forget her look of surprise.

Hazel died on Thursday evening in her sleep.  May she rest in peace.

I'm reprinting the obituary from the Sunday Charleston Gazette:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Country music legend Hazel Dickens, who grew up in poverty in Mercer County and sang her hard-hitting songs about working people, coal mining and West Virginia all over the world, died in her sleep Thursday night at age 75.

"She was a treasure, a musical pioneer in bluegrass music, a gifted songwriter, an activist and a very wise woman who saw the truth in things and spoke it freely," Goldenseal magazine editor and musician John Lilly said Friday. "She sang and wrote about mining issues and mine safety issues and women's issues in general, and spoke up in her songs and conversation for people who needed a voice."

Dickens was "an authentic voice of America's working class," The Washington Post said Friday.
She received a 2001 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and has been honored by the mithsonian Institution, the International Folk Alliance, the International Bluegrass Music Association and many other organizations.

But she frequently said that no award meant more to her than her induction into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.

"These rugged mountains and these coal-dusty mining towns and lonesome hollers have shaped my life," she said during her induction in 2007. "They shaped my music for all time."

Her songs were recorded by Dolly Parton, Kathy Mattea, Johnny Cash and scores of other musicians. Her song "West Virginia, Oh My Home" has become an unofficial West Virginia anthem, and "Mama's Hand" was an International Bluegrass Music Association song of the year. Her deep understanding of working women showed in songs like "Working Girl Blues" and "Don't Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There."
Dickens' songs like "Black Lung," "They'll Never Keep Us Down" and "The Farmington Mine Disaster" chronicled West Virginia's coal mining history and were featured in the films "Matewan" and "Harlan County USA."

"Hazel was a real inspiration to coal miners everywhere," United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said Friday. "She was a strong, clear voice when we needed one and was never at a loss for words when it came to describing the hard lives miners and their families endured."

Dickens frequently sang on picket lines and at benefit concerts to raise money for miners on strike, Roberts recalled. "She was a sister to us all."

"She was an icon, not just for West Virginians, but for anyone who had a concern for labor and women's issues," said Michael Lipton, founder of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. "She entered bluegrass music when it was a man's world, and she didn't push open doors. She kicked them open and allowed many other women to follow."

Dickens was raised in a hardworking family of 11 children who sang and played music together at home. "Any day at my house, somebody was singing," she said. "It didn't cost a dime to sing. Sometimes people passing by on the road thought it was the radio, and they'd stop and listen."

Her father, Hillary (H.N.) Dickens, trucked timber to the mines during the week and was a Primitive Baptist preacher on Sundays.

"He taught me to love the old-time country way of singing," Dickens said in 2009. "I can't remember a time when I didn't sing. I'd just open up my mouth and let it roar."

"We should all have that visceral a connection to our music," Kathy Mattea said Friday. "I thought I knew what singing was until I started digging into Hazel's singing and her music. Listening to that voice challenged me to let go on another level. She had such a simple eloquence to her writing. There's just no gimmick to it. It takes you straight to the gut of your longing."

Dickens had agreed to be part of a June 5 rally to protest the strip mining of Blair Mountain. Organizer Mari-lynn Evans said the event also will now be a memorial service and concert in Dickens' honor at the state Culture Center in Charleston.

For more on Hazel Dickens, including some of her songs,

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

2010 Folklife Festival

The festival begins on the mall tomorrow.  Why are you sitting at that desk?  Get out there and enjoy this celebration of American and international Folklife!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Chuck Purdue

As part of the site's memorial for Virginia Folklorist Chuck Perdue, I am reprinting this article  from the University of Virginia's UVA Profiles in 2007 that outlines much of Purdue's career:

U.Va. Profiles: Chuck Perdue Preserves, Documents Folk Culture from the Inside

Oct. 8, 2007-- Charles Perdue is a storyteller, a farmer's son, mechanic, cryptographer, folk singer and geologist who documents the lives of working people not unlike himself. His work will continue to benefit the University and the study of folklore and music for years to come.

Because Perdue’s interests defy the tidy compartments of the University, he simply carved out a singular niche on Grounds — one part anthropology department, one part English.

Perdue’s friend and colleague in the English department, Raymond Nelson, said, “Chuck has always puzzled people. Where do you put him?”

Throughout his professional life, Perdue’s consuming interest has been the lives of others — their stories, customs and songs. In particular, he has sought to document the lives of rural working people. When he isn’t recording oral histories on his own, he is compiling and editing records and interviews from other sources: narratives on the lives of Virginia slaves, Depression-era workers, dispossessed mountain folk.

“When I first knew him, I think he was attending a black congregation up there near Culpeper and listening to the music,” Nelson said. “That takes quite a bit of doing. It’s a matter of going there for a long period of time and sitting aside and behaving. But he had done that and recorded some of the music.”

An Ivy League-educated professor studying the lives of Depression-era poor or the worship habits of Southern African-Americans could easily have resulted in something full of saccharin and starch.

But Perdue is not a typical Ivy League-educated professor. As he said, he “came in with the Depression” and spent his childhood on a Georgia farm. “My mother sang ballads and folk songs, and I grew up being rocked to sleep with the ballad about the murder of Mary Phagan, which may account for my twisted personality.”

Even as a boy, Perdue felt that he didn’t fit in. “See, if you’re too smart, or not smart enough, you’re a behavior problem,” he said. “I was too smart. I was always getting into trouble.”

When Perdue graduated from high school, he faced stiff competition for jobs. “I got out in ’47, which more or less coincided with about 10 million servicemen having been released from all the services, filling every damn job in the country.”

Perdue worked at a grocery store, rebuilt carburetors and “one thing or another tried to figure out some way of making some money.”

At a military college in Georgia, Perdue soon found his earliest calling: troublemaker. “I set a record for walking off more hours of guard report for various incendiary offenses — conduct unbecoming a cadet, failure to salute an officer, goose-stepping in ranks. I couldn’t stand it. I goofed off.

"I shouldn’t have been in college. I wasn’t ready for that. So I had the good sense not to go back.”

Perdue ended up working as a cryptographer in the U.S. Army Security Agency in California, where he later attended Santa Rosa Junior College. This time, college focused Perdue’s intellect and turned the youthful mischief-maker into something of an iconoclast. He also met his future wife and collaborator, Nancy Martin, at Santa Rosa.

“I walked into French class, and Nan was sitting in there, and I decided that was it. All I had to do was get a date with her. Never asked her to marry me, just told her we were going to, and I guess she agreed.”

Nan and Chuck — rarely mentioned separately and then never called doctors or professors or even Nancy and Charles. It is always Nan and Chuck, and they are as much professional colleagues as husband and wife.

“I think that seems to be a key to both of them,” Nelson said. “They live their interests. It’s not something they sit down at night and write down. It’s their work. It’s their lives. That’s why it can’t be Charles Perdue and Nancy Perdue; it’s Chuck and Nan. They’re inseparable.”

Nan and Chuck married and moved in 1955 to University of California-Berkeley, where he earned a degree in geology. The young couple began singing in the local folk-music coffee houses. “The Kingston trio recorded ‘Tom Dooley.’ Nan and I heard it and said, ‘We can do that.’” Perdue called their performing “good therapy.” Soon they were holding “therapy” sessions at legendary venues like the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles and the Ash Grove in Hollywood.

The world’s only husband-and-wife-geologist-folk-singing duo soon found themselves in Washington, D.C., where Perdue worked for the U.S. Geological Survey. Perdue founded the Washington Folklore Society, while once again he and Nan were playing in clubs and living rooms in the metro area.

One of Perdue’s greatest collaborations began as a chance encounter. In 1964, he had stopped at a service station in Fairfax, Va., and ran into a musician named John Jackson.

“Jackson was holding a guitar, so I said, ‘Do you play that thing?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I can hit a couple of chords.’” Perdue asked him to hit a few, and the man played “Candy Man,” legendary bluesman Mississippi John Hurt’s signature song. Jackson went on to become a blues great. Nan and Chuck introduced him to the world, acting as his unofficial managers and promoters. They also became his close friends.

After Perdue completed his Ph.D. in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania in 1971, he drew the attention of U.Va. English department professor and chairman E.D. Hirsch, who was interested in socio-linguistics, then a new field of theory being taught at Perdue’s alma mater.

Perdue said, “I had just come from Penn and could rattle off all the latest, hot bibliography and stuff that was happening. Hirsch hired me on the spot. I didn’t send in a vita. I didn’t interview with anybody else in the English department.”

Nelson remembers there being some concerns about where to put Perdue, but Hirsch was clearly impressed. Nelson recalls Hirsch saying, “We’ll worry about where to put him later. Let’s just get him here.”

The University was fortunate to get him. Perdue has been a prolific writer and a wise teacher. His books, “Talk about Trouble: A New Deal Portrait of Virginians in the Great Depression,”  “Pigsfoot Jelly & Persimmon Beer: Foodways from the Virginia Writers’ Project” and “Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves,” are considered classics and standard issue in history, anthropology and folklore classes.

The University was also fortunate to get Nan Martin-Perdue in the bargain. When Chuck came aboard in 1971, appointments for professor’s spouses were considered nepotism. (Today, the practice is commonplace). Over the years, Nan served as a de facto scholar-in-residence for the University, although she received no salary and no pension.

In 1980, the Perdues established the Kevin Barry Perdue Folklore Archive at the University. Named for their son who died in 1979, the archive is a collection of folk songs, histories and documents from the Depression-era Virginia Writer’s Project.

“Talk about Trouble,” which they co-edited, won the National Oral History Association Award for best book on oral history for 1997. It consists of oral histories recorded by members of the Virginia Writer’s Project, which Chuck and Nan discovered hidden in the Virginia State Archives. By copying them, they saved these narratives from imminent disintegration due to age, moisture and acidic ink.

Edward D.C. Campbell Jr., editor of the Virginia state library’s Virginia Cavalcade history journal, said, “‘Talk about Trouble’ is a remarkably moving testimonial. No other first-person collection reveals as much about how ordinary Virginians, and by extension Southerners and other Americans, confronted the palpable threats raised every day by the Great Depression.”

While Perdue’s writing established his scholarly reputation, Nelson believes that teaching has been an equally important part of Perdue’s legacy. “The really dangerous thing about academics is they get very lofty in their interests and concerns, but Chuck’s very earthy. He teaches people to be curious and that’s the best thing you can teach someone.”

Perdue’s earthy beginnings and his own curiosity have taken him from a Georgia dirt farm to legendary folk clubs, to the University of Pennsylvania and finally to the University. In “Talk about Trouble,” Chuck and Nan wrote, “Life as an academic in a university setting was not, then, among the options either [editor] recognized as desirable or thought to be attainable. But both editors were also products of the same changing cultural values and rising expectations with regards to higher education that affected so many of the people interviewed as part of the New Deal life history projects in Virginia.”

The lives of the ex-slaves and Depression-era workers Perdue wrote about were much like his own. Sometimes — like folk songs and blues — out of the chaos and struggle of individual lives, something unique and artful emerges.

— Written by Tim Arnold

Monday, February 15, 2010

Remembering Chuck Perdue

Folklorists Chuck Perdue, Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia, died at home in Twyman's Mill, VA today after a long battle with cancer.  I will post obituaries and other recollections of his life and work as they are available.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sugar and Snow

This essay from the Washington Post discusses a family's revived food tradition, made possible by the blizzard of 2010.