Monday, August 31, 2009

The Folk Value of "American Idol"

This article in Sunday's Washington Post explores the acquisition and display of the judges desk from American Idol. The desk was donated and is currently on exhibit at the Smithsonian Castle. The accompanying text situates American Idol as part of a long tradition of amateur talent shows that have been part of American culture since the inception of the republic.

What I love about this article is the way it problematizes the acquisition of the desk and whether it really is an authentic piece of folk culture worthy of display at the Smithsonian. It's the type of discussion I like to introduce with undergraduate and graduate students when we're working on a definition of folklore early in the semester.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

A good number of Smithsonian Folkways recordings are available as free downloads through itunes. You can also check out the website here.

The Passing of Mike Seeger

Mike Seeger,a singer and multi-instrumentalist who is best known among folklorists and others for his role in the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s, died on Friday at his home in Lexington, Va. at the age of 75. The full obituary from the New York Times is reproduced here with the following correction: Mr. Seeger's final album with Smithsonian Folklways recordings is entitled Early Southern Guitar Styles.

The cause was multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer, said his wife, Alexia Smith.

Although a quieter voice on the national stage than his politically outspoken, older half-brother, Pete, Mike Seeger was a significant force in spreading the music of preindustrial America during an increasingly consumerist era. In 1958 he helped found the New Lost City Ramblers, whose repertory came from the 1920s and ’30s, and in his career he recorded or produced dozens of albums of what he called the “true vine” of American music, the mix of British and African traditions and topical storytelling that took root in the South.

Mr. Seeger’s dedication had a strong effect on the young Bob Dylan, who wrote fondly of him in his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One.” Although only eight years his junior, Mr. Dylan called Mr. Seeger a father figure — for helping the under-age Mr. Dylan with his paperwork — and rhapsodized about him as the embodiment of a folk-star persona.

“Mike was unprecedented,” Mr. Dylan wrote, adding: “As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype. He could push a stake through Dracula’s black heart. He was the romantic, egalitarian and revolutionary type all at once.”

But Mr. Seeger made his mark less as a star than as a careful, steady student of his beloved Southern music. He was born in New York to a prominent musical family. His father, Charles Seeger, was a well-known ethnomusicologist, and his mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, a composer and folk-song collector. Besides Pete, Mr. Seeger’s sister Peggy also became a noted singer.

The intellectual pursuit of folk music was part of Mike Seeger’s life from an early age. At 5 he made a recording of the old British folk ballad “Barbara Allen,” his wife said in an interview on Sunday.

Mr. Seeger played banjo, guitar, autoharp and other instruments, which he learned from old records and in some cases from the musicians who played on them. A dogged researcher, he sought out musicians who had been lost for decades and introduced them to an eager (and young) new audience. One was Dock Boggs, a banjo player from western Virginia whose records were prized by folklorists. Mr. Seeger brought him to the American Folk Festival in Asheville, N.C., in 1963.

Mr. Seeger’s most recent album was “Early Southern Guitar Sounds” (Smithsonian Folkways), in 2007, and he played autoharp on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Grammy Award-winning album “Raising Sand” (Rounder), also released in 2007. In his career Mr. Seeger was nominated for six Grammys.

In addition to his wife, his half-brother Pete, of Beacon, N.Y., and his sister Peggy, of Boston, Mr. Seeger is survived by three sons, Kim, of Tivoli, N.Y., Chris, of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and Jeremy, of Belmont, Mass.; four stepchildren, Cory Foster of Ithaca, N.Y., Jenny Foster of Rockville, Md., Joel Foster of Silver Spring, Md., and Jesse Foster of Washington; another sister, Barbara Perfect of Henderson, Nev.; another half-brother, John Seeger of Bridgewater, Conn.; and 13 grandchildren and step-grandchildren.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Remembering Sandy Ives

It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of Folklorist Sandy Ives. Most of the GMU undergrad community is familiar with Sandy's work on the logistics of fieldwork (The Tape Recorded Interview).
The following obituary is re-posted from the American Folklore Society Newsletter.

Edward D. ("Sandy") Ives, 1925-2009

Folklorist Sandy Ives passed away Sunday evening, August 2,
at home in Maine. Sandy received his PhD in folklore from Indiana
University in 1962 and was a professor of folklore at the University
of Maine from 1964 to his retirement in 1998. He founded the
Maine Folklife Center and the Northeast Archives of Folklore
and Oral History, both at the University.

Among his major publications were Larry Gorman: The Man Who Made the Songs (Indiana University Press, 1964), Folksongs and Their Makers (co-editor; Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1970), Joe Scott: The Woodsman Songmaker (University of Illinois Press, 1978), and
George Magoon and the Down East Game War (University of Illinois Press, 1988). In 2000, Ives received a festschrift issue
of the journal he founded, Northeast Folklore, entitled Essays in Honor of Edward D."Sandy" Ives and edited by Pauleena MacDougall and David Taylor (University of Maine Press).

He was elected to the Fellows of the AFS in 1980, and received
the Society's Kenneth Goldstein Award for Lifetime Academic Leadership in 2003.

Monday, August 3, 2009

To grade or not to grade

I've linked this article on grading. Or not grading. An English professor at Duke has decided to hand over the work of grading to her students by composing a simple list of tasks that students must complete to receive an "A", "B" etc. To determine whether the students have adequately completed the assignments, she allows small groups of students to grade one another.

This sounds fine for a standard English literature class where students are majors and well aware of the difference between adequate and work well done. But what about in other types of classes, such as folklore, where it make take students weeks to grasp the concept of what is and isn't folklore?

I welcome your thoughts here.