In 1988 the U.S. Congress convened four panels of witnesses for and against proposed legislation that would designate square dance as the National American Folk Dance.
Leaders of the nationwide network of recreational clubs that perform what is generally referred to as modem Western square dance campaigned for the bill’s passage, presenting numerous petitions with thousands of signatures gathered from their membership; opponents included recognized African American, Hispanic American, and Native American dance performers, as well as professional folklorists and one square dance caller not affiliated with the sponsoring organizations.
Proponents of the legislation cited the historical depth of square dance in the U.S.—“This form of dance alone can claim a development from the earliest days of our nation, through expansion of our population across the land”—and cited the genre’s association with “old-fashioned values” rooted in the “melting-pot of the dances which our ancestors brought with them when they settled in this nation.”
Witnesses for the opposition noted the absence of people of color from this picture, and generally argued against the whole idea of designating a national dance—“I can’t see how any one dance could be singled out as our National Folk Dance when we are a pluralistic society, a land of geographic, racial, cultural, and religious differences,” testified a representative of the Makah people. “I believe choosing one, any one, would give birth to feelings of resentment and animosity.”
Although the bill was defeated, similar debates continue to this day.
This according to “Reflections on the hearing to designate the square dance as the American folk dance of the United States: Cultural politics and an American vernacular dance form” by Colin Quigley (Yearbook for traditional music XXXIII  pp. 145–57). Below, Bob Dalsemer, the one square dance caller who testified for the opposition.
In Frances Densmore’s broad sweep through Native American communities, practicing what is now considered salvage anthropology, she worked with more Native American cultures than any anthropologist of her time.
After Densmore’s passing in 1957, others found it difficult to assess the results of her decades of work or to fit them into histories of various types. She had participated actively in communities of musicologists, anthropologists, and other professional women, as well as with Native communities as she pursued her social science. These communities were historically imbricated.
Densmore saw her work as the single focus of a lifetime. That work, over time, became but one part of a larger cultural context within which musicologists and anthropologists as a whole, as well as women anthropologists in particular and Native American writers, examined her work.
This according to “Gone but not quite forgotten” by Joan M. Jensen, an essay included in Travels with Frances Densmore: Her life, work, and legacy in Native American studies (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015, pp. 242–83).
Today is Densmore’s 150th birthday! Above, with Susan Windgrow (Maka Waste’ Win/Good Earth Woman), ca. 1930; below, Sitting Bull’s favorite song, recorded by Densmore from a man who had learned it by hearing it sung repeatedly by Sitting Bull himself.
The power of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American folk music, which turns 65 this year, lies squarely in its use of collage.
Smith’s decisions in sequencing and juxtaposing the 84 songs encouraged a play of sounds and lyrical content that calls attention to similarities and differences, opening multiple meanings and allowing for many possible interpretations.
By privileging collage over narrative, Smith created a complex and nuanced work of social commentary. Through collage, the Anthology captures the ongoing negotiation of the various voices—past and present, black and white—taking part in the reconstruction of U.S. history. These voices remain audible today.
This according to “Collage, politics, and narrative approaches to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American folk music” by Dan Blim, an essay included in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American folk music: America changed through music (Abington: Routledge, 2017, pp. 82–99).
Above, Smith ca. 1965; below, selections from volume II of the six-volume set.
In a 2008 interview, Ralph Stanley recalled his participation in the soundtrack of the film O brother, where art thou?, which brought him a level of international recognition that he had never dreamed of—particularly for his haunting rendition of the traditional Appalachian spiritual O Death.
“T-Bone Burnett had several auditions for that song. He wanted it in the Dock Boggs style. So I got my banjo and learned it the way he did it…I went down with my banjo to Nashville and I said, “T-Bone, let me sing it the way I want to sing it,” and I laid my banjo down and sung it a cappella. After two or three verses, he stopped me and said, “That’s it.”
Quoted in “Old-time man” by Don Harrison (Virginia living June 2008, pp. 54–57).
Today would have been Ralph Stanley’s 90th birthday! Below, a performance from later in his career. (Can anyone tell us the place and date? We wonder if it’s his performance for the 2006 National Medal of Arts ceremony.)
While they may not know the title or the composer, millions recognize Jay Ungar’s Ashokan farewell as the melodic centerpiece of the soundtrack for Ken Burns’s celebrated television series The Civil War.
Still fewer of those who love the tune realize that the title refers to a site that is now known as The Ashokan Center, an outdoor education, conference, and retreat located in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York that Ungar—together with his wife and musical partner, Molly Mason—was using for summer traditional music and dance camps.
Decades after Ungar composed Ashokan farwell, and following his performance of it at the White House and in various U.S. ceremonial settings, Ungar managed to leverage its emotional connections in a successful effort to preserve the location and create a $7.25 million campus there dedicated to traditional music, Catskill history, environmental education, and local arts and crafts.
This according to “Catskill cultural center saved, and renewed, thanks to a fiddler’s tune” by Dennis Gaffney (The New York times 12 May 2013, p. A15).
Today is Ungar’s 70th birthday! Below, a performance with Mason and some friends.
On this U.S. Thanksgiving Day, let’s pay our respects to the Wampanoag people, who helped the refugees at Plymouth Colony through their first winter, taught them to fish and grow corn, and attended their celebration of thanksgiving after their first successful harvest.
Wampanoag music is wrapped up in dance. The beat of a hardwood stick, water drum, and corn rattles is the music of their lively social dances, while appreciation and gratitude are expressed in their ceremonial dances.
“It is part of our nature is to be in thanksgiving” said Ramona Peters, a Wampanoag woman. “It’s sort of our philosophy, so it gets threaded through both the social and ceremonial dances.”
This according to Music on Martha’s Vineyard: A history of harmony by Tom Dresser and Jerry Muskin (Charleston: History Press, 2014). Above and below, the 2015 Mashpee Wampanoag Powwow.
A number of people attend U.S. bluegrass festivals not for the stage show, but for the informal jam sessions in the campgrounds or parking lot.
The interactional etiquette that jammers follow is manifested both in the conventions that help strangers to come together and in choices made during group playing of bluegrass standards. Ethics and aesthetics are fused as jammers negotiate interactional guidelines to reach a heightened musical and social communion.
This according to “A special kind of courtesy: Action at a bluegrass festival jam session” by Michelle Kisliuk (TDR: The drama review XXXII/3 [fall 1988] pp. 141–155). Above and below, festival attendees jamming with that special courtesy.
Related articles are here.
Maintained since 1996 by Charley Pennell, a cataloguer at the D.H. Hill Library at North Carolina State University, Bluegrass discography lists bluegrass singles, LPs, tapes, CDs, and videos by label, performer, and album. Resources for obtaining these publications are also listed.
Below, the legendary Flatt & Scruggs perform Foggy mountain breakdown.
Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections is a multiformat ethnographic field collection documenting traditional cultures throughout Florida in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This free online resource is part of the Library of Congress American Memory series.
Undertaken in conjunction with the Florida Federal Writers’ Project, the Florida Music Project, and the Joint Committee on Folk Arts of the Work Projects Administration, the collection features folk songs and folktales in many languages, including blues and work songs from fishing boats, railroad gangs, and turpentine camps; children’s songs, dance music, and religious music of many cultures; and oral histories.
The website provides access to 376 sound recordings and 106 accompanying materials, including recording logs, transcriptions, correspondence between Florida WPA workers and Library of Congress personnel, and an essay on Florida folklife by Zora Neale Hurston (inset). A new essay by Stetson Kennedy reflects on the labor and the legacy of the WPA in Florida, and an extensive bibliography, a list of related Web sites, and a guide to the ethnic and language groups of Florida add further context to the New Deal era and to Florida culture.
Above, construction workers gathered around the stove in the craftsmen’s barracks at Camp Blanding, Florida, in 1940.
Founded in Saratoga Springs by Bill and Lena Spencer in 1960, Caffè Lena is the longest continuously running folk coffeehouse in the United States. With its longstanding tradition of nurturing new talent, the venue hosted some of the first performances of Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, and Ani DiFranco, as well as some of the last appearances of the legendary Delta bluesmen Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt.
In August 2009, just in time for its 50th anniversary, the Caffè Lena Collection arrived at the American Folklife Center. This collection—a collaborative effort of the Center, the Caffè Lena History Project, and the Saratoga Springs History Museum—includes vintage photographs, articles, and letters; rare reel-to-reel recordings of performances; and oral history recordings with musicians, patrons, and staff members. The Center is making plans for digitizing the materials.
This according to “Celebrating 50 years of American folk music history: The Caffè Lena Collection arrives at the Library of Congress” by Jocelyn Arem (Folklife Center news XXXII/1–2, pp. 3–6). Above, Dylan, Suze Rotolo, Spencer, and Pasha, 1962. (All rights reserved by the Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC; may not be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the written permission of the Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC.)