Folk Music Builds a Civil Society


By Art Menius – September 9, 2014

I believe that our various artistic traditions express a common human thread unifying all people. As the audiences learn about other cultures bridges to understanding are built. They will see how folk music contributes to understanding different traditions and building civil society.

When NEH Chairman Jim Leach asked, “We have a unique national culture with a mosaic of subcultures. A critical question is whether we treat our many cultural differences with dignity and respect and as opportunities to grow and learn, or as divisive traumas worthy of warring over.”

Marginalized cultures generally do not have great access to public forums, but traditional artists from these same cultures can achieve such access, and in doing so, speak for their communities through their art. Their work contains the “mirror effect” that reflects to the outside world the mores of the cultures in which they originated.

“Folk art is important to society because it portrays social and historical aspects of areas or times that changed or lost. Folk artists are often barometers of the popular culture. In most cases, folk artists engage in depicting socially familiar ideas and themes in their art,” wrote Simone Alter Muri (“Folk Art and Outsider Art: Acknowledging Social Issues in Art Education,” Art Education 52:4 (July 1999). Muri argued that the traditional arts fostered social awareness; building tolerance for diversity and helping children understand community.

Whether music, food, or crafts, the folk arts do not happen in a vacuum. The fretless banjo asks us to wonder where the instrument came from and when. When we understand that the banjo originally came from West Africa, it asks us to look closely at the history of immigration. When we know the history of Native Americans in the southern Appalachians, it asks us to look closely at the various crafts and architecture that typifies the Appalachian homesteads and communities. Scots-Irish mountaineers learned to build chimneys from Native Americans who learned from French trappers. Embroidered Mexican scarves/napkins, used to wrap and carry tortillas on journeys of desert immigration embody contemporary issues.

The key becomes how to draw people out of their silos and let them see the connection that inspired me 40 years ago – that moment of revelation when I realized that living Piedmont bluesman John Jackson and long deceased 1920s string band leader Charlie Poole were playing out of the same common repertoire.

I have an especial interest in connecting the folklore, ethnomusicology, and the humanities to musical performance by master musicians, what folklorist Carl von Sydow called “active” tradition-bearers. I envision residencies with active tradition bearers demonstrating and teaching in partnership with a variety of humanities experts. Audiences will not just learn about the outcomes produced by humanities scholarship, but will understand how its disciplines shed light on the human condition.

The tradition bearer will gain from both the association with new audiences and from the attention of the students and scholars. Working with them as teachers will provide new insights in the humanities, their work, and their home communities. Gregory Hansen (“Folklife in Education and Cultural Conservation” (1994) described this from his six years work bringing traditional artists into Jacksonville, Florida schools:

Cultural expressions that the tradition-bearers felt were devalued within their own communities were showcased in the classroom presentations, and the tradition-bearers appreciated the opportunity to share their history and culture with young people. All of the folk artists and musicians whom I interviewed perceived that the school presentations were not only helping to preserve their culture but the sessions also encouraged outsiders’ appreciation of their traditions.

In this sense, both artists and the art they practice reflect and create community and serve as its teachers.

[Photo by Becky Johnson]