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Handbook for Presenting Mississippi’s Artists

I. Purpose of Booklet / Recognizing What is Traditional in Mississippi Culture

Purpose of Booklet

In 1991, the Mississippi Arts Commission, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, began a series of training and planning sessions to develop and strengthen the state’s thirty-five local arts agencies. While evaluating, planning, and setting goals, these agencies expressed a desire to develop arts programming based on the unique characteristics of their own communities rather than presenting standard touring programs with no direct relation to their cultural heritage.

In a workshop on the Fundamentals of Local Arts Agency Management held in September of 1992, representatives of local arts agencies were asked what types of assistance they needed from the Commission. They indicated that they wanted training in locating and presenting their own artists and in developing a deeper knowledge of Mississippi art forms.

In response, the Mississippi Arts Commission developed a three-part program called Artists Build Communities. The first part consisted of a daylong workshop held on December 2, 1993, during the Commission’s Art WORKS Conference. It included an overview of Mississippi traditions followed by sessions for local arts agencies on studying a community’s traditional culture and presenting its tradition bearers. Concurrent sessions for artists focused on marketing and working with presenters. Workshop participants also experienced presentations of Delta blues, old-time and bluegrass music, and African-American gospel music.

The second part of Artists Build Communities encourages local arts agencies to apply for grants to fund a six-month planning period in which a broad-based community group will work with a scholar or folklorist to develop plans for an extensive community artist residency. The agencies receiving the grants and completing their plans will then apply for up to $20,000 for a residency in which a Mississippi artist will conduct artistic programs that significantly relate to that particular community’s heritage and its diverse populations. These residencies promise to be as varied and creative as the artistic traditions that inspire them. While not everyone will choose to explore folk arts, some local arts agencies will plan residencies that explore the richness of the traditional arts in their communities. The participation of folk artists is essential to the success of these projects.

This handbook is meant to assist local arts agencies in doing research during the planning phase as well as provide information they will need as they identify and work with folk artists. It includes suggestions, ideas, definitions, admonitions, and human and bibliographical resources presented at the December workshop, as well as information drawn from the writings of folklorists involved with the National Folk Festival, the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival, various state folk arts programs, and the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress.

Though published in conjunction with Artists Build Communities, this handbook is designed to be useful beyond the time-frame of one specific program. We hope that it will help all who are interested in researching and presenting elements of their community’s folk culture at festivals, craft shows, school programs, and other events.

Recognizing What is Traditional in Mississippi Culture

Three Layers of Culture

Before embarking on a project involving Mississippi’s traditional arts, the planner must be able to differentiate between the traditional and non-traditional aspects of a community’s culture. Scholars often divide the elements that shape our culture into three levels, visualizing them as a layer cake. Joe Wilson and Lee Udall in Folk Festivals: A Handbook for Organization and Management, however, present the image of an ice cream sandwich, with the middle layer larger than the top or bottom layers. They explain that the top layer is academic culture. Schoolteachers, professors, music instructors, governmental officials, and conference panelists contribute to academic culture. Symphonies, novels, poetry, plays, lectures, essays and instructional guides are its tools and products.

The middle layer is popular culture. Some of the forces that drive popular culture are advertising, magazines and newspapers, movies and videos, fashion designers, television and radio programming, the recording industry, and so forth. Popular culture is “Achy Breaky Heart,” Disneyworld, Jurassic Park, Reeboks, and McDonald’s.

The bottom layer is folk or traditional culture. Folk music, crafts, practices, and beliefs are transmitted orally in face-to-face situations in small groups or communities over a period of time. Each of us belongs to several communities or folk cultures—our family, neighborhood, ethnic group, church congregation, school, social club, labor union, etc.—in which we informally learn stories, behaviors, and skills. For instance, a daughter learns to make biscuits by watching and helping her mother prepare breakfast every morning; a blues musician learns by sitting in on jam sessions with relatives and neighbors, learning words, chords, and stylings with no formal instruction. A Sacred Harp singer, though he or she holds a book produced by academic culture, learns the style in which the hymns are sung by hearing them at church and home.

A member of folk culture learns orally, through the folk process, and seldom consults written lyrics, musical notation, or instructional books in pursuit of his or her art. Thus folk songs, crafts, recipes and stories are never fixed; they are always changing, producing what the folklorist calls variants. Individuals allow their own tastes, abilities, memories, and understanding to produce such variants. Still, there is also a basic consistency to the products of the folk process, because they must remain acceptable to the tastes and uses of the community in which they were originally learned. For instance, a dancer taking part in an old-style square dance may add his own stylistic innovations to the figure “Cage the Bird.” If his innovations confuse or discomfort the other dancers he meets, he will either stop doing them or start having trouble getting partners. But if his modifications are pleasing, others may adopt them and gradually change the way that community “cages the bird.”

Of course, the three levels of culture melt into each other continuously. Literature and symphonies often deal with folk themes; McDonald’s adds grits to their menu in the South; and many old fiddlers’ repertoires include “Lara’s Theme” from the movie Dr. Zhivago. Most folk artists make concessions to popular taste in order to sell their products or please their audiences and themselves. The presenter of traditional Mississippi culture will seek out those who have not allowed popular culture to change their basic methods, repertoires, and values.

The Tradition Bearers

Folklorists and others who research and present traditional artists have coined the term traditional bearers to refer to individuals who have maintained particular stories, occupational skills, crafts, rituals, beliefs, medicinal practices, and foodways that they learned orally from their family or community as part of daily life. Tradition bearers include not only fiddlers, blues musicians, gospel singers, basket makers, and potters, but cooks, coal miners, and off-shore oil workers as well. The annual Festival of American Folklife, produced by the Smithsonian Institution and held on the National Mall, has presented—alongside musicians and crafts makers—meat cutters, bakers, garment workers, carpenters and joiners, cowboys, farmers, stone masons, oil and gas workers, sheet metal workers, railroad workers, seafarers, truck and taxi drivers, bartenders, firefighters and trial lawyers. These participants demonstrate and share skills, techniques, attitudes, and lore they gain on the job and after work as members of occupational groups.

Tradition bearers also belong to groups that have newly immigrated to the United States. Among the Southeast Asians, Mexicans, and other recent immigrants who have settled in Mississippi are those who strive to preserve their cultural identities by maintaining special recipes, foods, dances, songs, clothing, and holiday traditions while otherwise adapting to American ways.

In the booklet Folklife and Fieldwork: A Layman’s Introduction to Field Techniques (American Folklife Center) there is an extensive list of items regarding by folklorists as expressions of traditional culture, suggesting that any one of them might be the subject of a study or that a project may include several of them in combination.

In seeking a community’s artistic tradition bearers, it is important to determine how each artist learned his or her skill. If the focus of a residency or other arts project is folk arts, then only artists who grew up in the traditions that they now represent should be presented as folk artists. Even though folk-style artists—ballad singers, blues musicians, storytellers, and makers of country crafts—may be highly talented and easily accessible to the local art agency, it would not be appropriate to present them as traditional artists if their repertoires and skills were not learned within their own folk communities. A weaver or an herbalist who gathered his or her knowledge from books, classes, and interviews rather than from family or community members should not be presented as a tradition bearer, though each may be the most articulate expert on that subject in the region. It would also be inappropriate to present as folk artists those who do reenactments or museum-type demonstrations of crafts, music, and occupations that have survived only in history books. Instead, if you choose to present folk artists, select those who perform their music, craft, or occupation in a way that reflects confidence that comes from being firmly rooted in tradition.

Mississippi Traditions

Mississippi provides fertile grounds for the study of traditional culture. Diverse groups of people have put down roots in the state, their traditions shaped by ethnic background, religion, geography, and occupation. In their efforts to survive, prosper, and become mainstream Americans, these groups have given up bits and pieces of their folkways, but most have retained some traditions which they regard as symbols of their cultural identity, symbols which give their members a sense of self-confidence and strength.

In exploring Mississippi traditions, one may look at an individual tradition bearer, such as a particular quilter or blues musician. Or one may study clusters of traditions related to occupation or ethnicity. For instance, the focus may be on offshore oil workers—their stories, music, crafts, and foodways—or upon traditions retained within the Vietnamese community of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. One may also investigate how place determines customs, for instance, how the presence of good clay in Itawamba County made it a center for the production of pottery, including the stoneware tombstones found there, or how the availability of swamp cane leads the Choctaws to make a different form of basket than those who live in places where white oak is prevalent.

Looking at Mississippi culture in terms of the ethnic groups who have settled there, it is natural to start with the Choctaw Indians, concentrated in and around Neshoba County. McKee and Schlenker in The Choctaws: Cultural Evolution of a Native American Tribe wrote, “Not accepted by local whites and refusing to be lumped with the black community, the Mississippi Choctaws have constantly sought to assert their separate identity. Therefore, in Mississippi, native dress, language, dances, music, games, and crafts have had an important function as symbols of ethnic identity and this function has served to foster their survival.” Among Mississippi Choctaw tradition bearers is Eleanor Ferris of Conehatta, who was presented at the Commission’s 1993 Art WORKS Conference as a maker of traditional swamp cane baskets noted for their traditional style and outstanding craftsmanship.

Scotch-Irish and Africans both settled Mississippi in large numbers and had tremendous influence on each other’s music, crafts, religion, foods, folk expressions, horticulture, and other cultural elements. Yet both retain distinctive elements of their cultures that bear presenting. Among the Scotch-Irish traditions, that could be presented, are old-time fiddling and the bluegrass music that grew out of it. Fiddler Bill Mitchell of Tupelo and bluegrass banjoist Larry Wallace of Starkville represented these traditions at the Art WORKS Conference.

Blues and gospel music are important parts of African-American culture in Mississippi, those that were represented at the Art WORKS conference included guitarist and singer Lonnie Pitchford, guitarist Leon Pinson, and gospel pianist Alvin Shelby. Also presented at the Conference was Othar Turner’s Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, one of the few groups who still play a lively form of music based on African poly-rhythms and influenced by British and early American military music. Among other traditions which Mississippians of Scotch-Irish and African descent share while retaining different aesthetics are quilting, basket making, Sacred Harp singing, and southern cooking.

In Ethnic Mississippi, published in 1992 by the University Press of Mississippi, D.C. and Stephen Young describe many ethnic groups with a presence in Mississippi. These include a small Irish community in Bassfield, Mississippi; centered around St. Peter’s Catholic Church and a “black Creole” community in Bay St. Louis made up of persons of African and French or Spanish descent, which has as its nucleus the Roman Catholic Parish of St. Rose de Lima. On the Gulf Coast are a number of “Mississippi Accedence” who have assimilated into American culture more than the French of Southwest Louisiana, yet retain Cajun foodways and holiday celebrations. Also on the Gulf Coast are Slavonians who originally settled there to work in trades associated with the seafood industry. Through the Slavic Benevolent Association, founded in 1913, they share holiday celebrations and sponsor festivals that feature Slavonian music, dance, and food.

The Youngs estimate that between four and ten thousand Vietnamese have settled on the Gulf Coast since the early 1980’s, many involved in boat building and fishing. They publish a Vietnamese language newspaper, Duyen Hai, and have established a Buddhist temple. Other Vietnamese worship at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Biloxi.

Most towns in Mississippi have a small Jewish population, though the number of Jews in the state is diminishing. Camp Henry S. Jacobs, outside of Jackson, serves as a center for Southern Jews and houses the Museum of Southern Jewish Experience. Also, the Lebanese have had a presence in the state since 1880’s when they came as peddlers and storeowners. St. George Antiochan Orthodox Church in Vicksburg serves the Lebanese community there.

In Ethnic Mississippi, the Youngs also note that there are several Italian Cultural Societies in the state, with a statewide association based in Jackson, as well as a number of families of German ancestry in Gluckstadt, northwest of Jackson, both groups having Roman Catholic churches at their center. The Greek population of Mississippi is large enough to maintain Greek Orthodox churches in Jackson and Biloxi.

East Indians have come to Mississippi as professionals working in hospitals and universities as well as in service industries. Ethnic Mississippi observes that a Hindu temple in Brandon serves as a social center where Indians can maintain religious traditions, social ties, and provide cultural education for Indian children.

The fascinating story of the Chinese in Mississippi is told in two books, Lotus Among the Magnolia: The Mississippi Chinese by Robert Seto Quan, and The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White, by James W. Loewen. Brought to the Mississippi Delta during reconstruction, the Chinese were expected to replace the freed slaves as farm workers. Instead, the Chinese became peddlers and storeowners. Unlike the Chinese of San Francisco and New York City who lived in “China Towns,” Mississippi’s Chinese population was scattered throughout the Delta; thus the individuals were cut off from religious, educational, and other communal institutions. As a result, writes Robert Seto Quan, their customs centered on the nuclear family and the family-centered store. However, a Chinese Baptist Church in Cleveland, Mississippi, serves as a gathering point for the Chinese community.

As D.C. and Stephen Young point out, “Ethnic communities in Mississippi do exist, and their presence in the state needs to be better understood.” Arts agencies involved in projects concerning Mississippi’s traditional culture may be able to contribute significantly to this understanding.

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