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Handbook for Presenting Mississippi’s Artists

II. Investigating A Community’s Traditional Culture Through Fieldwork

Strategies for Finding Community Tradition Bearers

When first investigating the folk traditions of one’s own community, it is likely that the adage, “You can’t see the forest for the trees” will apply. As Alabama folklorist Joey Brackner observed at the Art WORKS Conference, we are enveloped by the folk traditions of our people, and often do not realize that commonplace actions such as refurbishing a cemetery on “Decoration Day,” or putting out gourd houses for purple martins each year, are part of our folk heritage.

The first step in developing a successful folk arts project is to identify elements of their community’s traditional artistic culture and to find tradition bearers who can present them. Local arts agencies may already be aware of some traditional artists in the community. They can locate others using the following strategies:

Investigate local fieldwork that has already been done.

Professional, amateur, or student folklorists may have researched one or more local traditions and placed the results of their work in the local library or a state university library. Even if the collection is old, such as fieldwork done during the Depression by the Federal Writers’ Project, it can give insight into the area’s traditions, and it is possible that the heirs of those who were interviewed are still carrying on those traditions.

Read local history books.

Research can be more focused if one knows that the community was founded by a particular ethnic group or centered on a particular industry or food crop.

Consult local experts.

Record collectors and blues authorities may know of area musicians who should be presented. Collectors of baskets, quilts, and other crafts may identify traditional crafts makers. There may be a professor at a nearby college who has a special knowledge of traditional boat building, vernacular architecture, or labor lore. Owners of record stores, ethnic restaurants and grocery stores, and other businesses may know of folk traditions of the communities they serve. Should particular experts prove helpful, it would be wise to involve them in planning and carrying out the project.

Look for newspaper articles.

Local papers and large-city dailies occasionally feature area craftspersons, musicians, and good talkers with stories to tell about their occupations. Do follow-up interviews with the subjects of such articles and speak to the journalists who wrote them. They may have a special interest in folkways and be able to suggest other tradition bearers. However, journalists are not as concerned with the folk process as presenters will need to be, so don’t be surprised if interviews with the subjects of such articles reveal them to be inappropriate for presentation as traditional artists.

Attend local festivals, celebrations, and craft shows.

In the midst of wooden country geese, crocheted toilet paper holders, imported ethnic jewelry and clothing, and cloggers dancing to tapes of popular country and rock stars, there may be a craftsperson, storyteller, or musician whose art reflects a long family or community tradition.

Listen to local radio stations.

A portion of the programming may be dedicated to live performances by local gospel groups, blues musicians or polka bands. Even if the station does not have live performances, it may be possible to find out about local musicians from the hosts of the various programs or the programming director.

Eavesdrop or join in conversations at local gathering places…

…such as the benches on courthouse square, the restaurant where folks linger in conversation after breakfast, the nutrition center where senior citizens gather for lunch, the barbershop where musicians play on Saturday mornings, or the juke joint they go to on Saturday night. In such settings, one can discover natural storytellers, collect folk sayings, superstitions and occupational lore, and learn of musicians and crafts makers.

Consider the churches and temples in your area as cultural centers.

Mississippi is home to many small churches that have deep roots in folk traditions. Often their ministers have felt a call to preach and answered it without seeking any sort of theological training. Because their congregations usually do not participate in national organizations which establish order of the services, require standardized hymnals, or provide printed Sunday School literature, they rely mainly on oral tradition in their service and may retain practices, such as foot washing, which are not part of more standardized denominations. Music in such congregations is often based upon the tastes and talents of church members and played upon a variety of musical instruments brought from home, rather than written choral music accompanied by piano or organ. In such churches, spirituals, shape-note hymns, Dr. Watts devotional hymns, gospel quartet music, bluegrass gospel music and other sacred folk music is often performed by talented individuals and families who have long been involved with that music.

While the larger, more affluent congregations are not as likely to participate in folk music and rituals, it is possible that they may be serving new immigrant groups that are attempting to retain their cultural traditions. Often churches will make their facilities available to immigrant groups who wish to hold religious services in their own language with their own music. Ministers and program directors of host churches may be aware of musicians, crafts makers, and other tradition bearers among the immigrant community.

And, as we have seen, some recent immigrant groups such as the Vietnamese and East Indians have already formed their own worship centers, which also serve as cultural centers. Immigrant groups such as Mississippi’s Greeks, Slavonians, and Lebanese, which have long been part of the state, are often associated with a particular church. Their congregations are likely to strengthen cultural identity by celebrating holidays with traditional foods, music, crafts, and customs. Holiday bazaars, food festivals and programs sponsored by such churches may reveal community traditions of interest.

Think in terms of networks.

One traditional bluesman is likely to know and have an opinion of the talents of other bluesmen in the vicinity. The same holds for fiddlers, gospel groups, potters, and basket makers. When talking with traditional artists, always ask if they can suggest others to visit.

Follow the signs:

Mississippi roadsides abound in hand-made signs point to Saturday night jamborees, martin gourd-house makers, fiddle worm farms, gospel singing and other aspects of traditional culture. Such signs, as well as a row of new quilts hanging on a clothes line or a roadside stand full of jams and jellies, indicate that those within welcome those who are interested in their traditions.

An Overview of the Interview

Presenting folk artists and other tradition bearers gives project planners an exciting opportunity to be involved in original research. It is unlikely that the unique details of your community’s traditional arts have been documented; therefore they will have to be gathered through fieldwork. Fieldwork is the process of studying a traditional art form through interviews and observation. The reason for fieldwork is to develop an understanding of the tradition and its significance to those who carry it on. After a preliminary survey has revealed a traditional art to study and a representative of this art form to present, someone from the local arts agency will use tape recorders, still cameras, and possibly, video cameras to acquire information that will later be put to use in a number of ways, including introductions, publications, displays, and news releases about their projects.

Interviews lie at the heart of the information gathering process. The primary reason to conduct interviews is to gain a deeper understanding of the community’s traditions. Oral history interviews should be done with artists selected for residencies. These interviews are broader in scope than interviews done for immediate or specific use. They document personal histories, family backgrounds, religious and social affiliations; they discuss the way the tradition bearer learned his or her art and the context in which he or she uses the art.

A number of texts listed in the bibliography provided step-by-step instruction in doing oral histories. A selected list appears in the References and Resources section of this handbook. One highly recommended text is Willa K. Baum’s Oral History for the Local Historical Society, published by the American Association for State and Local History. Elements of a successful interview are:

Consent Forms:

In setting up an interview, discuss time, place, and purpose with the artist, and request permission to record the interview. After receiving oral permission to record, it is a good idea to prepare a consent form to be signed at the time of the interview. This will state that the interviewee allows his or her recorded remarks and/or image to be published for educational purposes. As part of a residency project, educational materials, programs, news articles, or other publications may be based on the fieldwork, and the consent form is essential if material from the interview is used. Local arts agencies may wish to place the results of their research at a public library, museum or university at the close of the project, another reason for consent forms.

Sample consent forms are included in Folklife and Fieldwork: A Layman’s Introduction to Field Techniques, published by the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. The contents of the booklet can be found online at the American Folklife Center’s website or copies may be ordered from them (write to: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540.

Advance Preparations:

The interviewer should prepare a checklist of all the equipment and accessories which will be needed during fieldwork, such as notebooks and pencils, tape recorder, microphones and cables, cameras, tripod, extension cords, batteries, AC adapter, maps, audio and/or video tapes, film, consent forms, and so forth.
The interviewer will also need a list of questions to be asked or topics to be covered in the interview. It is a good idea, but not always possible, to prepare the questions after reviewing literature about the particular tradition. Prior research leads to more informed questions and helps the interviewer to ascertain how the local traditions compare to similar traditions elsewhere.

Interview Procedures:
  • Place the microphone where both the person being interviewed and the interviewer can be clearly heard, preferably far from an air conditioner or other noisemaker that may obscure parts of the dialogue. The interviewer, if working alone, should place the recorder where he or she can easily operate it and actually see that it is running as the interview progresses.
  • Begin by having the artist state his or her name, the place of the interview, and the date. The interviewer or the artist should name all others present in the room. At this point, it is wise to play the tape back to see if the sound quality is acceptable.
  • After asking a question, listen to the answer. Make eye contact with the artist, show understanding and encouragement by nods and quiet affirmative statements, and allow the speaker to follow his or her train of thought to its conclusion. If questions occur, jot them down to ask them when the artist has finished speaking. Ask about the spelling of proper names, even simple ones—is it Green or Greene? Ray or Rae?
  • Avoid giving opinions. If the artist asks you questions or seeks your opinions, speak briefly and refocus on him or her. Afterwards, when logging or transcribing the interview, it is disconcerting to have to write down one’s own lengthy discourses.
  • After finishing a tape in the interview, prepare an abbreviated label, with sequence number on it, then do a complete label later.
  • The close of the interview may be a good time to request permission to photograph or videotape the interviewee and any objects or processes described in the interview.
The Written Report:

As soon after the interview as possible, put the information into written form. You may complete a “Fieldwork Data Sheet” like that found in Folklife and Fieldwork, or a Tape Log, which lists the various topics covered, usually with a meter number indicating location on the tape, for instance:

  • 008: Discusses how he learned to play the fiddle.
  • 087: Describes first fiddlers’ convention he won.
  • 250: Gives examples of square dance figures done in community.

Or the report could be in the form of a word-for-word transcription. This is a time consuming, but valuable, process, because it makes the interview easily accessible to other researchers when placed in a library or archive.

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