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Handbook for Presenting Mississippi’s Artists

III. Planning Programs Featuring Tradition Bearers

Community-Based Planning

It always happens: An Arts Agency prepares an exhibit of split-oak baskets made by an African-American basket maker from a poor, rural community. The people who come to admire the work, beautifully displayed at the local museum, are white city folks or suburbanites who read about the exhibit in a club newsletter or the local newspaper. The basket maker is pleased that her baskets are appreciated and purchased, but regrets that members of her own community did not attend and probably are not even aware of the honor bestowed upon her.

To avoid such occurrences and to assure that a diverse audience benefits from the presentation of traditional artists, it is important that the groups planning folk festivals, exhibits, artists in the schools programs and other such presentations be diverse. The Artists Build Communities program requires that its artist residencies be planned by a representative group of community citizens consisting of the artist, students, school administrators, senior citizens, people with disabilities and people of all ethnic groups in the community. The artist should have a central role in planning the residency, and various members of the planning group are expected to give input about locations, dates and hours, formats, and activities that would be well-received by the communities they represent.

Presenters of traditional arts should develop partnerships with community organizations while planning their activities. Potential partners include local Leadership Mississippi members, Cooperative Extension representatives, local and state park managers, tourism officials, Chamber of Commerce presidents, and historic preservation teams. The Mississippi Arts Commission can provide information about how to contact local representatives of these groups.

Community-Based Publicity

Reverend Leon Pinson, a master of the slide guitar, grew up in North Mississippi then lived in the Delta for over three decades, all the time playing his traditional blues-based gospel music. He played on local radio stations in the state, and in later years has traveled across the nation playing prestigious festivals such as the Chicago Blues Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. Yet, according to Worth Long, the Atlanta-based cultural scholar who presented Pinson at the Art WORKS conference, he is relatively unknown in his hometown. Long said that, “very often people we don’t see as being very important are important to our traditions.” Because of this lack of awareness about traditional culture, it is very important to place special emphasis on publicizing programs featuring folk artists.

It is tremendously disheartening to have a well-researched, well-presented, thoroughly entertaining, poorly attended program. Unfortunately, programs presenting traditional artists often fall under this description. Usually the sponsors of such programs have few funds to allocate to marketing and have to depend on free public service announcements made at the convenience of local radio stations and newspapers. They are competing for print space and airtime with agents of popular culture who can afford to pay handsomely.

This is another reason why the group planning, researching and carrying out the project should represent the entire community. To make certain the event is well publicized and, it is hoped, well attended. The local arts agency should involve participants representing various traditions and cultures who will be enthusiastic about the program. Everyone involved in the project should be willing to analyze and use his or her own community’s informal information networks—be they announcements from the pulpit, posters at the convenience store, notes in newsletters and bulletins of organizations they are involved in, or the endorsement of a chatty clerk at the post office. Not only should the planning group discuss which media should be used for publicity, but the various “angles” that the publicity should use. Some communities may prefer emphasis on the entertainment value of the presentation while others respond to appeals based on the educational, social, or historical nature of the event. When a diverse group of people brainstorms about ways to publicize an event that they all agree is important, the result is likely to be an effective, varied approach to publicity.

Venues For Traditional Artists

An extended residency such as that afforded by the Artists Build Communities program can reach a wide variety of audiences if locations and hours of presentations are carefully considered. Tradition bearers can be presented effectively in a number of formats, such as those suggested below:

School Presentations

Traditional artists can perform their music, demonstrate their craft, or tell their stories in school-wide assemblies and in classrooms. Or they may meet with small groups or individuals at workshops which allow students to be involved in the making of traditional music and crafts and explorations of other community traditions. It is ideal when an artist is able to give on-going lessons or apprenticeships to students who request them.

Community Celebrations

The organizers of harvest festivals, holiday events, county fairs, founders’ days, trade days and other events that take place in your community may be happy to showcase traditional artists.

Folk Festivals

Should community fieldwork successfully locate a number of traditional crafts makers, musicians, storytellers, and persons who can talk about and demonstrate occupational skills, and folk games, an organization may want to produce its own folk or heritage festival.

Family Programs

Parents often look for interesting events to attend with their children on weekend afternoons. Consider presenting a traditional artist at a museum, library, or community center in a manner interesting to both adults and children.

Inter-generational Programs

The above program may also be presented to combined audiences of persons in retirement homes and children in pre-school or after-school care programs.

Work Place Programs

The artist may be presented during lunchtime at factories and business offices, thus reaching people who cannot or will not attend such programs otherwise.

Meetings of Organizations

Historical societies, music clubs, support groups of the local library or museum, and other organizations will provide receptive audiences for traditional artists.

Programs in Context

It may be possible to bring the audience to the traditional artist, thus presenting him or her in context—a workshop, studio, church, country-music jamboree, or blues club. Such presentations can be tremendously informative and enjoyable to audiences if they can be done without discomforting the community that is normally present at such venues.

Traditional Arts in New Contexts

Blues at the library? Quilts at the chicken processing plant? Boat-building on the courthouse lawn? Bringing traditional arts to audiences’ leads to unusual juxtapositions of site and subject. Having taken the tradition bearer out of his or her natural context, the presenter will have to replace physical contexts with words, explaining when, were, why, and how the traditional art form is carried out. At this point, in-depth fieldwork becomes invaluable.

For example, your arts agency decides to sponsor a performance of Sacred Harp singing, which has a long, rich history among black and white residents of north Mississippi. The concert will take place in an auditorium where the singers will be grouped on stage behind a row of microphones. The presenters will need to be aware that an uninitiated audience may perceive the tunes and harmonies as “weird” or discordant, the words as indecipherable, and some of the singers a bit “off-key.” In order for listeners to appreciate the experience and have an accurate understanding of the tradition of Sacred Harp singing, the following points would need to be made:

Sacred Harp singing takes its name from the songbook The Sacred Harp, first published in Philadelphia by B.F. White and E.J. King, but the actual style of singing goes back to the colonial days. The itinerant singing-school master was a common figure in colonial New England, and various masters competed in the efforts to devise an instructional system whereby congregations could be taught to sing “by note.” Most developed a method which assigned different shapes to notes of the musical scale, some employing seven shapes, others four shapes.

The Sacred Harp, published in 1844, was the most popular shape-note hymnal used in the South. It employed four shapes to correspond to the syllables, fa, sol, la, and mi. This method was taught in annual singing schools in most small communities throughout the South. To this day, singers retain the practice of singing a hymn the first time through, saying only the names of the shaped notes before they sing the lyrics. Unlike the arrangement currently seen on stage, the participants normally arrange themselves in a square according to voice part, the basses facing the trebles and the tenors facing the altos, with the song leader in the middle of the square.

Shape-note singing is not a performance art; it is meant to be participated in by entire congregations, regardless of their vocal talents. The singing, which usually last from 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning until 3 p.m., interrupted only by “dinner on the grounds” at noon, is as much a social as a religious gathering, giving people an opportunity to see one another after some time apart. Every aspect of a singing—starting time, the order of business, the prayers, foods, and vocal stylings—is firmly bound in community tradition.

The presenter would gather this information from interviews with singers and research in such references as The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and the Mississippi Folklore Register (ed. note: MFR is now published as Mississippi Folklife), which contains in its 1991-92 issue a detailed article by Ted Olson about Sacred Harp singing in Calhoun County, Mississippi.

Aware that lengthy introductions may not have the desired effect on the audience, the presenter may have the artists themselves weave such information into their performances or demonstrations. Information which will help the audience appreciate and understand what they are witnessing may also be conveyed through program notes and newspaper articles. Wall signs or signs on easels that provide a paragraph or two of information about the art and artist may also be effective.

“Those presenting non-performance traditions, such as crafts or occupational lore, should try to render these ’non-performance’ activities into performances…without interfering with their basic integrity,” as the Festival of American Folklife Festival’s 1990 Presenter’s Guide points out. Presenters will need to work with crafts makers and occupational lore participants to develop interesting demonstration techniques that allow them to communicate with the audience as they work.

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