By JAMES HARDIN
Guitarist Eddie Pennington and his son Alonzo, Linda and David Lay of the Appalachian Trail Band, and David McLaughlin were the first performers in a new series of outdoor concerts presented by the American Folklife Center on April 24. The concert was held in cooperation with the Folklore Society of Greater Washington and the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, and with the assistance of state folklorists from around the nation.
Tourists, Library and congressional employees, and other Capitol Hill workers and visitors sat on the steps of the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building in front of Neptune Plaza to enjoy the hour of "homegrown" music. On hand to introduce the artists was the Kentucky state folklorist Bob Gates. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) also attended.
Pennington began with virtuoso solo performances of "Guitar Rag" and "Mose's Blues" and was then joined by his son for duet renditions of "Nine-Pound Hammer," "Chicken Reel," and "Preacher and the Bear." The younger Pennington's own remarkable performance demonstrated the folk process of passing on one's skills to the next generation. Linda and David Lay and David McLaughlin, Pennington's old friends from the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA) Masters of the Steel String Guitar Tour, then charmed the audience with renditions of "Angel Band," "I'll See You in My Dreams," and "I'll Fly Away," among others.
The center's new series, "Homegrown: The Music of America," will present traditional music and dance from communities across the United States throughout the summer. "We are working with federal and state folklorists, and other professionals from associated fields, to identify performing groups noted for their excellence in presenting authentic community-based musical traditions," said Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center.
The "Homegrown" concerts will be audio- and video-taped and photographed, and the documentation added to the center's Archive of Folk Culture. The concerts will be broadcast at a later time on "Traditions," hosted by Mary Cliff, on Washington-area WETA 90.9 FM, an NPR affiliate.
Diane Kresh, director, Public Service Collections, helped launch the new series, which revives the tradition of summer events on the Neptune Plaza. "Folklife is about community," she said, "and the American Folklife Center is devoted to preserving the ties that bind us together so that future generations will know us as we are today. Folklife connects human beings of all races, religions and ages. I can think of no better way for the Library to celebrate the center's role in preserving and presenting folk culture than by sponsoring these outdoor concerts."
The Library of Congress has a history of presenting folk music concerts that dates to Dec. 20, 1940, when Alan Lomax arranged for a Coolidge Auditorium performance of the Golden Gate Quartet, with Josh White on guitar. A month later, in January 1941, the quartet appeared at Constitution Hall at an Inaugural Gala under the sponsorship of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 1948, folksong collector Helen Hartness Flanders, wife of Vermont senator Ralph Flanders, presented a lecture and concert of New England ballads with three New England folksingers, again in the Coolidge. A folk music concert, Sept. 23, 1976, on the Library's Neptune Plaza, featuring "Big Chief" Ellis, John Cephas, and Phil Wiggins, celebrated the U.S. Bicentennial and the opening of the front doors to the Thomas Jefferson Building. The success of that event led to the "Neptune Plaza Concert Series," sponsored by the newly created American Folklife Center and, initially, with the assistance of the NCTA. The series lasted for 19 years and included a culturally diverse range of performers, such as Andean singers; Egyptian, flamenco, Polish, and Hungarian dancers; blues guitarists; African drummers and African American dancers and singers; and bands representing Cajun, zydeco, klezmer, Indonesian, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Swiss, Irish, and many other cultural traditions.
Recently, folk performers have been included in the celebrations for the centennial of the Jefferson Building (1997) and the 200th anniversary of the Library of Congress (2000).
The "Homegrown Concert Series" this summer will be conducted in cooperation with the Millennium Stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Folk groups will appear at the Library of Congress at noon and again, at 6 p.m., at the Kennedy Center.
Homegrown Concert Series
May 15: Yuqin Wang and Zhengli "Rocky" Xu are extraordinary Chinese rod puppeteers, originally from Beijing, who now live in the Portland, Ore., area. Chinese rod puppetry is an ancient traditional art form dating back more than a millennium. Many of the featured stories also have ancient origins. Wang and Xu have performed all over the United States since coming to this country in 1996. Nancy Nusz, director of the Oregon Folklife Program, will introduce and interview them.
June 5: The Blind Boys of Alabama, featuring lead singer Clarence Fountain, formed as a group in 1937 at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind. Today the group performs throughout the United States and around the world. Their recent CD "Spirit of the Century" won the 2002 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. This performance is sponsored by the Music Division and is part of the Library of Congress program "I Hear America Singing."
June 19: Karl and the Country Dutchmen, from Trempealeau, Wis., are one of the country's finest German "Dutchman" polka bands. Led by Karl Hartwich on accordion and concertina, the band, with its thumping tuba marking the beat, plays to packed dance halls throughout the Midwest. Karl has also played at the National Folk Festival in Lowell, Mass., the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and on Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" radio show. Wisconsin Folk Arts Program director Richard March will introduce this band.
July 24: Chuck Brown is a Washington, D.C.-area institution and the father and inventor of the regional musical style known as "go-go," which swept the area in the 1970s. Brown will lead an eight-piece band for the "Homegrown" concert. One of D.C.'s many folklorists with expertise in this musical form will introduce and explain the traditions of "go-go."
Aug. 28: The Campbell Brothers present Sacred Steel, African American gospel music with electric steel guitar and vocal. This tradition is just now emerging from the House of God Keith Dominion Church, where for more than 60 years it has been an integral part of worship. The tradition has its roots in Florida, where folklorist Bob Stone of the Florida Folklife Program has brought it to national attention, and it is now spreading throughout the country. The Campbell Brothers, Chuck and Darick, are from Rochester, N.Y., and their lead singer, Katie Jackson, lives in Baltimore.
Sept. 19: A concert featuring a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow for 2002 will be announced later.
Oct. 8: Bob McQuillen, the dean of New England contra-dance musicians, will bring his group "Old New England" from New Hampshire to play a traditional dance on the Neptune Plaza. McQuillen has been playing accordion and piano and writing tunes for more than 50 years. He is the acknowledged master of this venerable genre and has led countless groups during his long career. Lynn Martin, New Hampshire Folklife Program Director, will introduce the group.
James Hardin is the editor at the Library's American Folklife Center. The National Council for the Traditional Arts also contributed to this article.