By STEPHEN WINICK
A Library gathering of America’s leading folklorists, cultural documentarians and members of Congress celebrated the lives and contributions of pioneering folklorists Archie Green and Joe Wilson with music and panel discussions for two days, Sept. 10 and 11.
The series of events, “Legends and Legacies,” also celebrated the Library’s acquisition of the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA) Collection.
The Library’s American Folklife Center (AFC) hosted the two days of panel presentations and an evening concert featuring many of the musicians whose music is preserved for all time in the NCTA Collection.
Paying tribute to the late Archie Green (1917-2009) during the first day was Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who represented Green in Congress and is also a family friend. “The landscape of our national heritage was forever changed by Archie Green’s work,” Pelosi said. “His commitment to the cause of our workers and their stories will be sorely missed.”
Other guests who paid tribute to Green and Wilson included Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.) and Joan Obey. The Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, also attended all three events.
The first day’s presentations were focused on Green, a folklorist, labor historian and librarian who lobbied Congress for seven years during the 1960s and 1970s to establish a center for the collection and preservation of the songs and stories of the nation’s working people as well as documentation of passing folkways and regional cultures. As a result of his efforts, Congress created the American Folklife Center and placed it at the Library of Congress in 1976.
In 2007, Billington awarded Green a Living Legend Award. To honor Green’s memory, leading folklorists, labor organizers, and cultural documentarians spoke of his role in their respective fields.
The Thursday evening concert, which was organized by the NCTA, presented traditional music and dance from diverse communities: the Sweet Heaven Kings, a United House of Prayer shout band; Tom Mauchahty Ware and Friends, a group performing Kiowa and Comanche Music and Dance; Billy McComiskey and Brendan Mulvihill (with special guests Mick Moloney and Josh Dukes), a traditional Irish group from Maryland; Phil Wiggins and Corey Harris, an acoustic blues duo; and the New Ballard’s Branch Bogtrotters, a southwest Virginia old-time string band. Grammy-winning guitarist Jerry Douglas made a surprise appearance.
During the concert, Rep. Obey joined the Librarian in conferring a Living Legend Award on Wilson, who served as executive director of the NCTA from 1976 to 2004 and now serves as chairman. He produced 42 large-scale music festivals in 11 states, made 131 LP and CD audio recordings of folk music, and conducted musicians and dancers on numerous national and international tours. He and Lee Udall co-authored the book “Folk Festivals: a Handbook for Organization and Management.”
Friday’s symposium on the NCTA collection featured scholars, radio producers and other specialists to discuss the significance of this vast and rich collection of cultural documentation. Founded in 1933, the NCTA created the National Folk Festival as well as other festivals and touring programs. NCTA’s collection of original audio and moving-image recordings of traditional artists contains classic recordings of legendary artists (such as Elizabeth Cotten, Wade Mainer and the Blind Boys of Alabama), as well as the only extant recordings of many artists. NCTA began using professional portable recording equipment to document its festivals and concerts some 30 years before other presenters of folk arts, with the result that the NCTA collection has excellent sound quality. These historic recordings are now digitized, and many of them are available to researchers in the Library’s Folklife Reading Room.
Stephen Winick is a writer and editor in the American Folklife Center.