Field Notes TMY from a Folklorist’s Eye

Saturday, October 10 in the Presidio: A folklorist focuses unobtrusively on a dance demonstration in progress on the City Hall stage. Something that catches his eye makes him chuckle. His field notes track the experience: Detailing observations on dance steps, audience response, then further interaction about the music. After the applause erupts, he takes more notes before moving on to another area of the festival.

Dr. Murphy
Dr. Murphy enjoying Carne en su Jugo at TMY.

Such was the work of folklorist, scholar, musician and Maryland Traditions Director Clifford Murphy, invited to Tucson Meet Yourself as this year’s visiting folklorist. Artfully engaged during TMY weekend, Dr. Murphy shared some of his observations about our festival and its mission in our region:

“Typical folklife festivals are more of an opportunity for communities to share their folklife with the public than they are an actual part of a community’s folklife,” he notes. “However, what amazed me about my visit to Tucson Meet Yourself is that a 41 year-old festival can develop a kind of culture all its own.”

Dr. Murphy saw a synergy between the TMY audiences and the Festival participants: “What was most striking — and inspiring — about TMY was the fact that the audience looks like a reflection of the festival participants (the musicians, the craft artists, the food vendors, etc.). What this shows me is that the festival has built a significant amount of trust and credibility with the communities it celebrates.”

There are several folklife festivals as large as — or larger than — TMY, and the fact that the audience does not look like the participants doesn’t mean that those festivals are failures, Dr. Murphy continues. “But all of us who produce folklife festivals hope that these events can help to fortify cultural traditions. If we book an excellent musical group into our festival and tell the world how amazing they are, it is certainly a positive boost to the musicians, and enjoyable for the audience, but it fails to celebrate that artist in front of their own ‘home’ community. It is hard to fortify traditions if we cannot help to foster greater appreciation and understanding of cultural traditions within their home community. TMY does not have this problem, and that is impressive!”

As Dr. Murphy discovered, the diverse traditions of the region enriched TMY in ways that set it apart from other festivals.

  • On food: I loved the Guadalajaran food prepared by Lila Sideras and Evaristo Ramirez Barajas — this year’s recipients of TMY’s Global Foodways Fellowship Award. I loved the Carne en su Jugo, and the Tunas Verdes was unlike anything I have ever eaten before, in a good way (I grew up in New Hampshire and live in Maryland — we just don’t have prickly pear anything in those places!). I also really enjoyed talking with Lila and Evaristo about their food, and about their interest in using the Fellowship to possibly start a small business.
  • On folk arts: In the craft area, there were so many remarkable things going on. One anecdote — I spoke with an O’odham pottery maker while he was working some clay into a pot. As he told me about the patterns painted on the finished pots, he explained that he no longer does the painting as he is nearly blind. I was struck by how much this said about tradition and mastery of form — that a master potter could create a perfect piece just by feel.
  • On performance: As for the music, my absolute favorite group was Tucson Fiddlers, who were part of the Waila & Tohono Showcase on the Church Street Stage on Friday evening. It is a deep, beautiful, subtle traditional style that is distinct to southern Arizona. It was a true pleasure for me to hear their music and to see them perform.
  • Other notes: I should also say that I was blown away by just how diverse greater Tucson is, and by how deep the various cultures of Tucson run. For instance, I learned that Tucson not only has a Turkish community, but also that Turkish ice cream is a (delicious) thing, and that there is some excellent comedy carried out by the people who sell and serve Turkish ice cream. I learned that Arizona has a Balalaika orchestra, and I saw what I imagine to be the world’s largest balalaika onstage as part of their performance. I learned about heritage agriculture, low-rider cars, and many other things too numerous to list here!

Dr. Murphy’s perspective on the national folklife scene:

  • The two most prominent folklife festivals nationally are the National Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA) has been producing the annual National Folk Festival since 1934. Over the course of the past 80 years, that festival — which is a folklife festival — has traveled to different host cities, and in many cases has spun off permanent festivals in host cities (like Lowell, Massachusetts, Bangor, Maine, Richmond, Virginia, and Butte, Montana).
  • The Smithsonian Folklife Festival — which was initially launched as the Festival of American Folklife in 1967 — is held annually on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The National Folk Festival — which incorporates traditional artists from around the country into a single three-day festival — presented some of the first racially integrated performance stages well before the Civil Rights Era. The Newport Folk Festivals of the 1960s were an important place for the presentation of folklife, and led — indirectly — to the creation of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival has documented and celebrated the folklife of each state and territory in the country, as well as the folklife of various occupational groups and foreign countries.
  • Through the high-quality presentation and celebration of America’s folk traditions, the National Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival have had an enduring positive impact on many cultural traditions by helping to elevate the understanding and appreciation of often denigrated or misunderstood cultural traditions. Additionally, they have helped to incubate a national network of folklife professionals — folklorists, anthropologists, and ethnomusicologists — who fill out the professional ranks of the country’s many state folklife programs.
  • Many of these state folklife programs — most of which were founded in the 1970s and ’80s — support annual folklife festivals. At Maryland Traditions — the state folklife program at the Maryland State Arts Council — we present an annual Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival. It is located in a working-class neighborhood in the city of Baltimore — not in the city center like Tucson Meet Yourself — and it is much smaller (around 6,000 people attended last year’s festival). Unlike TMY, which focuses on the folklife of greater Tucson, ours is a statewide festival. With our festival — and I think this is true for many others — we hope to create a space in which people take the time to reflect on regional traditions that are so familiar as to be underappreciated, to engage with traditions that come from communities unlike their own, and — through individual interaction with the artists at workshops and demos – be reminded that folklife is something that is passed on from person-to-person. In many ways, a folklife festival is a celebration of the blossoms that grow from personal interaction and close community.

About Clifford Murphy as folklorist and musician:

For starters, I would just say that we’re all involved in folklife in our own way. But I decided to become a folklorist/ethnomusicologist because I saw an erosion of cultural equity in the country. I spent fourteen years playing in a rock band from New Hampshire — we got to see a lot of the USA and Europe, but we made negative money. I learned that the entertainment industry is inherently hostile to independent, local, and regional styles — the industry likes its musicians to be stylistically malleable. The more we traveled, the more I saw that this kind of pressure by national/corporate culture to alter local/regional culture extended way beyond music. For example, from about 1995 to 2000, I saw all of my favorite mom-and-pop truck stops get bought by national chains and converted into uniform florescent oases. Every place along the highway began to feel and look like every other place – whether it was Birmingham, Alabama or Bangor, Maine. And, as someone who grew up in a state that does not really occupy much space in the National imagination or identity, I also began to feel a bewildering sense that nationalized radio and television broadcasts created the sense — locally — that culture was something that came from someplace else. I decided I wanted to push back against this kind of cultural homogenization in ways that I could not do through my own music. So I went back to school and got a PhD in Ethnomusicology. I’ve since written a book – an ethnography and history of country music in New England, and I have been the state folklorist at the Maryland State Arts Council for nearly seven years. In the process, I have met many people — like those at the Tucson Meet Yourself festival — who have carried on their cultural traditions often in the face of great odds. I find this personally inspiring. As a parent of three little kids, I try to teach my children to look at the world critically, to seek out cultural traditions, and to find enjoyment in everyday folklife.


Our 2014 Festival: A Video Retrospective
© Julianne Stanford

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