NEA Heritage Fellows Bring Back Memories

On Friday, September 19th, the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowships free concert will be held at Bethesda’s Strathmore Music Hall.  Each year the NEA awards one-time-only awards to traditional and folk artists, and I have special memories of the music of two of this year’s recipients.

Bluegrass master Mac Wiseman has one of the great voices in bluegrass music.  Back in the early 1970s, I had stopped listening to rock and pop and was acquainting myself with all types of acoustic and traditional music.  I decided to attend a bluegrass festival, and the one I chose was Mac Wiseman’s Bluegrass Festival in Renfro Valley, Kentucky.  This was a time before the huge festivals and the Wiseman affair was definitely small scale.  However, it was very friendly to a young college student eager to soak up the music.  I remember hearing Wiseman, Martha and Eddie Adcock (they were also doing the sound), the Lewis Family, and more.  Mac Wiseman’s tenor and Adcock’s innovative banjo playing stuck with me through the years, and when I hear Wiseman sing Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy it brings back great memories.  I wore holes in my Mac Wiseman Bluegrass Festival T-shirt, and would probably still have it if I hadn’t married someone with the fashion sense to throw it away.  It is great to see Mac Wiseman get this recognition.

My memories of traditional jazz musician Michael White are more recent.  In 2006, less than a year after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Tulane University hosted a Rebirth:  People, Places & Culture in New Orleans conference, which I had the privilege to coordinate for the National Trust.  Working in close partnership with Tulane and with co-sponsors including the Preservation Resource Center and Xavier, Dillard, and Loyola Universities, the Trust participated in this high-profile examination of the role of the city’s unique culture – its architecture, music, food, and neighborhood Social Aid and Pleasure Organizations – in the rebirth of New Orleans.  More than 230 people attended the conference and heard national leaders such as First Lady Laura Bush, NBC News Anchor and Managing Editor Brian Williams, and Aspen Institute President and former CNN Chairman and CEO Walter Isaacson, as well as cultural critics from the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and Newsweek.   

As important as all of these perspectives were to the success of the conference, the heart and soul of the discussions came from four panels made up of an extraordinary collection of local residents who have been working – often for decades – to keep these cultural traditions alive in New Orleans.  From the city’s top chefs and leading Creole cooks to the Chief of the Zulu’s from Mardi Gras; from nationally renown jazz musicians such as Ellis Marsalis to the head of the Broadmoor Neighborhood Association who is saving her community’s historic architecture – all the panelists told of their efforts at recovery in the months following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, providing stories of hope for renewal tempered with a realism for the difficult job they faced.  Many of us felt we learned more about the city – and how the various aspects of its culture work together to make it so unique – in those two days. 
 
Now, my Michael White memory.  It was a privilege to work with Dr. White and to hear of his educational efforts to keep traditional jazz alive.  As we were listening to Michael and his quartet play Bourbon Street Blues at the final luncheon, National Trust Trustee and former Indiana First Lady Judy O’Bannon leaned over to me and said, “What would you do if you had to have a regular job for a living?”  Then she added, “Thank God for old houses” – because they put us in contact with the most extraordinary people, places, and cultures.  This conference and the work that grew out of it demonstrates why preservation is so relevant to American life today.  Thanks Mac Wiseman and thanks Michael White for all you’ve done to keep the extraordinary culture of this country alive.
More to come…
DJB

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