NEA Arts Magazine


Bau Graves on the Importance of the Folk Arts


Nine person folk jam onstage

A group jam at the Od Town School of Music. Photo by Kevin Viol.

James "Bau" Graves wants you to understand -- the folk arts matter. They matter because they reflect who we are as U.S. citizens. They matter because they sustain our heritage. They matter because they bring us together as community. And he thinks so not only because he is currently the executive director of the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, but because he considers the folk arts vital to the country's well being. A musician himself with a master's degree in ethnomusicolog" from Tufts University, Graves previously has been co-founder and artistic director of the Center for Cultural Exchange in Portland, Maine, and executive director of the Jefferson House in Roanoke, Virginia. He is also the author of a book on folk arts and community entitled Cultural Democracy: The Arts, Community, and the Public Purpose. An excerpt from Audio Producer Josephine Reed's interview with Graves in July 2009 is below.

NEA: Can you define "folk arts" for us?

BAU GRAVES: There's a story about the great bluesman Big Bill Broonzy who was playing a song, and somebody asked him whether that was a folk song or not, and Big Bill said, "Well, I never heard any cows singing it." And sort of extrapolating from that, pretty much anything human beings create grows out of traditional culture, one way or another.

I think that tradition is at the core of absolutely everything, including the whole classical European canon. If Mozart didn't have a bunch of folk melodies to push against, he wouldn't have done what he did. And right down to John Cage and our most extravagant experimentalists. Their experiments wouldn't hold meaning if they didn't have tradition to be pushing against. In my view, traditional heritage is sort of the foundation stone that we've got, and everything else flows out of that.

NEA: I think of folk culture as being very grassroots.

GRAVES: Well, that is, I think, totally accurate that traditional culture has to have some sort of a community that nurtures it and supports it, and that has a group of people that reflexively understand how the music is supposed to sound, and what the appropriate way is to appreciate it, and what the dance moves are that go along with it. All of that is part of what makes tradition happen. But traditions don't just stand still. They move, and they evolve, and they change. Most people listen to bluegrass music today, and they think this is a tradition that's got to be hundreds of years old. It just sounds like it was originally created by a couple of old guys sitting on their front porch up in some holler in North Carolina. But bluegrass has only been around since the late 1940s. It was really invented by Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers, and a handful of other great, innovative musicians in the decade following World War II. Since then, it's become a gigantic industry, and it also has got people who've taken the music and run far further with it than Bill Monroe or Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs might've been able to imagine.

Bau Graves at the stage microphone applauding after inntroducing performers

James "Bau" Graves at the 2009 Chicago Folk & Roots Festival, presented by the Old Town School of Folk Music. Photo by Kevin Viol.

Probably there's today a lot of bluegrass traditionalists who look back at the work of those founding fathers of the genre, and they disparage the work that somebody like Béla Fleck is doing, who's moved into a realm that many of them won't even consider to be bluegrass. And that's totally appropriate. It's just the way traditions grow and move and change, and I'm so thankful that there are the real traditionalists, that there are fiddlers like Don Roy in Maine, who is going to maintain that traditional French-Canadian fiddle style because he is so passionate and cares about it, and he's going to stick to that tradition, and there isn't anything that's going to budge him off of it. But I'm also grateful that we've got the Béla Flecks of the world, who are taking sort of the DNA that they inherited and are recombining it with other influences that we've all got here in the 21st century.

A lot of the interesting work that's happening these days to me is artists that are coming out of very traditional cultures and are adopting pieces of the modern age into what they do, so they're starting to use sampling and beatboxes and various forms of electronica, still playing traditional music but pushing it in directions that really sound new and fresh and exciting. I tend to kind of like that thing, although many traditionalists really bemoan it, and say, "Oh, my gosh, you know, how can you possibly play a jig and a reel with a beatbox behind it? It doesn't make any sense." But it does make sense to some of the people who are doing it, and certainly to audiences all over the world that are enjoying that kind of stuff. I find it to be sort of an interesting edge of where world culture is going.

NEA: Why do the folk arts matter?

GRAVES: Folk arts are such a huge part of our identity as human beings. They tell us who we are. They help shape our vision of what is right and true and correct. They are at the very basic level of notions of who we are, and that's what people are, all over the world, prepared to fight and die for. It's my community, the community that nurtured me and that made me who I am. That's what people really care about, and along with religion and land (both of which I think could be looked at as subsets of culture), culture is about the most important thing that we've got. It shapes how we interact with each other. It shapes all of the major events of our lives, from birth and puberty and marriage and childbearing and rearing to death. All of them have huge cultural components that feed into them, and the traditional arts almost always are the expressive edge of that culture that means so much to us. I don't think any of us could imagine what life would be like without it.