Art Works Blog

Heritage By the Numbers

Did you know that since 1982 we have awarded NEA National Heritage Fellowships in 211 artistic traditions? Among them, this year’s class of nine fellows represent diverse art forms within the fiber arts, music, dance, Native American cultural traditions, and religious musical traditions. Here are 10 fun facts you might not know from more than three decades of honoring master artists in the folk and traditional arts.

1. Heritage Fellows have the blues—10 different types! We’ve honored musicians who have played in the Chicago, Country, Delta, Louisiana, Piedmont, Texas, St. Louis, Swamp, Urban, and West Coast styles.

2. If you’ve ever seen the Heritage Fellowships Concert, then you know Heritage Fellows love to dance. In fact, you might recognize 2014 Heritage Fellow Kevin Doyle from last year’s concert when he danced during the performance of 2013 honoree Seamus Connolly. To date, we have honored 19 ethnic and cultural dance traditions, including Bharatanatyam, Capoeira, Tap Dancing, and Carolinian Stick Dancing, just to name a few.

There is, however, one type of “dance” we’ve honored that’s not actually a dance at all—Gandy dance, a style of work song developed by railway maintenance workers in the early 20th century.

3. We’ve honored one musical form that started right in the nation’s capital—Go-Go Music. No, we’re not talking the 60s dance craze, we’re talking about the musical genre identified by its signature mix of Latin beats, African call-and-response chants, R&B, and jazz played by 2005 National Heritage Fellow Chuck Brown, known as the “godfather of Go-Go.”

4. Many folk art forms are associated with religious traditions, such as the unique singing style of 2014 honoree the Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware. We’ve honored approximately 16 of these forms, including Ethiopian religious music performance and composition, Gospel music, Old Regular Baptist singing, Santos carving, Shape note singing, Yoruba Orisha music, and many more.

5. Poetry Out Loud is not the only event at which we celebrate poetry at the NEA. Heritage Fellow poets have mastered the art of Cowboy poetry, haiku, and Basque poetry.

6. We not only honor musicmakers, like Rufus White, honored this year as a traditional Omaha singer and drum group leader, we also honor the artists who craft the instruments. Perhaps not every Heritage Fellow has built a guitar for Eric Clapton—we’re looking at you Wayne Henderson—but each maker we’ve honored to date has excelled in one of nine traditions, including Apache fiddlemaking, Hammered dulcimer making, and Trinidadian steel drum making.

7. You probably won’t get a Heritage Fellowship for singing in the shower. (Sorry!) But we have honored master artists who perform a range of singing styles, from Ballad singing to Beijing Opera to Cajun to Hawaiian Cowboy singing. 2014 honoree Manuel “Cowboy” Donley sings and plays in a Mexican-American style while fellow honorees the Holmes Brothers sing a mix of blues, gospel, and R&B.

8. We have honored nearly 30 distinct traditions in the fiber arts., including Chilkat blanket weaving, Armenian embroidery, Puerto Rican mundillo, and Hawaiian quilting. This year two Heritage Fellows are fiber artists. Vera Nakonechny is a master Ukranian embroider, weaver, and bead worker. This year’s Bess Lomax Hawes honoree Carolyn Mazloomi is being honored for her work as an advocate for the art of African-American quilting, but she’s also a master quilter in her own right.

9. Given the wide number of Native American tribes across the Americas, it’s not surprising that we’ve honored more than 40 distinct tribal artforms across a broad spectrum of disciplines—from basketmaking to weaving to regalia making to storytelling. New Heritage Fellow Yvonne Walker Keshick makes quillwork in the Odawa tradition while Henry Arquette, also a 2014 Heritage Fellow, crafts traditional Mohawk baskets.

10. The traditional artforms practiced by NEA National Heritage Fellows originated across the globe. At a very rough (and unscientific) guess, at least 41 countries are represented when looking at the roots of each distinct form. Still the list of more than 200 traditions reveals how much we all actually have in common—from the desire to make music or dance to the desire for practical objects, such as baskets, quilts, and pottery, that are also beautiful to the desire to make ourselves beautiful—through regalia or clothing decorated with embroidery or quillwork or lace. And we all have a need to tell and listen to stories, whether they’re told in the African-American, Appalachian, Scottish-American, Lummi, or Cowboy styles.

In other words, when we honor the National Heritage Fellows each year, we’re celebrating their mastery of their various artforms, but we’re also thanking them for reminding us we’re more alike than different. Don't forget to join us for tomorrow night's National Heritage Fellows Concert celebration online at at 8pm ET.  

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