Art Works Blog

Profiles in Community: A Look at Folk and Traditional Arts via the Films of Folkstreams

Like many of you, we're also adjusting to the new normal of sheltering in place, homeschooling kids, and generally figuring out how to cope with a life that's suddenly not very normal at all. The four of us in Folk and Traditional Arts (Bill, Cheryl, Cliff, and Rachel) have looked to folk and traditional artists for their wisdom in coping with difficult times. Who better than these artists who have maintained a steadfast commitment to practicing, teaching, and celebrating the distinct culture of their communities through good times and bad? Below we've pulled together a list of some of our favorite folklife documentary films from Folkstreams—the pioneering web platform (and long-time National Endowment for the Arts grantee) that has found, preserved, contextualized, and streamed (free of charge) folklife and cultural heritage documentaries for over 20 years.

Paring our recommendations down to just a few is a tall task, as Folkstreams hosts hundreds of films, including profiles of many NEA National Heritage Fellows. Topics and geographies include Why The Cowboy Sings (2002), La Décima Borinquena (a 2005 film about improvisational décima troubadours in Puerto Rico), High Steel (a 1965 film about the Mohawk Indians of Kahnawake who built the steel frames of Manhattan skyscrapers), Gandy Dancers (a 1994 film about the musical traditions of African-American railroad trackers in the segregated South), and Powerhouse for God (a 1989 film about the music and ministry of a small Baptist church in Virginia’s northern Blue Ridge mountains).

We hope you enjoy our selections, and the opportunity to visit with some extraordinary communities while maintaining your social distance!

Blues Houseparty (1989). Produced by Eleanor Ellis. Piedmont Blues is dance music. And it’s what ethnomusicologist Charles Kiel would call “peoples music,” with incredible give-and-take between the musicians and their audience. Blues Houseparty features five National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellows (John Cephas, Phil Wiggins, John Jackson, Jon Dee Holeman, Joe Wilson) at an annual blues picnic in Northern Virginia, and this film makes you feel like you are there. — Cliff

Born for Hard Luck (1976). Produced by Tom Davenport. Arthur Jackson, better known as Peg Leg Sam, was an artist—harmonica player, blues singer, and dancer—of the highest caliber who existed at the margins of society. If you’ve never heard him, you should. — Bill

Final Marks (1979). Produced by Frank Muhly, Jr. and Peter O'Neill. The documentary discusses the tradition of lettercutting, in both monumental inscriptions and on gravestones. I enjoyed watching the rhythmic nature of John ‘Fud’ Benson’s (father of NEA National Heritage Fellow Nicholas Benson) work as he lettercut the inscriptions on the of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. (32:55) and listening to him discuss the interplay of art, math, and geography in creating a visually striking inscription. — Rachel

Fishing All My Days (1986). Produced by Peggy Bulger and Alan Saperstein. Though I was unfamiliar with the occupational folklife of Florida’s open sea shrimping, I found that the voices and visuals featured in this film drew me in immediately. I enjoyed hearing from African-American shrimpers in addition to Anglo and Mediterranean fishermen, fishing net-makers, and wooden boat builders. — Cheryl

From Mambo to Hip Hop (2006). Produced by Steve Zeitlin, Elena Martinez, and Henry Chalfant of City Lore (an Arts Endowment grantee). The documentary explores how musical traditions and styles have melded and evolved in New York’s South Bronx. In addition to interviews with Mambo dancers, band leaders, DJs, B-Boys, and Hip Hop musicians, the documentary is filled with archival footage. Go to timestamp 14:14 to watch the fast-paced footwork of competitive Mambo dancers or 38:00 to hear DJ Charlie Chase talk about how he worked to break into the record spinning community. — Rachel

Medicine Fiddle (1991). Produced by Michael Loukinin. The Métis (or Michif) communities of the Northern Plains along the United States/Canadian border have a musical tradition that is profound for its beauty, its healing powers, and its relationship to the land and the ancestors. This film immerses you in the Métis music, language, and communities that emerged between the Great Lakes and the Rockies from the mixing of Native American/First Nations communities and settlers, trappers, and lumberjacks of French and British Isles ancestry. Readers familiar with the fiddling character Shamengwa from Louise Erdrich’s stunning novel, The Plague of Doves, can hear the melodies Erdrich describes so exquisitely. — Cliff

Plenty of Good Women Dancers (2004). Produced by Barry Dornfeld, Germaine Ingram, and Debora Kodish. This film features interviews with Philadelphia’s legendary African-American women tap dancers, whose active careers spanned the 1920s – 1950s. In addition to learning the history of African-American women hoofers of the jazz age, I enjoyed watching great archival footage intertwined with rehearsals for a 2004  concert featuring many of the women, as well as hearing from male hoofer and 1989 NEA National Heritage Fellow, LaVaughn Robinson. — Cheryl

Ashpet: An American Cinderella (from the series Tales From The Brothers Grimm) (1989). Produced by Tom Davenport. I can safely recommend any of the films from the Tales From The Brothers Grimm series. They are retellings of Grimm's Fairy tales in southern settings, stories that are more commonly known as “Jack Tales.” — Bill 

Talking Feet (1987). Produced by Mike Seeger and Ruth Pershing. This is another favorite of mine, and focuses on the dance style that goes by many names: buck dancing, clogging, and flat footing, to name a few. Needless to say, I love the music that propels these dancers, but the rhythm of their dancing and the subtle movements of their feet just knock me out. — Bill

Woodsmen and River Drivers (1989). Produced by David Weiss and Karan Sheldom for the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History at the Maine Folklife Center. This documentary shows the guiding hand of the great folklorist Sandy Ives. The film reminds me that the old-timers I knew as a kid in New England in the 1980s could see and feel a landscape that was not visible to me: the long days and nights in the winter woods, the dangerous river drives that claimed lives of friends and family, the vibration of thundering mills that gave people work and literally made the town hum, and the songs and foodways that stitched the days together. — Cliff

Interested in learning more about folk and traditional arts and artists? Here are five short films featuring recent National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellows.

Add new comment