Inherently Local Greatness

By Clifford Murphy

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Man at podium gesturing to group of people sitting behind him on stage.

NEA Folk & Traditional Arts Director Clifford Murphy introducing the 2015 NEA National Heritage Fellows at the awards ceremony in the Library of Congress. Photo by Tom Pich

When we go looking for culture, no matter where we’re from, we can find ourselves drawn towards people and traditions “from away.” We can forget that culture resides in our own neighborhoods, and even within each of us. If this becomes habit, we can fail to recognize when we are in the presence of greatness, simply because it doesn’t look like we thought it might.

When I was 16, I started playing guitar in a rock band with two friends of mine. They were brothers, and their parents had recently divorced. When their mom started attending local contra dances on the seacoast of New Hampshire, where we lived, she dragged us along. Through this lens, I developed a rather skewed take on this iconic New England string band music and dance tradition: I associated contra dance with singles events for fortysomethings. The economy in my home region relied heavily on tourism, and old-timers referred to tourists as people “from away.” The musicians at these dances were definitely not “from away”—rather, they looked and sounded just like my neighbors.

I was reflecting on this during the 2015 National Heritage Fellowships events—my first since arriving at the NEA as the new director of Folk & Traditional Arts. And it was humbling to acknowledge to myself that two of the past NEA National Heritage Fellows—Dudley Laufman (2009) and Bob McQuillen (2002)—were regular performers at those contra dances for fortysomethings. My eyes and ears were not yet open to the idea that greatness could be local, familiar, and unadorned. I had been too busy looking over the shoulder of greatness to notice it was right in front of me.

So much of my own journey as a musician was shaped by radio, I had unknowingly developed an overpowering sense that culture—like tourists—came “from away.” I feel fortunate that a chance encounter with Folkways and Library of Congress field recordings started me down a different path of thinking, opening me up to the idea that culture is inherently local.

Still, the idea that greatness should look different—that it needs to be grand, or glamorous, or financially enriching—can be hard to shake off. This is part of the joy of seeing the National Heritage Fellows celebrated at the Library of Congress. The Library’s “Great Hall” is a grand setting, consciously designed as a cathedral to learning, knowledge, and wisdom. And the Fellows embody these attributes—representing the pinnacle of artistic achievement and cultural stewardship. Each of the Fellows has been a dedicated teacher, encouraging future generations to assume the mantle of tradition, and teaching the rest of us that culture does not always come “from away.”