Barry Bergey

Retired NEA director of Folk and Traditional Arts
Barry Bergey headshot.
Barry Bergey Podcast Transcript Music Credits:  “Blue Mule” written and performed by Bob Holt From the Album Traditional Fiddle Music of the Ozarks: Volume I: Along the Eastern Crescent. National Heritage Fellow Yuri Yunakov performing live at National heritage Concert Barry Bergey:  Folk artists, you know, they don’t often shout. Sometimes it’s a whisper, but if you listen, if you give them the opportunity, not only to perform, but to have their say, whatever it may be, that can be a very important thing. Jo Reed:  That is Barry Bergey. Until recently, Barry led the Folk and traditional Arts division here at the National Endowment for the Arts and this is Art Works...the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. This November, Barry Bergey, who had been a vital part of the agency for over 29 years, stepped down as director of folk and traditional arts. Barry served in that position since 2000....following 15 years as an NEA specialist in that field. Barry also managed the National Heritage Fellowship—which is the nation's highest honor for folk and traditional artists and he was an ongoing consultant to the State Department on International Cultural Policy. Over the course of his career, Barry has been a fieldworker, festival organizer, radio producer, curator, and arts administrator. His resume is long and deep...but it pales in comparison to how much he is beloved and admired both here at the agency and around the country for the quiet thoughtful passion he brings to his work. He understands firsthand the value and significance of a people's cultural expression that often speaks to the deep connection between community and culture. Afterall, while Barry is a leader in the field of folk and traditional arts and now live in Washington, D.C., his cultural roots have always remained planted in the soil of his native Missouri. I want you to tell me about New Haven, Missouri or Missourah” Barry Bergey: Missourah, well, let me tell you about Iowa first. I was actually born in Iowa, Southeastern Iowa, in a little town called Primrose, had 80 people in it. So, it was very small. My dad was a minister. He had two churches and so I would sit through sermons twice a Sunday and I developed the skill of looking very interested in what he was saying when my mind could’ve been wandering many places, but I guess it prepared me for meetings in the government and I went to a one room school house there and when we moved to New Haven, Missouri, which I was going into the fourth grade, I thought I was moving to the big city because New Haven had about 1,200 people and it even had a movie theatre and so I was very happy to be going to this very urbane place in Missouri, not realizing that in some people’s minds that wouldn’t be the big city by any means. Now I can remember going into school. We had a weekly reader quiz and they asked about my favorite movie star and I had only seen maybe two or three movies in my life at that point and so I didn’t know many movie stars so, my response to my favorite movie star was Francis the Talking Mule and most of the kids in my class thought it was very funny so, I realized at that point I had a lot to learn. Jo Reed:  How was it growing up there? Barry Bergey:  It was a great place. It wasn’t all that far from Saint Louis in many ways, you know, about 65 miles, so we were close enough that you could kind of get in the city if you wanted to, but it was very rural and mainly farmers, people who lived or worked on the river in some way. So, to me, that was a formative experience in my life, growing up in that town. What I realized as I went on to college and so forth is that I grew up in a sort of a monocultural  setting for the most part and wherever I went, I experienced new people, with new backgrounds, with new identities, with new ways of behaving and that really fascinated me. You know, until you go away from where you are, you don’t realize that things are different other places and you just take for granted lots of things whether it be quilting or people who might fiddle, or people who might tell good stories, or whatever it might be, or people who raise almost all the food they eat and so I just took a whole lot for granted until I started experiencing people who had a totally different experience than mine.  I think that sort of set me off in terms of being curious about community, about how you identity with the community, and culture, how you behave. Jo Reed:  Now where did you do to college? Barry Bergey:  Well I went to the University of Missouri so that’s when I first experienced people who were a lot different than I was in terms of the way they grew up. It was during the baby boom so, when I started there, there were about 12,000 people in the college and when I graduated there were only 25,000 with the state university and then I went on to graduate school at Washington University in Saint Louis. Jo Reed:  What did you major in? Barry Bergey: American Lit. I didn’t know you could study folklore and I was interested in American culture and writing and one of the experiences that I had is that I had a great high school English teacher and when I graduated from high school he gave me a copy of Alan Lomax’s The Folk Songs of North America because he came from the Ozarks, so he talked a lot about folklore, about folk belief and other things so he sensed I had an interest in it so when I graduated from high school he gave me this collection.  Little did I realize that many years later I would come to Washington to work for Alan Lomax’s sister, Bess Lomax Hawes Jo Reed:  That’s amazing and did that book- That book, was that kind of a pivotal gift for you even at the time? Barry Bergey:  It was, it was, because I devoured the material in that book.  I was very-- I was never a musician myself but I was very interested in folksong and I was growing up at a time when the folk boom was occurring of course at the same time.  So, you know, Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were all part of that experience as well.  Then I realized that connected to much more traditional community-based music and so my avenue in was mainly through the music I would say first. Jo Reed:  Did going away college let you look at the art that was being created in your own community and maybe be able to recognize it as an art as opposed to something that Aunt B does, that’s her quilting? Barry Bergey: I think to a certain extent. Probably, it was the displacement from community that had the strongest effect on me at first. It was really, probably a little later in graduate school that I began to sense that there was all this other significant stuff happening around us and we would go out and attend fiddler’s conventions and bluegrass gatherings and so forth and I really started to take an interest in it. We realized at the time that even with the folk boom there was a lot of attention paid to Appalachian music and the blues, not so much what was occurring around us in the Ozarks and in Missouri, Central Missouri and we realized no recordings were being made. There was no documentation. I would say that partially at least I think my efforts in folk and traditional arts came from that sort of parochial point of view initially. There’s great stuff here and very few people know about it. Jo Reed:  So how did you go about documenting it?  How could you afford to do it?  Were you working?  How did it all come together for you? Barry Bergey:  Well actually the NEA plays an important role in that.  We got together as an organization and it was called Missouri Friends of the Fold Arts. Jo Reed:  And how did you become a part of that organization? Barry Bergey:  Well I and a couple of friends sort of put it together. Jo Reed:  You just started it? Barry Bergey: Yeah we started it. What happened is there was a Blues musician named Johnny Shines, who was traveling through Saint Louis. He was coming from Chicago, going back to his home in Alabama and his car broke down in Saint Louis so I had some friends who were involved, who were interested in Blues and Saint Louis was quite the Blues center and they decided that they wanted to do a benefit for him to pay to have his car fixed and so we put on a little concert at Washington University and we were able to broadcast that we were going to do this concert, just on spur of the moment and lo and behold we had all these people show up, now in fact so many people showed up  that we did two, back to back concerts in one night and raised enough money for him to fix his car and this gave us the idea that maybe there’s an audience for this kind of thing and an interest in it and that was one of the things that led us to decide to form a not-for-profit organization and then because I had a lot of friends who were into traditional old time music, string band music, mainly we decided well, there are all these fiddlers out here and banjo players and singers that should be recorded and we knew about the fact that a lot of this kind of documentation had been done in Appalachia and we knew there was a person named Alan Jabbour, who had made a record of West Virginia fiddle music, a great album. So we decided well, he works at the National Endowment for the Arts and maybe we can see if we can get some funding to do the same sort of things and he was very encouraging to submit an application for a grant. Now we didn’t know enough to put in money for our time or anything else, we just wanted a tape recorder, microphones, some tape, and enough money to press a record and he was encouraging and we sent in an application and we got $4,500 to make a recording.  Later, the State Arts Agency began to take an interest now that we’ve gotten this recognition from the NEA and they put enough money in to match that grant because we had no money essentially so we could place a copy of that album in every school and library in Missouri and that was our match for it. The album was called, I’m Old but I’m Awfully Tough: Traditional Music of the Ozark Region. So we spent about a year traveling around and making field recordings and then we put that out on the air. That was 1975, so that really sort of started us on this course I guess. Jo Reed:  This was really a time that folk and traditional arts was really coming into its own. Did you meet other folklorist from other areas of the country? Barry Bergey:  Yeah and I didn’t realize it at the time, but early on you could actually go and study this stuff somewhere so I’m pretty much self-educated on that front, but I did start interacting with other folklorist who had benefitted an academic degree and tried to do as much reading as I could and that was eye opening and I still until I came out here which was in 1985 was pretty much focused on Missouri culture whether it be the Blues music of Saint Louis in the Saint Louis area or the traditional old time music or the crafts in the area. I had a funny experience once which we did a festival for eight years on the grounds of the arch. It was patterned after the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the National Folk Festival, music, crafts, and somebody was describing this person to me and said: There’s the perfect person for your festival. He makes wooden toys and he travels around to all these crafts fairs, and they were describing my father. It was kind of funny for me to think about that but when he retired from the ministry, he made wooden toys and he would travel around t crafts fairs because he liked to interact with people and he liked the joys of seeing young kids play with the toys. So, I never thought of him for a minute as being someone who I might present at a festival, you know, but that’s the kind of funny thing that happens sometimes. Jo Reed: That to me seems so typical of what folk art is. Barry Bergey: yeah. Jo Reed: Well Joe Wilson is one if the legends of folk and traditional art. I know you and he go back a long way. When did you first meet him? Barry Bergey:  Wow. It would’ve been in the early ‘70s, early to mid ‘70s.  Joe was director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts at the time and they did the National Folk Festival. So Joe came out, to have a conversation with us about perhaps hosting the National Folk Festival in St. Louis.  Well that never happened.  But, Joe is one of these people who inspires lots of other activity and he was interested in traditional music.  He learned about some of the folks we were recording out here, some of our work.  He encouraged us to start a festival; which we did. After that we made a connection with the National Parks Service at the Arch and moved the festival there. We called it the Frontier Folklife Festival; and we did that for seven years I guess on the grounds of the Arch and it became a pretty big festival and that’s how we were able to give artists from Missouri a stage, a voice. Bess used to say: You give people a platform and you let them express themselves.  Folk artists, you know,they don’t often shout; sometimes it’s a whisper and-- but if you listen, if you give them the opportunity not only to perform but to have their say, whatever it may be, that can be a very important thing and that’s- with the festival that’s what we try to do. Jo Reed:  Now when you came here in-- here, the National Endowment for the Arts-- in 1985, Bess Lomax Hawes was here. Barry Bergey:  Right. Jo Reed:  And Dan Sheehy was here. Barry Bergey:  Right. Jo Reed:  Tell me about Bess and Bess’ influence, not just on folk and traditional arts at the NEA but really nationally. Barry Bergey:  Well Bess was such an important figure and I think one of the reasons she was such a good strategist.  But she had been in Washington; you know, her father and her brother were both involved with the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress way back.  She also was here as a- she would’ve been a teenager or just entering college during the era of the WPA and all the federal government’s investment in the arts, in documentation, Federal Writers Project, all those things were happening.  And one of the things that she learned from that I think is that these are good programs but they also can disappear almost overnight because she saw that happen, she experienced that, where almost overnight most of those programs went away.  So when she came to Washington to work, first she worked at the Smithsonian on the Bicentennial Festival that was held on the mall and then she was hired by Nancy Hanks at the time there wasn’t even a Folk Arts program as a program, a distinct program, at NEA; there were just special projects. She saw the need to create something with some permanence and so she went about, in a very deliberate way, establishing a network of folk arts specialists around the country; because she realized that we’re way under institutionalized in folk arts-- there’s a need for a link somewhere.  And she also saw I think the danger of this kind of romantic notion about folk arts; that is that it’s archaic, it’s exotic, you know, there are lots of things; you know, you can play the nostalgic card but I mean, it’s more than that, folk arts is more- deeper than that and it’s community-based.  And so she saw the need for having people who really had expertise and training in folklore or cultural anthropology or ethnomusicology to have these positions around the state that could conduct documentation, fieldwork, could execute public programing of some sort, exhibits, films, festivals, whatever it may be.  So she really started early on to link with state arts agencies or not-for-profits in states that could provide a sort of state-wide service and then she also saw the need for several other things.  One is apprenticeship programs where there were traditions, as there are languages, that are threatened if not disappearing in some cases and that this idea of the one-on-one apprenticeship was an important concept for folk arts. So that was a very important thing; and then later, in 1982, she used the National Living Treasures concept that really started in Japan to propose a National Heritage Fellowship program where we would recognize individual artists and that had many important elements.  It had a public element where we would do a public program and it had a personal element of course because we were able to both honor and give money masters of tradition and it had a political element which was to raise awareness politically in Washington, D.C. about the importance of these artists and these art forms and it also made a statement: as far as the federal government’s involvement in folk and traditional arts, she saw a sort of deeper connection that needed to be made with community and that’s why she set about, I think, establishing a program that would address those needs and that’s had an important impact ever since.Jo Reed:  You’re only the third director of Folk and Traditional Arts here at the Endowment. Jo Reed: Now why the decision to come to Washington? Barry Bergey: Well it was a tough decision for me ‘cause I’d always grown up in the Midwest; you know, I hadn’t spent any time east of the Mississippi. I still pretty much had small town roots in many ways. But it was a-- you know, I also saw it as a great opportunity to work with Bess who was of course someone who was known to me at the time, more by reputation than a personal relationship.  And the wonderful thing for me was the opportunity to kind of expand my horizon to think about all this other stuff that was going on around the country.  And so it was a learning experience for me, definitely, and Bess and Dan were great mentors in that; and I have to say through the years the panel meetings of course were a significant factor.  Having all these people come to Washington and talk and discuss the projects around the country and give their expertise, react to the sample materials we were having, that was a graduate education ongoing for 29-- it still occurs.  But it really was the way you learn and it was that kind of conversation around the table that made a huge difference in my life and in my learning.   Jo Reed: I’m trying to think of a good way to put this-- but there was also a way in which-- there was a challenge for you all to make sure folk arts got its respect. Barry Bergey: Right, right. Jo Reed: Can you talk about that challenge? Barry Bergey: Yeah.  It is difficult and somebody-- I read an article once where they referred to cultural voyeurism or cultural vampireism; and cultural voyeurism I guess would be the kind of idea that this stuff is really exotic, it’s different.  So you take an interest in it because it’s weird, so to speak and that’s not a good reason to take an interest, in my view or there’s the cultural vampireism and that’s something where you- folks get interested in it and then use it in some way but don’t respect it or credit it but kind of pull from it and use it for whatever reason and so I think you kind of constantly battle those two things.  I think the Heritage fellowships had a lot to do with the respect that Folk Arts deserved-- because it gave a significant platform for the artists.  It showed it in a respectful manner; I mean folklorist has written about text, context and texture.  Those are three elements of expression sometimes; There’s text, there’s the-- whatever it is-- the object or the word, whatever it could be and the context in which it occurs and then the texture, the kind of esthetic things, that goes beyond necessity, the decoration on a quilt or a basket that isn’t necessary for it to function but it’s an important element of it.  I mean, you think about those various dimensions, then you kind of figure out a respectful way perhaps to present it. Jo Reed:  Well folk art really is an art of the people. It’s an authentic expression of the people. Unfortunately, it’s not really a money maker and there’s often a way of devaluing things that don’t make money. Barry Bergey: Yeah and it’s very deep.  I’m reminded of a heritage fellow once, a basket maker, somebody said to her: That’s such a nice hobby you have; and she said: That’s not a hobby that’s my life and that’s the kind of depth of connection that you like to bring out because it is more than that, it is more than just a pastime to many people and just because it isn’t necessarily commercially viable that doesn’t mean it isn’t important.   Jo Reed: You know, it would seem also to me that a challenge for a folklorist in the United States is that we are a culture of many peoples. So that everybody who’s come here has left a footprint and strands of their culture that they took with them from wherever they came. Barry Bergey: Right. Jo Reed:  So of course folk art is always vivid and evolving but I would think in America even more so because of the way this country came together and continues to come together.   Barry Bergey:  It’s both a challenge and an opportunity. I mean it’s constantly changing.  I was just at a meeting talking with somebody from Nebraska who was telling me about the Sudanese population now in Nebraska, recent immigrants who have come and there are different tribal groups from Sudan also, so it’s a question of language differences, there are cultural differences, but it’s constantly changing.  So that’s one of the great things about-- some people say: Well hasn’t all the documentation been done, hasn’t all-- don’t we know everything about ourselves?  No not quite yet and we never will. Jo Reed: I know a friend of mine is Nigerian American and was talking to me about being raised in Texas and I said: God I just can’t imagine being Nigerian in Texas.  He said: O there’s a big Nigerian population in Texas.  He said: When I was in Utah that was very different. Barry Bergey: Yeah it’s constantly changing and I think that’s great because that’s one of the challenges is just meeting the community on its own terms, finding out what their needs and interests might be,  but one thing you can bet on is that almost every community has some form of expressive life that they feel is important to them.  It could be song, it could be lullabies they sing to their children, it could be rituals around birth or death or marriage, it can be what people wear, so all those things are important. Jo Reed:  You’ve been an ongoing consultant to the State Departments about international and cultural issues. Tell me a little about your international. Barry Bergey:  Well there’s a lot of interest internationally now in what is called intangible cultural heritage, which is just another name for folklore pretty much and you know, many countries have a separate system.  They have an arts ministry and then they might have a ministry of cultural heritage, so they think of those things differently.  In the U.S. that’s not the case.  Number one, we don’t have a cultural ministry, we don’t-- I sometimes say our arts policy is to not have a policy, which is sort of the way it is, and I know there are good things about that; it’s not a top-down concept, but many other countries invest a lot of money in cultural heritage and not just physical cultural heritage but the intangible; and this has become quite a strong movement now around the country.  There is a convention at UNESCO, which is like a treaty, on intangible cultural heritage, safeguarding intangible cultural heritage; 150 countries have ratified the treaty.  We haven’t at this point but we were involved with the drafting of it and maybe someday we will.  China’s investing millions of dollars now in establishing cultural heritage- intangible cultural heritage museums and centers in every province in China and doing lots and lots of fieldwork.  So, it’s something that’s happening internationally.  It’s very exciting I think.   Jo Reed:  I would imaging globalization is kind of a two-edge sword when it comes to folk and traditional arts because on one hand it’s a threat but on the other hand it makes- it can easily make people appreciate it more as everything else becomes more homogenized. Barry Bergey:  Right.  Yeah and sometimes globalization can just be used as a term for the U.S., the dominant movies and TV and the kind of mass culture, and globalization means kind of a- you know, a graying out, as Al Lomax put it, of cultural distinctness, but there are good aspects also about communicating across cultures and providing opportunities with new media and so forth to share that work; and so I guess as you-- it is a two-sided coin or a two-edged sword, one or the other.   Jo Reed:  And finally Barry, 29 years-- 29 years? Barry Bergey:  And a half. Jo Reed:  And a half.  You had to have thought about your legacy and I’m not going to ask you what it is because that seems unfair to me, but I am going to ask you what you hope it is? Barry Bergey:  Well you know, I think about there were some Heritage Fellows again who were from Alaska and they were- they worked in carving masks.  It was a husband and wife team and she sewed sealskins and made things; and I can remember when they were talking about what they did and they were really struggling to say what it was they did and the best they could come up with, which I think is a pretty good thing, is they said: We try to do good work.  And that’s about as much as you can expect, you try and so I guess that’s what I would hope is somewhere along the way maybe a little of it was good. Jo Reed:  Oh come on.  So much of it.  Barry, thank you so much for more than you will know.   Barry Bergey:  Well it’s been great fun. Jo Reed:  That was Barry Bergey. He just retired as the director of folk and traditional arts at the National Endowment for the Arts. We all look forward to his next chapter. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country keep checking Art Works blog or follow us @NEAarts on twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Barry Bergey shares some memories about a lifetime immersed in folk and traditional arts.