Clifford Murphy

NEA Director of Folk and Traditional Arts
Headshot of a man.

Photo courtesy of Edwin Remsberg

Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Cliff Murphy: I would call folk and traditional arts the cultural forms that we learn by word of mouth or by example. You know, I’ve heard people say that these are the cultural traditions that we learn face-to-face or knee-to-knee. So they’re typically artistic forms that are passed on through families, or through close communities, things that you learn by watching others really and by listening to others in a way that is rooted in this bigger cultural context.

Jo Reed: That was Clifford Murphy. He’s Director of Folk & Traditional Arts at the National Endowment for the Arts. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. This week, the Arts Endowment announced the recipients for the 2020 National Heritage Fellowships. This is the country’s highest honor for folk and traditional artists; those people whose life’s work encompass both artistic excellence and efforts to sustain cultural traditions for future generations. Joining me to introduce you to the awardees and their accomplishments is Clifford Murphy, Director of Folk & Traditional Arts at the Arts Endowment since 2015. Cliff is a former working rock musician and songwriter from New Hampshire. He’s worked as a public folklorist since 2008. In fact, he’s the former Maryland state folklorist, and he has a PhD in ethnomusicology. But most importantly, his knowledge of folk art is matched by his love of it and respect for it. I asked Cliff to give us a little backstory about the National Heritage Fellowships.

Cliff Murphy: Sure. The National Heritage Fellowships were started in 1982. They were inspired in part by the Living Treasures of Japan program, which was and is an effort by the Japanese government to ensure that long-standing traditions-- you know, these are traditions that are sometimes thousands of years old, to ensure that these are passed on to subsequent generations, to ensure that master artists are honored and that traditions are continued. Now, in Japan, those fellows receive a lifetime stipend to carry on their traditions. For the National Heritage Fellowships, we provide a $25,000 award to recipients. They come to Washington, D.C. They receive a medallion. There are usually nine of them each year. And the idea really, I think, from the National Endowment for the Arts’ perspective was that this was an important way to recognize lifetime achievement. It was an important way to celebrate the different cultural practices that together comprise a portrait of American life and the really extraordinary diversity of the country.

Jo Reed: Let’s get into the specifics and talk a little bit about the 2020 Heritage Fellows. And let’s begin with the singers. We have three very, very different singers. Tell us about them.

Cliff Murphy: Sure. Onnik Dinkjian is an Armenian singer from Fort Lee, New Jersey. Onnik is somebody whose voice is well known within Armenian churches and Armenian communities across the United States. You know, for decades, churches across the country, Armenian churches across the country, use cassette recordings of Onnik and his singing in their services, in their community events. And he is this remarkable singer, but also a person who is kind of upheld by Armenian Americans as being foremost among them as a singer and as a steward of Armenian liturgical singing. So that’s one. Another is William Bell, who is a soul singing, originally from Memphis, but now lives in Atlanta Georgia. William is really closely associated with the Stax Record label, which some people know as Soulsville U.S.A. Many people are familiar with Otis Redding, and Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and the Staple Singers, and Isaac Hayes.

Jo Reed: Stax is legendary.

Cliff Murphy: Absolutely. And William is one of the people that got that label off the ground. He is a singer and a songwriter. The two songs that he’s best known for are “You Won’t Miss Your Water Until Your Well Runs Dry,” which the band The Byrds with Gram Parsons had on their “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album. And the other song is “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which Albert King had a hit with originally and then Cream with Eric Clapton had a major international hit with. And so, obviously, this is a guy whose songs translate across a lot of different styles of music, a lot of different cultures, and generations. And that first song of his, “You Won’t Miss Your Water,” was one of the first hits on Stax Records that really got that label started, so great singer, great songwriter, and we’re excited to celebrate him.

Jo Reed: And then we have our third singer, Suni Paz.

Cliff Murphy: Yeah. So Suni Paz is originally from Argentina. She is a singer of people’s music, I think is one of the ways that it could be characterized. She has really had a lifelong devotion to the songs and musical traditions of migrant communities particularly who are Latinx, and so she has been very active with migrant workers and kind of the songs and traditions that they carry with them as they move through the world. She lives in Nevada today, but was a long-time resident of California, came here in the 1960s, and is well known for her songs, many albums on Folkways Recordings.

Jo Reed: She’s also written a lot of songs for children.

Cliff Murphy: Yeah. Her repertoire encompasses ancient traditional songs, as well as original songs, songs that are written for a particular moment or with a really particular audience in mind, and so she’s a really dynamic performer and has been well known and well loved for decades.

Jo Reed: Before we talk about the rest of the fellows, how are they chosen each year? What’s the process by which you pick them?

Cliff Murphy: We have a public nomination process for the National Heritage Fellowships. Everybody who is considered for this award each year has been nominated by somebody out there in the country. And this is not an application process. It’s a nomination process. And each nomination typically has a lot of biographical information in it. It has some work samples of the artist, and then it typically also has a bunch of letters of support from core community members, from scholars, from artistic peers, really people who can kind of speak to the importance of this person within their cultural tradition. And we pulled together a panel of people with a broad range of expertise and experience, including past National Heritage Fellows, including scholars, including people who work in the arts and cultural sector, and including one layperson to review, I don’t know, anywhere around 150 nominations each year. And winnowing that down to nine people is both difficult, extraordinary, and a bit heartbreaking, because, as you might imagine, all of the artists in that pool of nominations are pretty remarkable and are worthy of celebration, and they’re worthy of recognition. And to see a group of people go through that process of trying to narrow this down really to nine people is tough. While we have had nearly 450 Heritage Fellows recognized since 1982, there are more people worthy of recognition than will ever receive this award.

Jo Reed: Do you ever find that new traditions are nominated? Do traditions change over time?

Cliff Murphy: Absolutely, really over maybe like a ten-year period of time. You can see the recognition of traditions that are new to the United States. You can see expanding definitions of what is considered traditional, and I think that that is really healthy. It’s an acknowledgment that these are living traditions, that folk life and cultural heritage is not static. This isn’t reenacting. This isn’t people doing exactly the same thing every year forever. It is something that needs to adapt and change under changing circumstances. And I think the National Heritage Fellowships are a reflection of that spectrum of practice.

Jo Reed: Well, certainly the two visual artists represented in the 2020 class are-- we have a bead worker and a canoe builder. And I want to start talking about canoe building first. And my question to you at first was going to be, okay, so why is this an art? And then I saw the canoe, and I was gobsmacked. It’s extraordinary work. Let’s talk about Wayne.

Cliff Murphy: Well, so, yeah, Wayne Valliere is a canoe maker, a craftsman, a language advocate, is somebody who is really one of the great educators and protectors of cultural practice in his community. And he is an enrolled member of the Lac du Flambeau Tribe of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. Wayne lives in Northern Wisconsin. And his work, in some ways, is the archetypal form of folk and traditional arts. This is an art form that is made for and by and about the community that uses it. This is a tribe and a cultural community that has a deep connection to waterways. And for anybody who knows about the history of life on this Continent knows that really until, I don’t know, a hundred years ago, 125 years ago, that waterways, rivers, lakes, oceans, were our super highways. And the birch bark canoe making tradition is one that is both beautiful and functional. The idea, to me, of being able to engineer something that is beautiful and functional-- I don’t have that capacity. And these are forms that have been handed down for millennia and require weaving ability, carpentry ability, visual arts ability, engineering. These are canoes that don’t just float. They are graceful.

Jo Reed: And beautiful, I mean, and the way the inside is woven. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Cliff Murphy: Yeah. I think that one of the things of cultural beauty, the context of canoe making, is that people are drawn into-- young people in particular are drawn into a process of creation, of making something that works, of learning at the knee of a master artist, but also of somebody who is the keeper of all of this other knowledge of the tribe, of the language traditions, of the sacred traditions, of the traditions around wild rice harvesting, around fishing. And so it becomes this remarkable conduit for learning and immersion. And I realize the irony of using the term “immersion” and “canoes” at the same time, right? They’re kind of opposites. But in some ways, that’s the space that it occupies. And there are studies that show that indigenous youth that have fluency in these kinds of practices live longer, have healthier lives, and Wayne is a great example of mentorship.

Jo Reed: And our other visual artist is Karen Ann Hoffman, and she is a bead worker.

Cliff Murphy: Yeah. So Karen Ann is a member of the Oneida Nation and also lives in the State of Wisconsin. While the Oneida Nation is headquartered in Wisconsin, historically the Oneida are from the Upstate New York region and are part of the Iroquois Confederacy. So this particular beadwork tradition grew up at the intersection of the Iroquois community and of tourism and specifically around Niagara Falls. And so Iroquois bead workers began making these decorative objects that oftentimes were things like picture frames, this beautiful really thick three-dimensional beadwork. And Karen Ann Hoffman has been involved in this tradition for quite some time and has also kind of taken it in a bunch of different directions. So she practices kind of the core tradition, but she also does a great deal of work that kind of extends it into new three-dimensional spaces. And so some of her work is something that you might recognize as a handbag, but some of it is also something that almost looks like a fabric vase or pot, or something like that. It’s really something to behold.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Water jugs is one of the pictures that I saw of her work, and it’s extraordinary. I cannot wait for the opportunity to actually see it person-to-person to get the sense of the three-dimensionality.

Cliff Murphy: I think with Karen Ann Hoffman’s work, one of the things that I see is an example of traditional arts that seems to connect with everybody. What I mean by that is that I’ll acknowledge that there are folk life and cultural heritage forms that sometimes people don’t understand, people don’t appreciate, maybe people appreciate it, but they don’t necessarily “like it.” But Karen Ann Hoffman’s work is something that everyone that I’ve ever seen see this work is just blown away by it regardless of their cultural background, their class background, their racial background, whatever. I mean, it seems to connect with everybody, so it’s really something.

Jo Reed: And I don’t know if you mentioned it, Cliff, but I think we also have to talk about the colors she uses, because there’s such vibrancy to her work.

Cliff Murphy: There really is. And I think that sometimes with-- folk and traditional arts sometimes can be perceived as something that is delicate, or fragile, or even drab. And Karen Hoffman’s work really blows that up. It is so vibrant. The colors are so much alive that it makes it hard to perceive of traditional arts as something musty.

Jo Reed: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And speaking of not being musty, we have two dance groups who are getting the 2020 Heritage Awards. Tell us about them.

Cliff Murphy: So Zak and Naomi Diouf are from the San Francisco Bay Area, from Castro Valley, California and Oakland, California. They are a married couple who are both originally from West Africa and have been living and practicing their traditions in the United States for over 40 years. And one of the things that I mentioned earlier, that the Heritage Fellowships shows the evolution of different types of traditions, or the emergence of different types of traditions over time. Zak and Naomi have facilitated West African dance groups and troupes for decades. And typically, as is found across this country, that people of African American and African immigrant heritage are often found practicing a variety of African rooted traditions together. And Zak and Naomi have navigated that space, and in some ways, this is an acknowledgement of kind of collective African diasporic dance, if that makes sense. So this is not just going to be a tradition that is found in Senegal that has been practiced continuously in the United States for 40 years. This is a mixture of traditions that you would find across a number of African countries, ethnicities, language groups, and religious groups. And, man, their dance group is electrifying, and alive, and just full of an extraordinary energy.

Jo Reed: And fabulous, fabulous music.

Cliff Murphy: Yeah, absolutely. Yes.

Jo Reed: He’s so interesting. He has a PhD in biochemistry?

Cliff Murphy: Well, he has a PhD in biochemistry and in ethnomusicology, and he has many kids. I mean, they have cultivated an incredible community in the San Francisco Bay Area of practitioners. They have raised this vibrant family and have been, I don’t know, the embodiment of life-long learning. Who has two PhDs, right? Who has two PhDs--

Jo Reed: No one.

Cliff Murphy: --and a National Heritage Fellowship? I think he is probably the first.

Jo Reed: And our second dance group.

Cliff Murphy: Yes. Our other dance fellow is a group called Los Matachines de la Santa Cruz. They’re from Laredo, Texas, and this is a sacred dance tradition that has been ongoing. This group has been together and practicing in the United States, in Laredo for over 100 years. And prior to that, the group had originated in Central Mexico and then had traveled up towards the border to work in mining communities, eventually moved to Laredo, and has practiced an annual devotion to the Holy Cross. And so perform every year in honor of Santa Cruz, the Holy Cross, as well as the Virgin of Guadalupe, and a variety of other Catholic feast days. This is something that you’ll see a combination of elements that are clearly rooted in both Spanish tradition and in indigenous Central American traditions, and this group is really a synergy of those things. This is a group that is not just a dance group. It is also a musical group. It is also a group that makes its own regalia. It makes its own altars. You’ll see elements of their regalia that will remind you of the kinds of jingle dresses that you might see at a pow wow, but there will also be accordion and violin, drum that may remind you of Ranchera music and ______________ 00:19:34 music. There are a lot of things going on here.

Jo Reed: And food is very much involved in this too, if I’m not mistaken, isn’t that true?

Cliff Murphy: Yeah. The feast days are called feast days for a reason, right?

Jo Reed: Exactly.

Cliff Murphy: And I guess that for me, even though it makes it a challenge to give a quick description of what this tradition is, it also goes to show that folk life is something that is so multifaceted. The Los Matachines are so many things all at once.

Jo Reed: It’s so embedded to one within the other. They just seem to hit every single sense that we have.

Cliff Murphy: Absolutely.

Jo Reed: You know, sight, smell, taste. I mean, all the senses are completely activated by them.

Cliff Murphy: Absolutely. Yeah.

Jo Reed: And we have another musician who is an old-time fiddler and banjo player, John Morris.

Cliff Murphy: So John Morris is an old-time fiddler and banjo player from Ivydale, West Virginia. Ivydale is in Clay County, West Virginia, and that’s important because Clay County has its own style and repertoire within the old-time music world, and John Morris is really the guy who-- if you’re from Clay County, you look to John Morris as the guy who is the carrier of these traditions.

Jo Reed: He was featured, or his music was, in “Harlan County USA.”

Cliff Murphy: Right, a film funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. And John is somebody who-- he and actually his brothers were involved in the United Mine Workers of America. There are people who traveled throughout the region and throughout the country sharing original songs and traditional music in that Clay County style. Again, this is music of the community, but it’s also music of struggle.

Jo Reed: And lastly, finally, we have the Bess Lomax Hawes Award. Can you first explain the award, and then tell us about this year’s recipient?

Cliff Murphy: Sure. The award is named in honor of Bess Lomax Hawes, who was the first director of Folk & Traditional Arts at the National Endowment for the Arts. She is the person, under her stewardship, that the state folk life programs really flourished in almost every state and territory across the country. She is the person who helped to get traditional arts apprenticeship grants going, which now there are, I don’t know, north of 500 of those that happen annually that we support across the country.

Jo Reed: That’s a lot.

Cliff Murphy: Yes. And it was really under her stewardship as well that the National Heritage Fellowships Program started in 1982. And she was a folklorist and an ethnomusicologist and also a member of the singing group, The Weavers. So if you’re a fan of “Johnny on the M.T.A.,” she is one of the originators of that song. So, obviously, Bess Lomax Hawes is somebody who has been a remarkable advocate for traditional arts in the United States. So each year, we make one National Heritage Fellowship in honor of Bess Lomax Hawes. That goes to somebody who has been an extraordinary advocate for traditional arts, either nationally, internationally, or within their community. So this year’s recipient is Hugo Morales, who is the founder and a face of Radio Bilingue. Hugo has a pretty incredible story of his own. Hugo was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, part of a Mixteca farmworker family who immigrated to California to pick prunes in the 1960s. Hugo went on to become a Harvard graduate and a Harvard educated lawyer and a leader within the farmworker movement, but also as a leader in terms of providing a sense of cultural connection to migrant workers. So Radio Bilingue is an important outgrowth of that work. This is a radio station that, while you’ll be able to find it in places across the United states, is really targeted towards workers who speak a multitude of language. And so Radio Bilingue will have programs that speak to the cultural lives of those workers, that will speak in the language of those workers. And so in that respect, Hugo is seen and understood as a real innovator in terms of developing radio as a format that can be a steward of language traditions and cultural traditions and cultural knowledge for people who, by and large, are constantly on the move.

Jo Reed: It’s interesting, because he talks about wanting to create an honest culture by and for the people. And when I look at the list of Heritage Fellows, I can’t help but think that’s what each and every one of them do.

Cliff Murphy: Yeah. Absolutely.

Jo Reed: Cliff, I know that the Heritage Concert is going to be virtual this year. Do you know yet how it’s going to work online?

Cliff Murphy: Okay. And so our goal is to bring viewers of this virtual celebration a little closer to the context of the fellows’ lives, whether that’s in their homes, whether that’s in their workshops, so that-- while we all love the annual concert that we have to celebrate the fellows, one of the things that the audience doesn’t get to see is the spaces and places where the fellows live and practice. And so one thing that we’re excited about here is that we’ll have a chance to do that a little bit. We are sad to not be having the in-person concert, but that was the most prudent decision that we could make.

Jo Reed: Let me just ask you this. How is the field, the highways and byways, of folk and traditional art holding up in the middle of a pandemic and economic upset? Let’s face it. This isn’t peopled with organizations that have big endowments.

Cliff Murphy: Yeah. That’s a big question, and so I’m going to try to answer it in a couple of pieces. So one is I think right now, because of the pandemic, many if not most of the public programs that happen in Folk Traditional Arts have gone dark. That is everything from major festivals to major craft markets to smaller community events, right? So you think about somebody like Los Matachines and the kind of public devotional community traditions that they uphold, right? All of these things have been impacted by a pandemic. And so that to me prompts this question, which is if an entire year of public programs goes dark, does it enable us to see more clearly the work that we do that maybe the public sees in a burst at a festival or in some sort of public event. But really the work that Folk & Traditional Arts does is ongoing, and it is oftentimes happening out of sight. And so can we see that a little better? And if we can see that a little better, can we talk about that work a little bit better? Folk & Traditional Arts are really about stewardship through all sorts of different scenarios, and a pandemic is one of them. If people learn face-to-face-- right? You asked me at the beginning of this how folk and traditional arts is defined. If this is something that is really passed on person-to-person, well, that’s also how infection is passed on, right? And so how does social distancing impact transmission of tradition? Face-to-face interaction is something that is, I think, sacred within folk and traditional arts as a field. And collectively, the field is having to adjust on the fly. It has been difficult to watch, because it is difficult for everybody to make that shift. And there’s a lot of anxiety that goes along with it, but I’ve heard Dan Sheehy, past recipient of the Bess Lomax Hawes Fellowship, talk about how folk and traditional artists are maybe seen sometimes by people as being interested in the past, but that in his experience— and I would say this is true for me too. Folk and traditional artists are people who are primarily concerned about the future and about seeing ideas and cultural continuity survive into subsequent generations and adapting to new scenarios. And so this is a real test. This is where the rubber hits the road with that. It’s been tough to watch. But I also think that there have been some really amazing things to come out of this, an example being the Native American regalia makers who are making extraordinarily beautiful masks, or the quilters of Gee’s Bend using their skills as quilters to make masks, again adapting, applying ancient knowledge to new settings.

Jo Reed: That was Clifford Murphy, Director Folk & Traditional Arts at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can find out more about the National Heritage Fellows at You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, and leave us a rating on Apple, because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe, stay kind, and thanks for listening.

In this podcast, Clifford Murphy, National Endowment for the Arts Director of Folk and Traditional Arts, introduces the recently announced 2020 NEA National Heritage Fellows. This is the country’s highest honor—a lifetime achievement award—for folk and traditional artists whose life’s work includes both artistic excellence and efforts to sustain cultural traditions for future generations. As Murphy says in the podcast, folk art has been described as “something learned knee-to-knee.” All nine recipients of the Heritage Award serve as exemplary mentors as well as inspired artists. Murphy doesn’t just discuss each artist, he also talks about each art form—whether it’s dance, song, beadwork, or canoe-building—and the culture in which it's embedded. We also talk about some of the ways the folk and traditional arts field has been impacted by the pandemic and creative adjustments that folk and traditional artists have made in response to the crisis. Murphy is not only enormously knowledgeable about the folk and traditional arts, but it's clear he holds a deep love for these arts and the people and communities that create them.