Dan Sheehy

2015 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellow
Dan Sheehy headshot

Photo by Ashlee Duncan

Music Credits: "Tequila con limon."  Performed by Mariachi Los Amigos.

“Second Baghdad” from Friendship, composed by Rahim AlHaj, performed by Rahim Alhaj  & Sadaja Quartet, Fast Horse, 2006

Jo Reed: That’s the music of Mariachi Los Amigos, which was co-founded by ethno musicologist, folklorist and the 2015 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellow, Dan Sheehy and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Dan Sheehy has folk and traditional arts in his bones - he has spent his entire adult life appreciating, encouraging, supporting and campaigning for folk arts. In 1978, he joined Bess Lomax Hawes at the newly formed Folk Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts. When Bess retired in 1992, Dan took over as Director of Folk & Traditional Arts at the NEA. From the NEA, he moved in 2000 to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Under his leadership, Folkways has published more than 200 recordings, earning 17 Grammy nominations, winning five, as well as one Latin Grammy. He’s co-edited a volume on the music of South America, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean and he has written his own book on mariachi music in America. And as if all these accomplishments aren’t enough, as you’ve heard, he’s a talented trumpeter whose group, Mariachi Los Amigos, is Washington, DC’s longest existing mariachi ensemble.

When I sat down to talk with Dan Sheehy, I had to start with the obvious question.

Jo Reed: I have to ask how a person with the name of Daniel Sheehy became so interested in mariachi music.

Dan Sheehy: Well, there are different lengths of answer about that. The shortest version is, just lucky. I fell in with the right people at the right time. The more medium-length answer is that... really, it’s the story of my career, in general. I was at UCLA in the late ’60s, studying to be a high-school band director, or music educator, in general. And UCLA-- there was this extraordinary program with musicians-- top-quality musicians-- from maybe 20 cultures around the world. So I got to play a little bit of Gagaku music-- you know, Japanese court music; African drumming-- I was very much involved in West African drumming, studying with Kwesi Badu, who was a great master drummer of Ashanti; and other music. And at the same time, a friend of mine at UCLA invited me to play in a rhythm-and-blues band. It was an African-American-- almost entirely rhythm-and-blues band that played every weekend in Compton, which is, in those days, almost exclusively an African-American neighborhood, and this was, like, 1967. I was really taken with music. And also, the Ashanti drumming-- it was just a “wow” experience for me. I was in total awe of the skill of this Ashanti master drummer. And after a while, I started to think, or realize, I started to look at my own educational experience, and I thought, “Wow. Why wasn’t Ashanti music part of that? Why wasn’t rhythm and blues, with James Brown, a part of that?” And I’d started to play mariachi music-- Mexican mariachi music-- and Mexican Son Jarocho music, from Veracruz. And I said, “This is all great music. Why wasn’t it part of my upbringing, of my music education?” And that’s when I started-- I was shifting over to ethnomusicology, that really looks at all those issues beyond the sound, in the case of music, beyond that person and the context that it’s performed in. And I had two twin pillars, from that point on, that guided me. One was just being in awe of the skill and the beauty, complexity, of these musics and the musicians that perform them; and also, I was a little bit indignant. I saw it as a social-justice issue that needed to be resolved. Certain musics were favored. And nothing against the musics that I was studying, because I love them. That’s why I was studying them and playing them. But why weren’t these other musics included? The answers were social answers. It had to do with how our society’s put together, how the public-school structure is put together-- what’s favored, what isn’t favored, what’s part of the canon, what isn’t part of the canon-- and I became driven with the desire to do something about that. So in my private life, so to speak, mariachi music became a major thing for me. I played anywhere from 30 to 35 hours a week-- could be weddings, could be birthdays, could be funerals, even-- all sorts of things-- and it just sort of pulled me in. It was such a beautiful experience, being part of people’s lives and communities that I had not been raised in. That basically was the beginning of the rest of the story.

Jo Reed: But you came at it through music. Did you grow up in a house that was mus-- you grew up in Bakersfield.

Dan Sheehy: I grew up in Bakersfield, California, which was then a small town in the Southern Central Valley of California. Agriculture and oil were the two basic industries there. My mother loved to play piano. She’d been a bass player, but she did it just at home, for fun. And my father, he used to sing Bing Crosby tunes, basically, around. He was Irish-American, from Boston, and I think the Bakersfield experience contributed to what I ended up doing, as well. I didn’t realize it, at the time. You just grow up, and what it is, it is, you know? But one neighbor was Basque. Others were Mexican-American. On the other side, we had African Americans down the street. In later years, when I came back, the more I looked, the more I realized how really multicultural and how diverse-- and it was like my eyes had been opened. So, anyway, that would have led up to when, somehow, I met Bess Lomax-Hawes.

Jo Reed: Which was going to be my very next question. How did you first meet Bess?

Dan Sheehy: Well, I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t remember. But I do remember that Bess, who was the sister of Alan Lomax, the great American folklorist, and the daughter of John A. Lomax, the father of the two great American folklorists-- and great American folklorist, himself-- she invited me to teach one of her classes at California State University, Northridge. She had two classes there-- she was a full professor-- and she hired a folklorist and an ethnomusicologist to take on the two classes, and I taught ethnological music. And that was about 1972-- and I remember she invited me to her house. I was playing 35 hours a week at that time, teaching courses in three different colleges, and going to graduate school, and I--

Jo Reed: It’s great being young, isn’t it?

Dan Sheehy: Yeah, I think about that, and I can’t even believe how I actually did all that. I was probably just crazy. But I thought, “Oh, yeah. I’ll go by for 30 minutes, hear what I’m supposed to do. Then I’ll be out of there, moving on to the next thing.” And I tell you, three hours later, I was looking at my watch, saying, “Oh, my God, where’d the time go?” And my second thought was, “These folklorists can really talk.”

Jo Reed: How did you come to work at the Arts Endowment? That was in... when was that? 1978.

Dan Sheehy: 1978, I was in the final months of a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship to do research in Veracruz, in the Gulf side of Mexico. I had, literally, a one-room place-- the bathroom, everything, that was one room-- above a little restaurant. And the restaurant owner said, <speaks in Spanish> “You have a call.” So I went downstairs, and sure enough, here’s Bess on the phone. And she, being a Texan at heart, and in her way of being-- she says, “Honey, we have something here at the National Endowment for the Arts that you might be interested in.” So I found out more about it. And so I came back, and-- I came up from Veracruz. It’s a tropical zone. And I remember Bess picking me up at the airport in March, and driving to the hotel where I was staying. There were these snowballs, really-- these big clumps of snow-- coming down. And me, having grown up in the desert of California, and coming from the Veracruz, where it’s a tropical climate, this-- I said, “Oh, my God. What have I gotten myself into, here?” But what I got myself into was one of-- a great experience of my life, really. It became my life, as opposed to my job, really.

Jo Reed: You and Bess really created the Folk Arts program here at the NEA. How long had Bess been here?

Dan Sheehy: Bess started work beginning of January 1977 at the National Endowment for the Arts and then hardly—what had been a special initiative in the arts into a full-fledged program. Bess came up with the idea of being very proactive—a fresh idea, pretty much. She had, in a way, created this network of people around the country who were close to local traditions—might be Polish dance music, it might be spirituals from the Deep South or something like this. That was a kind of a novel idea, and so a big part of what we did then as specialists was to work closely with people to A) tell them what the National Endowment was, because almost nobody ever heard of it, because they live in their own communities and the National Endowment for the Arts is kind of up here somewhere in the stratosphere, and give them whatever help we could in organizing projects and putting together applications and all that.

Jo Reed: So it was really founding the program here.

Dan Sheehy: Yeah. Yeah. And Bess understood bureaucratic structures, and she saw the importance of giving this field the validity, of intellectual weight, of aesthetic weight, of social weight, of every kind of weight you might imagine that would go along with artistic traditions-- and making sure it’s considered on the same basis that other art forms are considered.

Jo Reed: Tell me some more about how you actually made the Folk Arts program work.

Dan Sheehy: I liked the strategy, essentially, that Bess put in place. We had very limited funds, and our world was very big. We had five people in the building; in those days, 240 million people outside the building. And so, both as a way of using our funding to best effect, and also out of a sense of principal that culture is self-supporting; in some cases, it just needs a little push, it needs a little incentive. And so we had a three-years-and-out-per-project funding policy. And... and our strategy was, then, to help them get started, with the idea to give them like a running start, so after three years or so, they might be able to find revenue streams, or the social local community support, to support that festival itself. So it’s kind of like a Johnny Appleseed kind of thing-- you know, you seed a thing here, you seed a thing there, you seed a thing there. And I thought it was very effective, and so I bought into it, entirely. I grew up in a local level, so I had a special feeling about that: that somebody would come to somebody like me or my family or my cultural organization in some small town, and be interested in seeing that my culture was honored and was given a fair chance to be able to continue on.

Jo Reed: 1982 was a banner year here for folk and traditional arts. It was the creation of the National Heritage Award. Take me through that. What was the thinking behind it?

Dan Sheehy: What we tried to do is to put a vision out there that would speak to the diversity that there is in the folk and traditional arts field in the United States, and at the same time be able to let individuals shine through. The idea of having a group honored, that was a very diverse group—you’d have maybe a Cajun fiddler, you’d have a New England boat builder, you’d have a mariachi musician or whatever it was. And those days we were struggling with a number—I think the first number was 17. We decided early on that 17 was too big of a number. You couldn’t see the trees for the forest, if you know what I mean. And so that number was whittled down to a dozen or so, and then later, after I left the National Endowment for the Arts, the number was decreased to nine. But still, the idea remained to project this sense-- extrapolate this sense-- of diversity in American culture. So, built into this program of honoring individuals was that idea of, we’re really honoring an idea, along with honoring individuals. We were honoring this idea of diverse forms of excellence. And also, we were very careful in our rhetoric to not say that this person is the best. We would say that this person, or this group, represents the highest level of artistic achievement. So the whole program of honoring individuals was, in a way, buffered by honoring something much larger than individuals, in our rhetoric and in our programming.

Jo Reed: You became Director of Folk & Traditional Arts, here at the Arts Endowment. That was in 1992?

Dan Sheehy: 1992, Bess retired, and then I became the director after that.

Jo Reed: And I’m sure, on one hand, it was kind of daunting; but on the other hand, you must have had a vision for what you wanted to do as director.

Dan Sheehy: It was daunting. Imagine-- I still can’t imagine-- stepping into these shoes, in the footsteps of Bess Lomax-Hawes. I mean, she really was a legendary figure, and part of the Lomaxes. So, yeah, there’s no question about it. I’d worked with Bess, at that point for 14 years-- and I’d worked with her before, in California. So I learned a little bit of street-smarts, in terms of how to deal in bureaucratic settings and in national programs, and all that, but it was a challenge. It was a challenge, and I frankly never knew whether I was up to it or not, for the first while, there. So, after a while, it was really a process of self-discovery, as well as discovering my own way of being. And I think, out of that, I learned something that’s served me very well up to the present day, and that was, I really admire those programs that have major public impact. And so I moved in. I worked with Bess. I consider her the architect, and I was the carpenter that came along, and the finisher, you know, that built out the house from that basic structure. And so that’s essentially what I did. We commissioned the study of the Changing Faces of Tradition. We built out the apprenticeship program, to reach more states. We started the beginning of a core support program for some of our main traditional arts organizations. There were very few, and they were important to our field, and they needed that core operating support. And also, shortly after then became the battle days, the battle time, when the Arts Endowment budget was cut nearly in half, in the mid-’90s, and we lost 47 percent of our staff and the whole structure of the Arts Endowment changed. It was restructured so the programs did not have their own budget. There were systems, formulas for scoring, for allocating budgets that were-- did not lend themselves as much to proactive reaching-out that had been the case in the Folk Arts program. And so there was a new challenge there that got me into the office every morning about seven o’clock, to just do what I could to keep the achievements of Bess and her brilliant leadership alive, and see how we could integrate the best part, the most valuable part, of the Folk & Traditional Arts program into the workings of the newly structured National Endowment for the Arts. So that took me up to about 1999, and then some friends of mine at the Smithsonian sort of twisted my arm a little bit to move on to another job.

Jo Reed: You’ve had a 15-year career at the Smithsonian, directing and curating Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. For people who might not know what Folkways Recordings is... describe it.

Dan Sheehy: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is the nonprofit educational record label of the National Museum-- the Smithsonian Institution. It was started as a private company by Moses Asch, launched in 1948, that evolved, over time, not just to be what some people call an “encyclopedia of humanity” through recorded sound, by making sure you have representation of cultures from around the world, but also to think strategically. He was looking to see how he could use his cultural tool, this record label, to get some other visions-- sounds or notions-- of the beauty of some of these cultures involved in conflict, to get the public to think a little more deeply, and maybe sensitively, about what was going on in Korea, other than war; what was going on in Vietnam, other than war. And so that’s what he devoted his record label to, and that was the legacy that we inherited when the Folkways Records collection came to the Smithsonian Institution, in 1987.

Jo Reed: Well, when you stepped in as director and curator in 2000, what were you thinking? What was your vision for Folkways Records?

Dan Sheehy: I came along, and I said, “Well, here we are. Okay. We have 2,400, 2,500 albums of music from a big swath of the world. And so here we are, in the great perch the Smithsonian Institution has, that’s widely recognized, and so you almost start off ahead, in terms of trying to get people’s attention. But what can I do to really make this label make a difference in the world?” And you know what I did? I fell back on the philosophy that Bess had really instilled in me at the National Endowment for the Arts, and that was the idea of empowering people to be themselves as best they could, giving them resources. And here, at the Smithsonian, we have recorded sound, mainly music. And so I ultimately developed this philosophy of two guiding pillars-- a good listen and a good story. So you want to have music that grabs people because it’s great music; it’s well-performed, it’s interesting, maybe something like no one’s ever heard before. One of our slogans for a while was, “The best music you never heard.”

Jo Reed: I remember.

Dan Sheehy: And with the idea of pulling people, through the music, into the backstory, and telling the story-- for example, when we published a recording of Rahim AlHaj, from Iraq, of oud music-- the idea there was very much the Moses Asch type of idea, of focusing on the beauty of this creation, the beauty of the person, of the artist-- Rahim AlHaj is a beautiful person, as well as a great artist-- and then pulling them into the story, his story, of being a refugee from the Saddam Hussein era, to all the difficulties that he experienced leaving Iraq, and then coming to the United States and resettling, and reestablishing his life, basically. And so, through that music, we hopefully could pull people into the story, and they can have a greater understanding of Iraq, of the whole story of the war, and the resettlement of the refugees, and all that.

Jo Reed: And that CD was nominated for a Grammy.

Dan Sheehy: And that CD was nominated for a Grammy-- that’s right. We’re very pleased by that.

Jo Reed: And Rahim is a fellow recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship this year.

Dan Sheehy: Rahim-- I couldn’t help but smile when someone sent me the list of the Heritage Fellows this year, and when I saw Rahim AlHaj’s name on there. Michael Alpert also is an artist on the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings record label. And in other cases, there’d be the story that would hopefully grab people and pull them into the music. Another recording that won a Grammy was a very ethnographic, so to speak, accordion recording that was done by a rabbi who teaches at the musicology at Tufts University-- Jeffrey Summit-- who’d been working with a Jewish community in Uganda that had become Jewish by being converted following their leader in about 1919, and embraced Judaism and all its musical traditions and religious traditions. And the music was beautiful, but I think the story grabbed a lot of people, so they would come in and learn about the music. And then, for us, seeing that connection back to the community was the same kind of connection that we’d tried to do with the Folk & Traditional Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts. The more we can see that the community benefited in a substantive, maybe longer-term sort of way, the more we felt we’d really done our jobs here. And that’s exactly what, under my time at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, that’s what we try to do.

Jo Reed: You also were Director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Was that simultaneously along with your directorship of Folkway Records, or did you just take a little sabbatical? Were you doing both at the same time? That’s what I’m trying to ask, here.

Dan Sheehy: I suppose the best answer is, I was trying to do both at the same time. Fortunately, both of those institutions-- the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, which is the host unit in the Smithsonian, for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings-- fortunately, the staff was just terrific, and so-- and I’d known most of them for many, many years. It was a challenge to do both of those. In fact, before then, I was actually Acting Director of the Smithsonian Latino Center for a year, in a time of transition. And in case of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage of the Smithsonian, for me, it was like a homecoming, because my earliest and most deeply impressionable, I suppose, experiences were in the 1970s, when Bess Lomax-Hawes had hired me to do fieldwork for the Smithsonian. I came back and met the folks in the center in the mid-’70s, and then worked alongside them as a volunteer at the Folklife Festival for many years after I moved to Washington. And so to actually work and be Director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage for four years was a very wonderful feeling of homecoming, really, and it was a beautiful time for me. At one point, though, I thought that both of those institutions needed their own full-time director, with nothing distracting them. So I stepped out of the Director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage position, and just was left with my wonderful Smithsonian Folkways Recordings hat, at that point.

Jo Reed: Okay. Mariachi Los Amigos.

Dan Sheehy: Mariachi Los Amigos.

Jo Reed: You are one of the co-founders. <laughs>

Dan Sheehy: That’s right.

Jo Reed: How did this band come together?

Dan Sheehy: Frankly, when I moved to Washington, DC, from California, via Veracruz, I was experiencing some serious culture shock. It was, for me, very different being on the East Coast than being on the West Coast. It was a much different cultural terrain here in Washington back then, and there weren’t a lot of Californians around, and there weren’t a lot of mariachis around. But somehow I just, happenstance, ran into a local group playing mariachi music at the Folk Festival of Greater Washington, at Echo Park. So I fell in with a few of them. And I remember, about six months later, a few of us decided to start a new group. We were all friends, we liked playing music together, so we called ourselves Mariachi Los Amigos-- “the friends.” And our first job that kind of glued the group together was playing for the Monday-night, all-you-can-eat Mexican buffet at the Ramada Inn, right next to the Highway 395, in Alexandria. From those glorious beginnings, the group kept going, miraculously. And for some of us, it was a... as they might say in Spanish, “<speaks Spanish>.” It was a way to let off steam. It was, for me, a great balance to working in an office all day, and then go out, make music, have people get really excited and yell and sing along and clap and go wild. It was a great tonic and a great balance that’s served me very well over the last… 37 years or so, now.

Jo Reed: And you played at the White House.

Dan Sheehy: Oh, yeah. We’ve played at all kinds of places in DC. Yeah.

Jo Reed: But-- the White House: how, who, when?

Dan Sheehy: Well, we played a couple of times, but the more memorable time was the Mexican president, President Zedillo, and his spouse was visiting the Clintons. It was the Bill Clinton administration. And they invited us to play for the… sort of the preliminaries. And so we put on our suits, did our whole thing, and played there for a while. And then they all moved into where the banquet was set up. The security people moved us into the Blue Room, the small room in the White House. And we thought, “Well, this is-- okay, they’re going to take us out to the gate, and we’ll leave.” The door is open. In walks Bill and Hillary Clinton, arm in arm, and President Zedillo and his wife, arm in arm. They shut the door. Bill Clinton says, “Okay, guys, play me something.” And so we started to play our signature, the mariachi signature song, “El Son de la Negra.” And about halfway through, the social secretary is giving me the evil eye to, “Okay, cut it, cut it, cut it. We need to get them out of here.” <laughs>

Jo Reed: In closing up, what does it mean, for you, to get the Bess Lomax-Hawes Award?

Dan Sheehy: I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t think I know yet what it really will mean for me to have been selected to receive the Bess Lomax-Hawes Award. I was taken aback at the beginning, because, again, I had been involved in the creation of the award, in 1999, I think it was. And in my mind, the voice of Nati Cano, the great mariachi recipient of the Heritage Fellowship, about, “Do you know what this means? This is a serious thing.” And I-- you know, it means that the weight is on my shoulders, and the responsibility. And I think-- after really worrying about being on the receiving side, as opposed to the giving side, I decided, “It’s doing no good whatsoever to worry about this, so I should just enjoy it <laughs> as much as I can.” And so, thinking ahead, basically, my plans are to follow the Nati Cano philosophy of, this is something to take inspiration from, and then move that into whatever next chapters of my personal life and my professional life that I might have left.

Jo Reed: That was musician, ethno musicologist, folklorist and the 2015 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellow, Dan Sheehy. You can meet Dan and hear the music of Rahim AlHaj and Michael Alpert at the free 2015 National Heritage Fellows Concert. Join us on October 2 at 8:00 pm in Lisner Auditorium here in Washington, DC - and if you can’t make the trip, not to worry, we’re webcasting it live---go to arts.gov for more information.

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

A life in the folk and traditional arts.