Live music, history merge in Folklore fest
Heritage Festival features gospel country, rap, soul
Since it was first held in 1982, the Center for Southern Folklore’s Memphis Music & Heritage Festival has amassed a vast and precious catalog of moments: Rufus Thomas re- creating the variety shows of the Palace Theater on the stage of the Mud Island Amphitheater. One of the last performances by blues mystic James “Son” Thomas. Fife and drum master Otha Turner passing along the century- old secrets of his tradition.
But don’t take our word for it. See for yourself.
Moments like those and many others can now be experienced on the center’s Web site, southernfolklore.com. Part of a $400,000 archival effort, the revamped site launched last week and is offering a virtual exhibit called “Gems of the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival” in advance of the event’s annual return to Downtown’s Peabody Place Saturday and Sunday.
The exhibit offers rare video and audio recordings as well as photographs from throughout the festival’s history. Begun in 1982, the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival is a convergence of disparate local music and folk traditions — including art, cooking and dance — that represent the Southern experience spectrum. Events at this year’s festival include Southern, Puerto Rican and Creole cooking exhibitions alongside square dancers, African-American stepping teams, belly dancers and African drummers.
This year’s music lineup, highlighted by performances by soul-blues star Bobby Rush, country legend Eddie Bond and rap sensation Al Kapone, is equally eclectic.
“You’ve got jazz and country and folk and the blues, and then funk, then Harlan T. Bobo and then a jug band,” says center and festival executive producer Judy Peiser, founder of the 35-year- old nonprofit. “What ties it all together is that Memphis is such a cultural and music crossroads. People that come here understand it. We’re bombarded with Memphis and blues, Memphis and this or that. But Memphis has its roots in gospel. It has its roots in country, rockabilly and blues and R&B. The festival pulls all that together.”
The new southernfolklore.com is, likewise, an extension of that mission. Peiser and a small team of staff and volunteers headed up by the center’s Internet development director Elisa Blatteis have been working for more than a year to launch the one- of-a-kind virtual museum.
“No one has ever done this quite the way we have,” says Blatteis. “There are some virtual exhibits out there, but those sort of accompany places that have physical exhibits. Since the center has no real exhibit space in its current home in Peabody Place, this is actually taking the place of an exhibit.
The virtual exhibit is divided into three “galleries”: See-Photos, See-Video, and Hear. There are also more than 1,000 art items from the center’s vast collection for sale through the site’s online store, including art works by celebrated local folk artists Joe Light and Frank “Preacher” Boyle available by auction.
Though the initial offerings are small — just 30 photos and seven videos — the potential for the site is huge. Blatteis estimates there to be more than 100,000 hours of recorded material and many times that number of images in the archives.
In addition to its own vast resources, the center possesses the collections of the late Rev. Lonzie Odie Taylor. The minister of Olivet Baptist Church from 1931 to 1956, Taylor
extensively documented African-American life in the city up until his death in 1977. His collection, acquired by the center after his death, includes some 15 hours of home movie footage (some of which was turned into a 30-minute 1991 documentary by Memphis filmmaker Lynne Sachs), 7,000 still images, 500 prints as well as audio recordings that offer an unprecedented look into the everyday lives of blacks in the pre- civil rights South.
“We deemed that collection the most important and have begun systematically going through (it),” says Peiser. “Thanks to support from National Park Service and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Saving America’s Treasures program, we should have that work done in a year and a half or so.”
Other support for the archival program has come from the local Assisi and Plough Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“What we’re doing is turning our entire archives into digital material so that we can then begin to showcase the people and the traditions and the music that we’ve recorded for years,” says Peiser.
Plans are for the exhibits to switch out every three months or so, with the next one focusing on the work of Taylor. Supporters of the center will be able to access past exhibits through a password-protected area.
“The beauty of this is you can see all this material online, but then you can still go hear the music of today” at the music festival, Peiser says “You can see Smoochy Smith play boogie woogie piano, but you can also hear younger performers, too. That’s what makes the festival so special.”
Bobby Rush joins Eddie Bond and Al Kapone in the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival’s eclectic lineup.