Live mu­sic, his­tory merge in Folk­lore fest

Her­itage Fes­ti­val fea­tures gospel coun­try, rap, soul

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Cover Story - By Mark Jor­dan

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.

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