Friday, March 13, 2020

Gleaning Memories Uncovers Culture - 1980

By Connie Holman, The Jackson (TN) Sun, June 10, 1980. 

MEMPHIS — For years, the Center for Southern Folklore has been making films, records and books about the people and culture of Mississippi and its rich Delta. 

Now, the center staff is working in its own backyard with a Mid-South Folklife Survey of Shelby, Fayette, Lauderdale and Tipton counties in West Tennessee as well as DeSoto County, Mississippi, and Crittenden County, Arkansas. 

"We see our survey as a year-long search for people," project director Debbie Gibson says. "We're trying to find them and document the culture of an area through its people.

"We're going out in all directions with this survey. We're interested in urban and rural relationships, how they affected the past and now. We're looking for things passed from one person to another." 

The staff hopes to work in Golden Circle counties eventually, but for now, local residents are urged to help supply the center with names of people to interview in the four target counties. 

Skills and knowledge passed from generation to generation need to be preserved and shared with the public, Ms. Gibson says. For example, she's interested in finding people who have been taught by another person to sing or perform the blues, make baskets, gather herbs, tell stories or prepare food. 

"If things are documented, there's an incredible chance for their survival," she explains. "It increases the chances that a younger person can take up what you're documenting."

The survey project is two-faceted — educating the public and documenting traditional culture through interviews and photographs. 

Ms. Gibson and her staff introduce themselves to numerous communities through presentations about the Center for Southern Folklore. Slideshows and films help explain how the center preserves traditional culture. 

"Our outreach is tangible," Ms. Gibson says. "We give them something concrete that doesn't cost them. In return, they name people for us to interview, which we follow up on in our survey." 

"For years, folklorists have been digging up bones in one place and burying them in another," Ray Allen, a music specialist for the project, says. "And the public hasn't been getting to it. With our grant, its emphasis is getting it back to the public." 

Explaining that folklore exists in the city as well as the country is another emphasis of the survey. "Everyone thinks of folklore as old, rural, antiquarian," Allen says. "But, now people are realizing there's lore in the city. Anything that's passed on orally or visually from one generation to another generation is folklore." 

"All of the different cultures do contribute to what we call Southern, rural culture," Miss Gibson says. "The South has not been thought of as having a large, ethnic population, but it does." 

And folklife isn't just basket-making or blues, Ms. Gibson says. "It's all aspects of life passed on. It's barn construction, agricultural techniques and foodways. 

"And, during our interviews, we look at the total culture of a person," she continues. "Our questions are geared to complete biographical information on a person as well as his craft, art, whatever he's proficient at. We tie together his religion, sense of place (what he calls home) and his family. 

"We're dealing with the artist, not just his art, but a picture of his whole life," Allen says. "We don't just record songs or take pictures of a quilter, but how they learn, the social context of the songs in their life. We get inside of their lives." 

One final result of the survey will be a four-day July Fourth weekend festival at Shelby County Penal Farm in 1981. Craftsmen will demonstrate their craft and musicians will perform. 

Photo courtesy of the Center for Southern Folklore 

Lucy Long, an ethnic specialist at the Center for Southern Folklore, interviews Duoang Keo, right, a 1 7-year-old refugee from Cambodia. This was one of many interviews conducted among the ethnic groups in urban Memphis as part of the Mid-South Folklife Survey. This summer, the staff will focus on rural communities in West Tennessee. 

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