Diverse Group of Folk Artists Perform at Lisner

The NEA National Heritage Fellowships Concert promotes preservation of America’s cultural artwork.
NEA Awards
September 30, 2013

By Jay Conley

Sacred Harp singing, traditional gypsy music, and Native American storytelling were part of a diverse group of folk and traditional art forms that were performed Friday night as part of the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowships Concert in Lisner Auditorium.

Nick Spitzer, host of public radio’s American Routes, emceed the evening of conversations, demonstrations and performances by nine recipients of this year’s NEA fellowships that recognize folk and traditional artists for their artistic excellence and efforts to preserve America’s culture for future generations. The recipients received $25,000 and were honored earlier in the week in an awards ceremony at the Library of Congress. Past recipients include blues musician and singer B.B. King and bluegrass performer Bill Monroe.

One of this year’s recipients, Pauline Hillaire, also received the Bess Lomax Hawes NEA National Heritage Fellowship Award. It recognizes an individual for a significant contribution to the preservation and awareness of cultural heritage. Ms. Hillaire is an artist, teacher and author whose works carry on the heritage of the Lummi tribe of Washington state.

This year’s NEA fellows are masters of diverse traditional art forms, including five that have never been honored before by the fellowship committee. These forms include Paiute storytelling, Mexican-American ceramic sculpture, Romanian cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) playing, swamp blues, and Lummi oral traditions.

Friday’s concert included performances by David Ivey, a Sacred Harp singer from Huntsville, Ala., and Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez, a Chicano musician from San Diego, Calif. Mr. Spitzer described Mr. Ivey’s a cappella hymns as “an ancient sound that soothes the sole for modern times.” The origin of Sacred Harp singing dates back to colonial New England. It spread to other parts of America, primarily the southern region of the United States, through the work of itinerant singing masters. The name refers to a collection of songs, hymns and anthems first published in 1844.

Mr. Sanchez, the son of Latino farm workers who also worked in the fields himself, has become a cultural icon of the Chicano community. He was taught traditional Mexican music by his mother and uncles, who sang and played guitar. During the 1970s he frequently played at rallies and marches for the United Farm Workers Union. “Music is a powerful force,” he said Friday, because it inspires workers to keep struggling for equality.

Since 1982, the Arts Endowment has awarded 386 NEA National Heritage Fellowships, including the 2013 fellows. Fellowship recipients are nominated by the public, often by members of their own communities, and then judged by a panel of experts in folk and traditional arts on the basis of their continuing artistic accomplishments and contributions as practitioners and teachers. This year the panel reviewed 169 nominations for the nine fellowships. The ratio of winners to nominees indicates the select nature of this national honor.