Sustainable Music


Monday, August 3, 2009

Sandy Ives and the Maine Folklife Center

[The following, with a few minor alterations, was posted to PUBLORE this evening, the public sector folklorists' listserve.]

Sandy Ives was a great inspiration to so many and his loss is painful. Let me add my voice to the chorus and say that as his friend and colleague for more than thirty-five years I will miss him terribly. It was only a few weeks ago that I visited Sandy and Bobby at their home in Orono, and Sandy and I talked for two hours. It seemed like only five minutes. His mind was fine, his conversation even better. He was aware of the troubles that the dean of the college of arts and sciences was visiting on one of his legacies, the Maine Folklife Center, but we didn't talk about that. We talked as we always did about folklore, poetry, fieldwork, teaching, writing, music, people and tennis; and we discovered as we always did, time after time, that we had yet another favorite thing in common--this time it was Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading, and he took me right to it on his shelf. Afterwards I spoke with his wife Bobbie and she told me how much he'd enjoyed the visit. I tried to tell her how much I'd enjoyed it, too, but enjoyed is only a roundabout way here of talking about what we were doing, affirming friendship in the face of death. I know he had many more visits from friends in his last days and I'm sure it was the same.

As a part-time resident of the state of Maine for thirty years now, I've watched the Northeast Archives grow into the Maine Folklife Center, in some ways as the Archive of Folk Song grew into the American Folklife Center, combining a newer public folklore component with its ongoing archival holdings. For most of that time I've been on the Maine Folklife Center's advisory board; Sandy set it up to advise him as director, because it was clear to him that it was going to move in the direction of public folklore, while he himself was not--he would concentrate on his research and writing projects. Of course, Sandy had been one of the first folklorists to sit on the NEA Folk Arts Panel, and he knew and understood what public folklore was going to become, and he supported it; he just didn't want to spend his time directing a center, and so he found university money to hire a part-time associate director to run the show, and set up an advisory board to help with suggestions.

In the last twenty or so years what had once been a volunteer operation--the archives--grew into a Center with a faculty Director, an associate director, an archivist, and an administrative assistant. When Sandy retired and his successor was (wrongfully) denied tenure and the faculty position lost in a previous budget crisis by the anthropology department, the Center became vulnerable. A few short years later and in the current budget tsunami, what had grown to four positions attached to a thriving Center when Sandy retired have become one position (the director) who is now under orders to raise soft money or in another year the Center will have to close and the archives will be transferred to the library, although at what level of care is uncertain.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that the dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences, who was responsible for the budget cuts to the MFC staff positions in the first place, took the director (Pauleena MacDougall) along with advisory board members David Taylor and me around to meet the deans of research and of lifelong learning, in hopes that they might be better able to house and fund the MFC. We got no more commitment from them than from the dean of the college. As I understood it, the units in those divisions already were supported chiefly by soft money. The dean of the college had two weeks earlier told our advisory board that he had devised criteria for budget cutting: teaching, research, and service, in that order. He was surprised at the end of his application of those criteria that the MFC came out so badly. He considers the MFC primarily a service operation, apparently overlooking its research function (fifty years and nearly fifty volumes of the Northeast Folklore monograph publications series apparently does not count much, nor does the public folklore research that the MFC has been carrying out, nor do the current director's publications, which would be the envy of most assistant professors) and unaware of the irony that when the university eliminated the regular faculty position for a folklorist, it cut the teaching component back to a few folklore courses offered by adjuncts, chiefly as distance learning over the internet. It's a little as if you cut out someone's tongue and then ask them why they're having trouble speaking.

And so the bottom line is that the Center cannot continue to expect to receive staff salary funds from the University of Maine. If it is to survive there, it will have to do so on grants and donations. That is why those of us interested in its survival need to mobilize support. Grants, gifts, anything and everything. The advisory board has been working with Pauleena for weeks now on a letter to be sent to the AFS membership list; it should be in the mail shortly, with suggestions about whom to write, whom to call, and of course how to donate if you care to. Other fundraising efforts are underway, grant proposals, appeals to the Stephen and Tabitha King foundation, and so forth, but the Center needs a great deal more help if it is to survive. UMaine has had a fifty-year legacy of folklife study, teaching, and research, is the leading institution in folklore in northern New England, and is missing an opportunity to build on excellence. My university, Brown, as most universities do, build in those areas where we are already strong; squandering such an opportunity completely by eliminating the faculty position for a folklorist and then eviscerating the Maine Folklife Center on the grounds that it does not well serve the chief mission of the university--teaching--is mypoic at best.

Let me add one more thing. When the staff cuts were made known a few months ago I'd hoped that a concerted campaign with some influential Maine state legislators could put pressure to bear on the university to fund the MFC. I'd even hoped that there might be line items in the legislature's funding of the university system so that certain funds could be earmarked for the MFC. But we were told that there is no way for the state legislature to earmark funds for particular part of the university system; the university gets a lump sum and it is the university that decides how to spend it. The best thing that could be done, I think, is a grass-roots campaign that gets something like a bill written in the Maine state legislature as it was for the American Folklife Center. We need another Archie Green for this. In the meantime, individual state legislators can be reached to talk up the Center. It turns out that the representative for the university's district in Orono, Emily Kane, is the niece of the dean of the college who made the decision to cut the center staff down to one (and that one only for one more year), and who led Pauleena, David and me around to the deans of research and of lifelong learning in hopes of finding a home for the MFC there. After those meetings, he had us meet with the university librarian and the head of special collections and we discussed the situation with the archives, which are part of the MFC and not now a part of the university library. The librarian understood the importance of the archives, as did the head of special collections; but they noted that without additional funding from the university they would not be able to do much more than house the collection and provide access. To conserve and digitize the collection, to grow it as a living, working collection--this would require additional funding. The dean of the college asked Pauleena and the head of special collections to work on a budget and submit it to him. It remains to be seen where the funding will come from.

Sandy Ives and Mike Seeger

I've been thinking about Sandy Ives and Mike Seeger in tandem for the past couple of weeks. Both folkorists were in hospice care, waiting for the end; Sandy died Saturday and Mike's time isn't long. Each was attracted to folk music early on, and both recorded albums for Folkways in the 1950s. But since then their paths diverged.

Mike had a career as a musician, solo and with the New Lost City Ramblers, and as an independent folklorist who located, interviewed, learned music from, and in many cases produced record albums of traditional musicians who at one time had made commercial recordings: Maybelle Carter, Dock Boggs, Eck Robertson, and others, including Lesley Riddle who did not record commercially but who gave his songs to A.P. Carter of The Carter Family. Mike is a half-brother to folksinger Pete Seeger and a son of the musicologist Charles Seeger; therefore an uncle to the ethnomusicologist Tony Seeger. His path was different from theirs as well, one that took the music that he found into himself, and that resulted in performances for the general public, whether the concerts of the New Lost City Ramblers, or with Alice Gerrard, or the lecture-demonstrations such as the one he gave at my university a year and a half ago to help our string band celebrate its twentieth anniversary. Toward the end of his life he made a number of instructional videotapes in which he passed on his knowledge of traditional guitar and banjo playing, which was more than just skills and techniques: it was an approach to understanding the history of this music and its complex cultural background, particularly the interchange among black and white musicians that resulted in what we now call "old-time music" and identify chiefly with the roots music of the upland South from the minstrel era to about World War II.

Mike was, above all, a musician. He didn't write very much; writing must not have been nearly as natural an expression for him as music was. He wasn't a talker, either; he would converse with you but his words were plain, thoughtful, and few. (His half-brother Pete has these same tendencies, magnified.) As a musician he didn't strive for virtuosity, but he was a master musician nevertheless, on guitar, banjo, and fiddle; I'm sure he could also play the mandolin but I don't recall him doing so. He delved deeply into traditional musical styles, took them into his playing and was able to demonstrate them at a high level of competence and to show the important differences among musical techniques on the same instrument. Whereas many in the generations of musical revivalists since the 1950s have drifted restlessly from one ethnic musical tradition to another, moving (say) from old-time music to bluegrass to Irish traditional music and then to eastern European music, constantly searching for something new before plumbing the depths of what was at hand, Mike went deeper and deeper into one tradition, old-time music, to the point where he had, by dint of a lifelong combination of learning and playing, taken into himself something of the history of the development of that music, and could bring it out in performance, imagining himself into the musical persona of a rural Georgia fiddler in the 1920s, or a blackfaced minstrel banjo player of the 1850s, or an African American banjo player from the early 1800s.

Sandy Ives took the academic path, but it was not a conventional academic path. His first interest was literature, and he got a job in the English department at the University of Maine in the 1950s; but soon he was enrolled in the folklore PhD program at Indiana University and got his degree after a year of residence there. Back at UMaine he began to focus on teaching and researching and writing about folklore, notably concentrating on the oral traditions in song and story of the state of Maine and nearby Maritime Provinces. He focused on a few long-dead men who had left an important legacy in the oral traditions of poetry, music, and stories: Larry Gorman, Joe Scott, George Magoon and Wilbur Day; and he wrote books about all three of them based on his fieldwork with people who remembered these men, sang their songs and told stories about them. His books were published by academic presses, well reviewed, and loved by the folklorists who read them--not many, although when you think of the number of people he touched in his life as a professor for more than 40 years at UMaine, and as a fieldworker who was known throughout the state, his influence becomes far larger than what he was able to achieve through his books, though these books will be his lasting academic legacy, and I believe thatJoe Scott: The Woodsman-Songmaker is one of the most important books about traditional music written in the 20th century. In it he goes against his early training in literature (and mine, be it said) and makes a case, largely implicit, that the popular poetry of songwriters and poets like Joe Scott deserves the appreciation of the cultural historian, and that this popular poetry operates on the basis of a cultural aesthetic that deserves understanding on its own terms.

Sandy didn't continue to pursue a career as a folksinger, but he would gladly sing a song or tell a story in company, the way they used to do a hundred years ago; and he was good at it. His public lectures tended to deal with local Maine traditions, and he was a master of the kind of interpretation that I describe as the peeling of the onion, going deeper and deeper and revealing one layer of meaning beneath another, ever more satisfying to realize how much is there. He taught generations of students who will never forget him, he built up the folklife center at UMaine (now, ironically, endangered in the face of massive university budget cuts), and retired to complete several more book projects. In his few last years he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, and whether it was this or whatever else it was, it took a terrible physical toll as he was unable to take much nourishment and grew very frail. His mind may have lost the unimportant details of daily life--where did I put those keys?--but almost to the end he was still the wonderful conversationalist he always was, holding "high converse" with me about folklore, fishing, and the sport of tennis for a couple of hours when I visited him and his wife Bobbie in their home only a few weeks before he died.

Two different paths, but maybe not so different after all.