“EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY PEOPLE”— The Folk and Traditional Arts in America



The Folk and Traditional Arts in America

Amos Lassen

I doubt that many of us are aware of the National Heritage Foundation and that is the subject of this documentary by Alan Govenar. It is one of the programs that falls under the National Endowment for the Humanities and was begun in 1982 to provide fellowships to musicians, dancers, quilters, woodcarvers and others who are involved in the shaping of the folk and traditional arts in this country. This film demonstrates the importance of those arts in shaping the history and fabric of America.

“Extraordinary Ordinary People” takes us a journey of folk and traditional arts in America with lots of music performed by those who have been awarded the fellowship and it is great fun. There is more than music here and we meet dancers, musicians, woodcarvers, quilters and others involved in traditional American art. There is a lot of talent here.

The featured artists all live in the United States but come from a variety of cultural backgrounds. The art forms they practice include singing with the Bejing Opera, boat building, wax-flower making, weaving, and performing at Mardi Gras. Through Govenar’s interviews with them, we not only explore their art, but also their history. These individuals have dedicated their lives to uncommon art forms that preserve the traditions of those who came before.

Govenar began documenting the artists more than 35 years ago and his project includes two 52-part radio series for NPR and three books that gave him the opportunity to explore in great detail the intersection of disparate cultures. Many of these cultures were brought here by immigrants over hundreds of years. The film gives insights into how cultures endure, and how cultural expressions evolve but at the same time remain true to their roots in our 21st century connected world. We see here that each of the artists has exceptional talent, ingenuity and perseverance that he shares with others and his country. Artists range “from Bill Monroe and B.B. King to Passamaquoddy basket weavers and Peking Opera singers; from Appalachia and the mountains of New Mexico to the inner city neighborhoods of New York, the suburbs of Dallas, and the isolated Native American reservations of Northern California”.

Just to give you an idea of what we are talking about here is an extensive list of just some of the artists you will see in the film:

Sheila Kay Adams – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Ballads, Musician, Singer, Storyteller

Rahim Alhaj – Culture Iraqi; Tradition: Composer, Oud Player

Loren Bommelyn – Culture: Native American Tolowa; Tradition: Artisan, Dancer, Musician

Laverne Brackens – Culture: African American; Tradition: Artisan, Quilter

Charles Carrillo – Culture: Hispanic; Tradition Santero

Clifton Chenier – Culture: African American, Creole; Tradition: Accordionist, Musician, Zydeco

Sidiki Conde – Culture: Guinean; Tradition: Dancer, Drummer, Musician

Sonia Domsch – Culture: Czech; Tradition: Artisan, Lace Maker

Qi Shu Fang – Culture: Asian, Chinese; Tradition: Peking Opera Performer, Musician

“Queen” Ida Guillory – Culture: African American, Creole; Tradition: Zydeco, Accordionist

John Lee Hooker – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Guitarist, Musician, Singer

Wanda Jackson – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Gospel, Musician, Rockabilly, Singer

Dolly Jacobs – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Circus Aerialist

Flory Jagoda – Culture: Jewish; Tradition: Sephardic Musician

“Flaco” Jiménez – Culture: Mexican; Tradition: Accordionist, Conjunto, Musician

Genoa Keawe – Culture: Native Hawaiian; Tradition: Musician, Singer, Ukulele Player

B.B. King – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Guitarist, Musician, Singer

Narciso Martinez – Culture: Mexican; Tradition: Accordionist, Conjunto, Musician

Lydia Mendoza – Culture: Mexican; Tradition: Musician, Singer

Norma Miller – Culture: African American; Tradition: Dancer, Lindy Hop

Bill Monroe – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Bluegrass, Mandolin Player, Musician, Singer

Alex Moore – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Musician, Pianist, Singer

Chum Ngek – Culture: Asian, Cambodian; Tradition: Musician

Clarissa Rizal – Culture:Native American Tlingit; Tradition: Ceremonial Regalia Maker

Earl Scruggs – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Banjo Player, Bluegrass, Musician

Dan Sheehy – Folklorist & Former Director of NEA Folk & Traditional Arts; Mariachi Musician

Koko Taylor – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Musician, Singer

Mike Vlahovich – Culture: Croatian; Tradition: Shipwright

Albertina Walker – Culture: African American; Tradition: Gospel, Musician, Singer