A version of this piece will be published in the Summer 2022 issue of Goldenseal, a print magazine produced by the WV Department of Arts, Culture and History.
My name is Jennie Williams, and I’m thrilled to join the West Virginia Humanities Council and direct the West Virginia Folklife Program as the new state folklorist. I have met so many wonderful people during my first two months, and I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce myself here as well. I believe West Virginia Folklife is a model for similar programs throughout the nation due largely to this state’s extraordinary history of practicing and preserving folklife, which includes (but is not limited to) traditional arts, storytelling, crafts, language, foodways, music, and dance. I’m eager to immerse myself in the research and innovative projects that came before, which will serve as a foundation for my work.
Becoming a state folklorist has been a dream of mine since 2012, when I attended the Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival and learned how easily we take for granted important creative expressions in our everyday lives. Held at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore, the festival featured participants of the Maryland Traditions Folklife Apprenticeship program. The apprenticeship pairs set up their tools and examples of their work on a blocked-off street near the festival stage as they answered questions about their crafts and community traditions. I quickly recognized Roberto Rivera and his son Julian, who I knew from my family’s church. Roberto had been teaching Julian how to build a Puerto Rican cuatro. Roberto learned this craft in the 1990s during his apprenticeship with luthier Diomedes “Yomi” Matos, who has since been awarded the distinguished National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellowship. I greeted them enthusiastically and, in awe of their beautiful work, said, “I had no idea you made these!” I felt at once impressed and amazed but also stunned knowing that even though I’d gone to high school with Julian, I was unaware of his family’s talents or story. Following this experience, I wanted to create more opportunities like this for others to fully appreciate and recognize the value of stories and creative traditions of our neighbors and families.
I grew up in the small town of Woodsboro in Frederick County, Maryland, in a family full of visual artists, although I chose instead to play the guitar, like my mother. Shortly after that festival, I started an internship at Maryland Traditions, the state’s folklife program based at the Maryland State Arts Council. While learning the basics of fieldwork documentation and about folk and traditional arts in Maryland, I developed a better appreciation of the cultural contexts and institutions in which I was raised. I’m very grateful to the program directors at the time, Michelle Stefano and Cliff Murphy, who introduced me to the roles of state folklife programs, as well as to my American Studies professors at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who encouraged me to pursue this career path. In 2014, I interned at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in Washington, D.C., where I met Emily Hilliard, my predecessor as West Virginia’s state folklorist. Emily and I would play music together at parties before I moved to Bloomington, Indiana, for graduate school and she moved to Charleston to found the West Virginia Folklife Program. Years later, I find it remarkable how our paths have crossed again, and I’m thankful for her friendship and guidance as I catch my footing in this new role.
At Indiana University, I earned my master’s degree in folklore and ethnomusicology in 2017 and continued my studies to become a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology. Early on, I worked closely with Jon Kay at Traditional Arts Indiana (TAI) to secure NEA funding to restart the TAI Apprenticeship Program, which has since supported five cohorts of folk and traditional artists. I’m very proud of those years I spent on documentation projects, survey fieldwork, and exhibits, as well as the connections I made with artists across the state. I’m incredibly thankful to my professors who supported my public folklore work experience, which often went beyond my required coursework. My fieldwork at TAI led to long-term relationships with musicians in rural South-Central Indiana, who graciously allowed me to record their stories and music for my dissertation research. I appreciate their close friendships and the traditional music knowledge they imparted to me, especially as I learned to play the mandolin during their old-time and country music jams.
Since arriving in Charleston in January 2022, I’ve been heartened by the enthusiasm for this program from our partners and the Humanities Council’s board members and staff. I received a warm welcome of kind messages, introductions, and phone calls. I’m honored to carry on the work in this role among the many people in West Virginia who are committed to folklife documentation and carrying on community traditions.
I recently returned from my first fieldwork trip across the state to meet a few of the participants of the West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship program. Just before my trip kicked off, I went to Scott Depot to meet Angelita Nixon and Christine Weirick who practice home birth midwifery and will soon be presenting about their apprenticeship during their final showcase. On my way north to the eastern panhandle, I dropped by Poe Run Craft & Provisions in Elkins to visit Margaret Bruning who had apprenticed Kathy Evans. They practiced sheep husbandry, weaving, and the many steps in-between during a fiber arts apprenticeship titled “Sheep to Shawl.” The next day, I spent a long morning and afternoon talking and playing music with old time fiddler Joe Herrmann and his apprentice Dakota Karper, the owner of The Cat and the Fiddle in Capon Bridge. On the last leg of the trip, I headed west to Fairmont State University where I was able to catch NEA National Heritage Fellow John Morris give a presentation at the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center. John participated in the WV Folklife Apprenticeship program with Jen Iskow in 2018. With a full weekend of visits, I was lucky enough to have an afternoon with Gerry Milnes, the former Folk Arts Coordinator of the Augusta Heritage Center. We discussed his long career of documenting folklife in the state before we took out our instruments to play a few fiddle tunes in his living room.
In the coming years, I’d like to develop a program where individuals can learn and teach documentation skills, and consider the most appropriate practices for preserving and showcasing folklife in their own communities. I want to continue making educational resources about West Virginia folklife publicly accessible by adding to our digital archival collection at WVU Libraries, continuing our partnership with Public Broadcasting, and writing a regular column for Goldenseal. I look forward to working with our partners at the state Department of Arts, Culture & History, the William G. Pomeroy Foundation’s Legends & Lore Roadside Marker grant program, and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation’s Central Appalachian Living Traditions Program. One thing I find invigorating about being your state folklorist is that I’ll always be learning about West Virginia, the communities that have been here for generations, and my fellow Mountain State residents.
Contact State Folklorist Jennie Williams at 304-346-8500 or firstname.lastname@example.org