April 1, 2012

Folking Around

I'm up to my eyebrows in achieving the designation of Certified Community Scholar from the Folklife Program of the Kentucky Historical Society.

What, may you ask, is a Certified Community Scholar? It's a person who has participated in the 7 weeks of intensive training put on by the Kentucky Folklife Program and presented a final project showing the development of a chosen folklife project along with a completed interview and complete documentation.

We meet, the 20 to 25 of us, each Monday evening at the African-American Culture Center, listen to lectures, watch videos, discuss our projects, and eat.   The eating is particularly important, because each dish, prepared by whichever members of the group chose to bring something that week, is indicative of, important to, and/or reflective of the communal life of the cook.  (Last week, for instance, one of the chefs, a woman who moved to Louisville from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, offered up a variety of sausage available only in New Orleans; she said on trips home she buys in bulk and freezes enough to last until the next visit.)  The food is important, because we need nourishment within the rush of choosing projects, doing interviews, detailing the critical elements of the final project, photocopying forms, figuring out how to get the interview onto a CD, writing out descriptions of artifacts and questions we bring to observing them, and regaling each other with stories of success, failures, confusion, delights, and wonders seen and heard.

(I wish you could have been there last week to hear a lifelong church member out of the free church tradition describe what she observed at the first Roman Catholic church service she'd ever attended.  Especially delightful was her description, and the reaction of the Roman Catholics in the class to her description, of the incense that somebody twirled around the church to make it smell good, she guessed.)

A 60-minute recorded interview is tomorrow's assignment. Mine is as yet undone. I've managed to acquire an excellent microphone that plugs into my computer, courtesy of my friend Shanda; and this morning I walked through a couple of practice "Testing one-two-three"s, accompanied by the usual frenzy of "where did the darned thing go?", followed by "why can't I hear it?"  Actually, I could hear my voice, but only with my ear an inch from the laptop's speaker, and only the intonations of my voice, by which I mean not the words. I burned the test recording onto a CD, hopped into my Jeep, put the CD into the sound system and - O, happy day - there was my voice, clear and plenty loud.

With the recording issues settled, I called Albert, my friend and colleague in the Third Friday iterary group.  I did an off-the-cuff interview with him three weeks ago. Now, some time before three o'clock tomorrow afternoon we're doing a follow-up.  For this second interview I'm required to have prepared questions and the recording device.

To come up with questions, I first considered my own desire to preserve the history, lore, and habits of this (or any) literary group in Kentucky.  (The quick answer?  I was an English major. We love this stuff.) Next I wrote out ten or twelve questions that I think future researchers may bring to the study of this particular form of performance art.  Finally, I came up with some questions specific to Albert, and his work, and why he takes part in Third Friday, and what is his last name.

I must take with me a form that Albert and I must both sign allowing the historical society to use this interview in whatever way, shape, or form best serves the public.  Very important, those signatures.  So important that I'm going to stop writing and go photocopy the forms now, so I'll be ready to roll when Albert calls to say he's available.

As an aside, I was interested to see in a video about a well-known folklorist that even the most experienced of us find it unsettling to embark on interviewing a new person. Driving to his destination, he said he wished he could turn around and forget the whole endeavor.  Interesting, yes?  Especially when you know that a famous theologian -- oh, you know the one I mean-- German -- famous - wrote all those books - Barth, perhaps?- said that when he went to call for the first time on a parishioner, he walked around the block repeatedly trying to get up the courage to knock on the door.  As seminarians, we thought it was something special about our profession.

Wrong.  Our timidity wasn't related to our profession but to the human instinct to avoid -- well, what is it we're actually wanting to avoid?  Stepping into the territory of someone else's personal life, whether spiritual or professional or otherwise?  Reduced to its essence, is the problem a fear of the unknown? Ois it something more obscure, some atavistic desire to avoid strangers?

Oh, the mysteries.Oh, the adventure. Oh, the fun.

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