Missed it by that much – The Folklore Institute Ventriloquism Project

The archive of an unfunded project is a strange thing to behold. It recounts a set of best-laid plans that never quite came to fruition. Proposals and correspondence describe the viability of an enterprise, and organizers explain themselves with eloquently written prose and carefully curated documentation. In the present, we review these files knowing the inevitable outcome. Although many people worked hard trying to bring their idea to life, it did not succeed in the way it was envisioned.

A case in point here is the Ventriloquism Project, a proposed collaboration of the Indiana University Folklore Institute and Radio and Television Services. For much of 1988, a small but committed core of researchers sought funding for a documentary that would have explored the contemporary practice of ventriloquism in the United States.

In the end, the project was not of interest to the many sources who received an appeal for funding. The Folk Arts Media sector of the National Endowment for the Arts said no. The Walt Disney Company’s educational films division said no. Jim Henson said no through a personal assistant, who explained that ventriloquism is not the same thing as puppetry (or in this case, Muppetry), which forms the basis of “Jim’s interest and experience.”

Ventriloquism ad
A page in the 1984-85 catalog from One Way Street, a Colorado-based puppetry and ventriloquism resource center

Notwithstanding, those who supported the Ventriloquism Project—folklorists Gail Matthews, Inta Carpenter, and Sandra Dolby, as well as filmmakers John Bishop and John Winninger—produced a significant body of work in their attempts to acquire funding. University Archives and Records Management makes this material available now. The archive of the Ventriloquism Project comprises a rich review of ventriloquial art in the United States in the twentieth century. The files included here could serve as a springboard for anyone researching ventriloquism, whether for a documentary, journalistic article, or academic publication.

At issue in many of these papers is the nature of ventriloquism as a folk art. Researchers argued that its decline in popularity in the early twentieth century marked a transition from popular culture to folklore. Their interpretation of this process is nicely summarized in a proposal to the NEA. They write: “The lay person may think that ventriloquism died out with the arrival of television, when in fact, it merely faded from popular media visibility. Over the years, ventriloquists have constituted a small but solid and growing community of interest.”

The archive’s ephemera provide extensive evidence of this community as it existed in the late 1980s. Gathered materials include advertising literature from Vent Haven, a ventriloquism museum in Kentucky; and correspondence with One Way Street, a puppetry and ventriloquism resource center in Colorado. Additional pamphlets, letters, and business cards from a variety of sources suggest the breadth of the proposed project. Had it gone forward, film crews would have captured footage in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and elsewhere.

The documentary was not meant to be, however, and the Ventriloquism Project was shelved until further notice. Research for the project however grew into then IU graduate student (and PI on the grant) Gail Matthews’ dissertation “Looking at life funny: Reflexivity in American ventriloquism.”

Interested parties are invited to view this archive, which, even though it was not funded, provides a valuable resource for aficionados of ventriloquism.


The Rust Belt knows how to remember

The writer David Giffels suggests that living in the postindustrial Midwest means making peace with loss. This idea is so important to him that he titled his 2014 book after it. The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt chronicles the plight of finding steady work and personal satisfaction in his native Akron, Ohio, a place known as The Rubber City despite having lost its manufacturing base almost totally over the past three decades.

In conditions like this, Giffels explains, it is easy to lose hope. Yet the residents of Akron and cities like it (for example, Toledo of the glass, Pittsburgh of the steel, and Detroit of the automobile) trudge forward where a less hardy breed might have given up long ago. Giffels describes their stick-to-itiveness as a sense of abiding confidence; “something that allows us to coolly intone, ‘It’s a Rust Belt thing. You wouldn’t understand.'”

Barbara Yant speaks to an IU film crew at the Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg Festival in Auburn, Indiana.

One way of holding on to optimism in hard times is to pull the greatness of the past into some form of public display in the present. The people of Auburn, Indiana, are masters at this. Their Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg Festival is an annual celebration of local automotive history, and it is a benchmark on the civic calendar. Every August, crowds in the hundreds of thousands travel to Auburn to admire the classic cars–the Cord, the Duesenberg, and the namesake Auburn–that were manufactured there in the early twentieth century. Though the factories are gone now, their sleek products remain the showpieces of the festival’s parade and car shows.

A new collection from University Archives and Records Management focuses on the Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg Festival. These materials include photographs, publicity materials, and a copy of the 1982 documentary Classics Come Home: Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg, which was a collaboration of the Indiana University Folklore Institute and Radio and Television Services.

“Classics Come Home: Auburn, Cord Duesenberg” aired on WTIU Bloomington in 1982.

While this is somewhat standard fare overall, it is unique among the folklore resources made available by the Archives so far this year. Previous collections have been international in scope, as with the study focusing on Hungarians in the United States, or the investigation of Spanish folk poetry in South America. The project at hand does not wander so far afield. The city of Auburn, just north of Fort Wayne, is in the Folklore Institute’s back yard. It is not exotic to those of us who grew up in the Midwest. To the rest of the world, however, Auburn’s celebration of automotive heritage illustrates the unique local devotion to a revered past. By alluding to a common history, the Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg Festival helps to establish a sense of community identity when factory work no longer defines what most people do with their everyday lives. This is precisely what folklorists mean when they use the word heritage. It is the commemoration of yesterday through exhibition, re-enactment, or pageantry today.

I understand the desire of the people of Auburn. Growing up in a town not far from Akron, I watched each year as a group of festival organizers erected and lit a 18-foot, gas-fueled kitchen match on the town square. The effigy, kept burning for one week every June, commemorated the local match factory whose early-twentieth-century heyday gave our town its cultural emblem. (Do you happen to remember Ohio Blue Tip Matches? That was us!)

My tongue is only partly in cheek as I share these memories. I see how easy it might be to take potshots at Midwesterners. With the economy being what it is, we would sanctify a distributor cap if it gave us a reason to feel good about where we’re from. “Give us something to root for,” Giffels writes. “We’ll take anything.”

At the same time, I value any attempt to connect with locality. To inhabit a place, perhaps, is to have a dwelling, a commute, and a social network. Yet to live in a place–a much more nourishing proposition–is to have a home, a handful of shortcuts, and dear friends. Annual festivals are handy tools for framing and encouraging community life of this kind. Such forms of heritage make us feel like we belong somewhere. They colorfully articulate our shared culture, and they remind us to pay attention to what is local, lest we miss out on the common ground beneath our feet.

The finding aid for the Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg Festival project records is now online. For access to the collection, call or email the Archives at (812) 855-1127 or archives@indiana.edu.

A book that sits on every shelf

At the Indiana University Folklore Institute, a copy of the Handbook of American Folklore can be found in most offices. Over the past five years of visiting faculty and staff as a graduate student, I could always spot it fairly quickly. Adorned with bright red text set on a jet black background, the spine and cover stand out among other books on the shelf.

Curiously enough, I have never read the Handbook from front to back. I don’t consider this a fault, though. This is the sort of book that defies linear inspection. There are sixty-eight short chapters within, and that doesn’t include the several introductory essays and headnotes. It is a handbook in the true sense of the word: written and organized for quick consultation by those who want brief synopses of the sorts of things that folklorists do, from common topics of research to strategies for publication.

The coordinating energy behind the Handbook was monumental, as I have recently learned. Thousands of documents exchanged between the late 1970s and early 1980s attest to the work it took to get this piece released. Those documents are accessible now, in the latest collection to be made available through University Archives and Records Management. Any interested party is invited to learn about the process—or the ordeal, some might say—that preceded the publication of the Handbook in 1983.

Richard M. Dorson
Richard M. Dorson

Originally scheduled to be a publication of McGraw-Hill, the Handbook was entrusted to the Indiana University Press after a change in management at the former company. With the publishing house secured, editors next faced the challenge of coordinating drafts, revisions, and payments among dozens of contributing authors. In the midst of these activities, the project faced its greatest setback—the death of lead editor and Folklore Institute luminary Richard M. Dorson. His passing on Sept. 11, 1981, created a major hurdle in the publication process, as well as a vacuum in the discipline of folklore studies at large. Known colloquially as the father of American folkloristics, Dorson’s career output included 24 books and 250 articles. In a piece of correspondence included in this collection, Handbook contributor Robert C. Toll described the gravity of the situation: “Dick’s passing is a great loss. It is fitting that this project, which would not have gotten off the ground without the force of his intellect, vision, and persuasion, be completed and published.”

That the Handbook rests on so many bookshelves today is a testament to the dedication of the remaining editorial staff. Without the commitment of Associate Editor Inta Gale Carpenter and Assistant Editors Elizabeth Peterson and Angela Maniak, the project would have stalled. It is something of a letdown, then, that when the Handbook was finally released, it was met with mixed reviews. For each compliment that the volume received, it also seemed to endure a criticism. In a 1984 issue of the journal Ethnomusicology, reviewer James Porter lauds the volume’s “expert topic résumés by accomplished professionals,” but he also notes that “this disappointing book could have been saved, one feels, by greater attention to depth.”

As a folklorist, I feel a defensive pang at these words, but it is not necessarily a defense of the Handbook itself. It is more a defense of Dorson, whose influence pervades life at the Folklore Institute even 33 years after his death. Maybe because we are folklorists and not accountants or chemists, we tend to recognize his impact in commemorative, almost totemic terms. Each year, two graduate students receive a prize in Dorson’s name, either for excellence in scholarship or to support fieldwork excursions. Similarly, the annual Richard M. Dorson Memorial Folklore Lecture brings a distinguished folklorist to campus for a formal lecture and, usually, a number of informal talks and meetings. Dorson’s gravitas also persists away from university officialdom. Some faculty and staff have suggested that his spirit still resides in the department where he spent so much of his professional life.

The Handbook fits into this mix as a tangible reminder of Dorson’s accomplishments, and it is made more potent because he passed away before it was finished. The criticisms of the book are reasonable. They are also probably prescient, given the disciplinary wherewithal that it takes to write an academic book review like the one quoted above. It is hard to swallow the criticism from a personal standpoint, however, because the book serves as Dorson’s swansong. For better or worse, the Handbook punctuated a career during which folklore studies turned from an intellectual aside to a viable academic discipline, in no small way because of Dorson’s sheer force of will. Many disciplines benefit from near-legendary scholars like this. Their devotion is total, and their ambition seems to know no bounds. The point I want to make here is simply that Dorson is our legend, and this book is his farewell.

To access the archive of the Folklore Institute’s Handbook of American Folklore project, visit the University Archives and Records Management website at http://libraries.iub.edu/archives, or call (812) 855-1127.

What changes is what stays the same

Christopher Columbus has fallen from grace in recent decades. At issue is the explorer’s persistent prestige when his 1492 arrival in what is now the Bahamas spurred more conflict than cooperation. A variety of critics have addressed this concern. Native Americans publicly resist Columbus’ veneration at an annual protest in Denver. Humorist Matthew Inman suggests that we direct our attention away from Columbus and toward the Spanish cleric Bartolomé de las Casas, whose legacy is not tainted with violence. Coverage in other media outlets has begun to explore the growing support for “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” as a preferable alternative to Columbus Day. These criticisms are a far cry from the historical figure formerly most famous for having innocuously sailed the ocean blue.

Columbus and the Indian Maiden
Columbus and the Indian Maiden by Constantino Brumidi – on display at the U.S. Capitol

The prevailing view here is that the Columbian landing marked the beginning of a dark time for indigenous people. It is curious, then, that the Indiana University Folklore Institute’s Columbian Project, a series of ethnographic studies undertaken in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was organized in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage in 1992. It makes little sense that such a commemoration could be organized by a group of folklorists, whose work often focuses on the everyday artistic practices of marginalized populations.

However, the files of this project, which are now available for public inspection through the University Archives, reveal that the focus was less on Columbus himself and more on the cultural collision that his voyage symbolizes. What the folklorists who worked on the Columbian Project wished to discover were the artistic traditions that arrived as a part of the conquest. Despite the trouble that the Columbian landing brought, it also caused the sort of ethnic mixing that leads to folkloric innovation. Consider, for example, the mélange of French, Italian, Spanish, and African culinary traditions that is Cajun cuisine. A similar collaboration occurred with the conquest of the so-called New World. Along with martial force, European explorers also brought their artistic traditions, which then changed in accordance with the new environment.

The particular aim of the Columbian Project was to investigate the endurance of Spanish forms of folklore—specifically, of oral poetry—in those parts of the colonized world that were claimed by Spain. Even though the conquistadors arrived long ago, project researchers argued that their artistic legacy lived on in the late twentieth century. In an overview of his contribution to the project, folklorist and ethnomusicologist Ronald R. Smith states that the Spanish stanza known as the décima “still flourishes” in Panama. Similarly, anthropologist Judith Seeger notes that the romanceiro, a poetic form grounded in Spanish oral tradition, constitutes “living evidence” of continuing colonial influence in Brazil.

These notes suggest the durability of Spanish folk poetry in central and south America. They also get at the core of what many people think folklorists do: locate examples of really old artistic stuff, document it, and put it in a book. This is accurate to some extent. The volume of collected folklore is a venerable format. Yet a more common way of undertaking folklore research today is to do what the participants in the Columbian Project did: go to the field, find examples of really old artistic stuff, and consider how it has stayed the same over time—but also how it has changed. The idea of tradition pivots on this point. As much as it is fixed, it is fluid. In folklore studies, the arts that are most traditional are those that provide a direct link to the past while simultaneously mirroring their contemporary social context.

As such, the décimas and romanceiros of this project are not simply interesting anachronisms. They are creative incarnations of historical arts that, if they draw from the past, also fully inhabit the present. For example, Smith explains that although the words of the décima are slow to change over time, “there has grown a musical tradition that includes simultaneous vocal and instrumental improvisation.” The idea of fluid tradition takes hold here. What changes is paradoxically what stays the same.

The Columbian landing is a strange container for this sort of artistic growth. Imperious at best and murderous at worst, the colonization of the places that became the Americas is not typically remembered as a touchstone for artistic innovation. Nonetheless, folklore creeps into everyday life like ivy. Stubbornly and reliably, it finds purchase in times of war, peace, love, and hate. And upon close inspection, it can reveal that historical events are never of one meaning only. In this case, it could be argued that the colonized became the colonizers as they adapted the art forms of the conquistadors to suit their own traditions. They claimed ownership of the unfamiliar folklore that entered their lives, even if it did arrive as part of a cultural upheaval. This does not mitigate the damage done in the name of discovery. Nothing could. It does, on the other hand, represent a subtle protest, undertaken in an artistic framework, against a spurious claim of ownership.

To view the archive of the Folklore Institute’s Columbian Project, and to access the finding aid that indexes this material, visit our website at http://libraries.iub.edu/archives, or call (812) 855-1127.

How to demystify Pentecostalism

It’s not that dropping to the floor in a spasm of joy upon receiving the Holy Spirit is wrong, exactly. It’s just that this doesn’t represent the entirety, or even the majority, of the Pentecostal faith. Such is the perspective of Joy Unspeakable, a documentary produced by the Indiana University Folklore Institute and Radio & Television Services in 1981. While the so-called holy rollers receive some attention in the film, the Pentecostal story is told mainly by members of the faith—many of whom wish to lift the perception of their religion as a collection of rural eccentrics. Describing the ecstatic state that some Pentecostals experience, one of the film’s subjects comments: “Some of them, maybe, did roll on the floor. And they called everybody, then, holy rollers. I didn’t like that.”

Through commentaries like this, Joy Unspeakable presents an insider’s portrait of a Pentecostal assembly in Bloomington, Indiana. The members of the church are collected, amiable people who seem to have little use for snakes and strychnine. Instead, they describe their religion as a series of daily joys experienced via shared worship in a tight-knit faith community. Women are a particular focus. The role of the female in church life is a major theme, and this is more often than not explained by female churchgoers themselves. The film is memorably bookended with commentary from an elderly woman who eloquently narrates her faith in an accent that captures the unique vocal cadence of southern Indiana.

A still taken from Joy Unspeakable

University Archives and Records Management now makes available the administrative files for Joy Unspeakable. More than anything, these serve as something like DVD extras. Because the film is already available in full, for free, on the website Folkstreams, the papers of this collection are a chance to understand the filmmakers’ vision for the project. While it’s one thing to watch a movie, it’s another thing entirely to figure out how the producers want you to watch it.

The production techniques used for Joy Unspeakable are typical of ethnographic film, a genre in which the people onscreen determine the tone of the project as much as (or more than) the producers. Reading through the materials of this collection reveals that the filmmakers’ approach was rooted firmly in ethnographic soil. A remark in the project overview is illustrative: “The emphasis here is not on academics, but rather the community.” This bears out in the film, as voiceover is used only minimally, and members of the church take the lead on relating who they are and what it means to be part of their group.

After its release, the film became a touchstone for fostering public dialogue. Producers Elaine Lawless and Elizabeth “Betsy” Peterson arranged for local screenings before audiences of religious devotees and social service professionals. The latter group were invited to participate with the hope that an open discussion would allow them to better serve their Pentecostal clients. In a letter dated Sept. 18, 1980, Lawless and Peterson note that “our program has been designed with the aim of clarifying misconceptions and stereotypes about Pentecostals as well as providing a general overview of the religion.”

Both women were Folklore Institute graduate students when they completed Joy Unspeakable. In one way or another, their aims for the film—those of public outreach and community engagement—have carried forward into their careers. Lawless, an esteemed folklorist at the University of Missouri, recently completed an ethnographic film focusing on Pinhook, Missouri, where a federally-sanctioned flood displaced residents in 2011. Peterson, previously a consultant for folklife-related projects, is now the director of the American Folklife Center in Washington, D.C.

To access the archive of the Folklore Institute’s Joy Unspeakable project, visit the University Archives and Records Management website at http://libraries.iub.edu/archives, or call (812) 855-1127.