Last night I attended the concert that showcases and honors this year's National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellows. The National Heritage Fellowships are awarded by the Arts Endowment to "recognize the recipients' artistic excellence and support their continuing contributions to our nation's traditional arts heritage."
In other words, the awardees are people who have taken a traditional art form--for example, Dakota flute making and performance or Laotian khaen playing, white oak basket making or Huastecan son performance--brought it, through their own personal passion, persistence, and skill, to the next level, and--very importantly--been persistent in their efforts to assure their art's survival by being teachers, spokespeople, and/or advocates.
The concert at which each year's honorees present their art is always an incredibly moving affair, presented by the National Council for the Traditional Arts and a small cadre of devoted folklorists who come back year after year to assist. This year it was broadcast live over the internet, and you can watch it here.
Believe me, I don't want to take anything away from the artists themselves, from the amazing variety and beauty of the traditions represented, or from the profound nature of taking a precious tradition, with deep roots, and carrying it forward to future generations. But to me the evening represented another sort of continuity as well. It began with a set of tunes performed by awardee Billy McComiskey, an Irish button accordion player from Baltimore, joined, to my surprise, by two previous heritage fellowship awardees Mick Moloney, a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, and Liz Carroll of Chicago, one of the greatest Irish fiddle players you'll ever have the good fortune to hear. I have special places in my heart for both Mick and Liz, because I remember them as good people and great to work with. But Liz is special to me--I don't know why, maybe because she's a woman and not many years older than I am.
When Liz was awarded her heritage fellowship back in 1994, I was a young person working in the field of folklore in DC, lucky enough to score an invitation to the ceremony on Capitol Hill. First Lady Hillary Clinton officiated, and she was very engaged, taking time to greet and congratulate all the fellows, especially D.L. Menard, a Cajun musician from her home state of Louisiana. But she also expressed particular interest in Liz and in Liz's entourage, which included her two young children.
Twenty-two years later? I don't want to make this post political, but I can't help noting that Liz, her children now grown, continues to honor us with her lively, nuanced fiddle playing, and Mrs. Clinton, now a grandmother, is still seeking to further serve our nation.
I have great admiration for people who show such persistence in their true passion over the course of a lifetime. The wisdom and experience that they have accrued and are so willing to share are things that we can't afford to throw away.