"Folk" indicates any product or activity originating from a particular community that is passed down generationally, in small groups or one-to-one. It might vary over time, but stays recognizable. "I always say that everything is folklore," Van de Water says. "Even in the most highly trained occupations, you'll find 'traditions' and verbal lore passed along.
"The people living around me have such varied backgrounds, not only long-standing 'Yankee' families but immigrants from scores of ethnic groups from countries around the world," Van de Water says. "Folklore is a constant reminder of how varied even one small corner of the world is."
Indeed-so far she has recorded a Boston-Irish vocal quartet, a Wushu (kung fu/tai chi) Grand Master, and Chinese traditional dancers. She has documented Chinatown's Chinese New Year celebration and South Boston's St. Patrick's Day celebration. Also in her sights are traditional cooks, Italian and Irish lacemakers, and Cambodian weavers. "The possibilities are endless," she says.
The National Endowment for the Arts and the Barr Foundation fund Van de Water's position, which is within the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs. She is creating an archive and database and plans to showcase some of the artists in public programming around the city.
During interviews, Van de Water makes audio or visual tapes in the artists' homes or work spaces, recording information on the art forms; how, where and when the artists learned them; why they continue to do them; and how they think the city could benefit the traditional arts community.
Haverford professor of classics Joe Russo's Introduction to Folklore class first attracted Van de Water to the field. "It was the first time that I really felt personally connected to an academic discipline," she says, "because it addressed identity and the ways individuals express who they are in community and societal contexts. Jessica Todd Harper '97's family started to call me 'Sally Folklore,' and the name stuck."
Van de Water then became the third Bryn Mawrter to design a major in Folklore and Folklife. After graduating, she worked for the Institute for Cultural Partnerships in Harrisburg PA, founded and run by folklorists, doing folk arts work all over the state. In graduate school at Western Kentucky U, her scholarly interests ranged from roots music to performance narrative and drag queens. One project found her compiling folklorists' favorite recipes and the stories associated with that particular dish. "We organized the entries into sections like 'a sense of place,' 'calendrical foodways,' 'family,' and so on," she says. Foodways is essentially food folklore, Van de Water says, encompassing the value systems surrounding food and the calendrical, familial, occupational, or religious rituals and beliefs associated with food. "Food is so much more than sustenance," she says. "Food is one of the strongest markers of identity-ethnic, regional, religious, or otherwise. We can learn so much about people by looking at the food they find important-or why they don't."
She also focused on vernacular architecture, which is "the architecture of the people"-anything not studio-designed by a formally trained architect. "Vernacular architecture includes everything from traditional Pennsylvania German bank barns to South Boston triple deckers to the ubiquitous double-wide trailer," Van de Water says. "Erdman it's not.
"I think my favorite thing about my job-in addition to eating my way through Boston-is that I get to meet and give attention to incredible people who are doing really interesting things," Van de Water says. "Many times these folks don't get 'celebrity' status, but they probably should. Most people might not know that one of the world's best Grand Masters in kung fu lives here in Boston, but I get to interview her. Sometimes I really can't believe this is my job!"
The work of folklorist Katherine Neustadt '73 has influenced Van de Water, as has Bess Lomax Hawes '41. In the '40s, Hawes was a member of The Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger, Butch Hawes (whom she married), Woody Guthrie, and Burl Ives. When they disbanded during World War II, Hawes joined the Office of War Information, preparing material for European and Near Eastern broadcasts. After the war while living in Boston, she co-wrote "The M.T.A. Song," later popularized by the Kingston Trio. As her reputation as a teacher and performer grew, she was invited to join the faculty of San Fernando Valley State College where, in the '60s, she became an associate professor of anthropology. Then for 16 years Hawes worked for the NEA's folk arts division and created the National Heritage program, which she modeled after the Japanese custom of honoring national living treasures. The program continues to award representatives of many different kinds of folk arts. Hawes received a National Medal of the Arts in 1993 from Bill Clinton, and in 2000 the NEA established The Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship to honor individuals who contribute to the excellence, vitality and public appreciation of the folk and traditional arts.
Return to profiles page