“Everybody has a voice, and Memphis provides a platform for that voice.” The broad spectrum of Memphis and Delta history is brought to colorful life in the form of music, art, film, dance and story-telling at the Center for Southern Folklore in downtown Memphis. The culture of diverse groups in the city and the surrounding area is represented in the center’s extensive archives, honored on the walls of Heritage Hall, and is presented as live entertainment on the stages of Heritage Hall and the Folklore Store, as well as at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, which the center produces.
“The Center for Southern Folklore provides a place where people can show what they’re about! We help the people of the area understand their heritage, and make them proud of it,” says Judy Peiser, Executive Director and co-founder. Celebrating people and “their differences” is what Peiser and William Ferris set out to do when they established the center in 1972.
“At one point I realized I couldn’t do another film about somebody who’d been bitten by a rat!” Armed with a degree in film and broadcasting from the University of Illinois, Peiser returned to her hometown Memphis in 1967 and began making films about poverty in the area. The despair she encountered began to take its toll however, so she took a job with Mississippi Educational TV, where she traveled around the state interviewing writers, painters and musicians. William Ferris was one of those writers. (The Storied South) Shorty after their meeting, Peiser and Ferris began a collaboration which resulted in the establishment of the Center for Southern Folklore.
“We’re preserving a piece of southern culture,” says Peiser. Ferris left Memphis in 1977 to form the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, and is currently heading the Center for the Study of the American South at The University of North Carolina, and Judy Peiser has continued to keep the Center for Southern Folklore focused on its mission to safeguard the stories of the Memphis and Delta region. The center’s quest is not only to protect the music, culture, arts and rhythms of the South, but to celebrate it, and that is accomplished in an entertaining and lively manner. The Memphis Music and Heritage Festival is one of those avenues.
“The festival doesn’t necessarily have the big dogs, but the dogs who really understand who they are. Memphis has a great musical heritage so we focus on that, but we don’t just focus on big named musicians,” says Peiser of the festival line-up. The Memphis Music and Heritage Festival,” held every Labor Day weekend is one of the primary platforms for presenting the local talent that is rich and plentiful, and it’s free! The festival this year, August 30 and 31, will be the 28th year for the popular event. Musicians love to play the festival, and it brings people from all walks of life together. “I always tell folks when the festival is over; I hope you’ll strike up a conversation with the person who’s standing in line next to you at the grocery store. People read things that make them afraid, and I want them to experience each other so that they’re not.”
“I interviewed one writer in South Mississippi who lived on a farm and walked her pig, while carrying a gun to protect the pig from snakes. Then we went into her modest home and had turnip soup!” Countless stories gathered about the hundreds of fascinating ordinary people, as well as artists, musicians, dancers, photographers, quilters, writers and more are housed in the extensive center archives, just waiting to be revealed to interested folks. The archives include the extensive collection of Reverend L.O. Taylor, spanning a 40-year period of Memphis history, preserved in film and recordings. Additionally, ongoing programs of music and dance serve to educate children and adults alike. Guitar and banjo lessons are available, and kids can learn the current dance crazes like “jookin,” taught to them by local celebrities.
Lemon baked chicken, greens, cornbread, mac ‘n cheese, coleslaw and peach cobbler! What program about southern culture would be complete without a taste of southern food, and that is what tour groups from all over the world are treated to as they enjoy entertainment from a variety of local celebrities. The delicious southern cuisine is available to tour groups through an advance reservation, but the Folklore Café serves up the delectable fare daily, along with gourmet coffee.
“The programs really change people,” says Peiser. Cultural diversity is revealed to various groups through the movement of dance and music and the beauty of regional art. Performers such as local singer Joyce Cobb, along with a bass player and guitar player often do a 45 minute set and interact with the children. “They’ll perform some blues and really help the kids to understand what it’s all about, getting the kids not to just sit back and listen, but to get involved.” Peiser “puts a lot of people in the mix,” such as Mississippi Morris, or Randall Morton, a banjo player, who occasionally brings in Henrietta Alves of Pat O’Briens fame, to sing familiar pieces like, “My Old Kentucky Home.” There are also Friday night programs that focus on the lives of such music legends as Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie.
“It’s amazing when cultures collide and come together! When I go to a party, I know everybody from the host to the bartender. I can talk to anybody about anything, and that’s what the center does,” says Peiser. “It transcends a lot of cultural differences and things that keep people apart, because with music, art, narratives and events, you bring people together. There are very few groups like us around.”
For information contact Judy Peiser at: www.southernfolklore.com