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Folklore Society to enlist youth to record customs

Sunday, December 9, 2012
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Lisa Overholser of the New York Folklore Society finds strong links between music and history. (Bill Buell/Gazette Reporter)
Lisa Overholser of the New York Folklore Society finds strong links between music and history. (Bill Buell/Gazette Reporter)

Lisa Overholser’s idea of folklore doesn’t necessarily include a nostalgic look at the good old days when previous generations were busy creating their own set of memories.

It can mean that, but according to Overholser, a Kansas native and a folklorist at the New York Folklore Society based on Jay Street in Schenectady, it also can mean so much more. Anything that connects one generation to the next — a song, a dance, a story, a game, etc. — fits under the large umbrella of folklore.

Over the next few months, Capital Region youngsters are going to get a wonderful opportunity to become amateur historians and document their own customs and traditions.

The Community Youth Documentation Program (informally called “schenectady.doc”) will be enlisting 14- to 16-year-olds throughout the area to help document what’s happening in their own communities between January and May of 2013. Participants will be examining their own lives and discovering what qualifies as folklore, and, as Overholser said, that definition will be broad. And if music happens to be included in the mix, that’s even better as far as she is concerned.

Community Youth Documentation Program

WHAT: A special reception for the New York Folklore Society’s new program

WHERE: Schenectady County Public Library, 99 Clinton St., Schenectady

WHEN: 2:30-4:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: 346-7008, www.nyfolklore.org

Power of music

Born just outside Chicago and raised in Overland Park, Kan., Overholser found that music, specifically the piano, dominated her early life. After attending a music conservatory in Kansas City, she got her master’s in piano and music history from the University of Kansas. She began using music more to appreciate the past, and for two years she spent time in Hungary working with the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble. She eventually got her doctorate in folklore and ethnomusicology from Indiana University and moved to the Schenectady area in November 2008 to begin work at the Folklore Society.

Overholser and Ellen McPhale, New York Folklore Society executive director, are kicking off “schenectady.doc” with a special reception next Sunday at the Schenectady County Public Library. Parents and children are invited to attend and see examples of folklore in action while learning more about the program. Zorkie Nelson, a Ghanaian drummer who lives in Schenectady, will be on hand to provide entertainment and demonstrate his own brand of folklore.

The program is being offered in conjunction with the Schoharie River Center and is funded in part by the William Gundry Broughton Charitable Family Private Foundation.

Q: Tell us about the Community Youth Documentation Program.

A: It’s a training program for youth to learn how to document their own communities. All communities have traditions that are passed on from generation to generation, whether they are traditions expressed within families, within cultural groups, within occupational settings, and so on. Schenectady and the Capital Region are particularly rich in expressive traditions, and our goal is to highlight these aspects to program participants and have them go through that discovery process. At the same time, they will be learning practical skills and techniques of interviewing, audio and video production, cultural interpretation and community engagement, skills that we believe will serve them well in the future.

The program will start in January and go through May, with one after-school meeting each week. Participants will be learning about different forms and expressions of folklore in their everyday lives and communities, and then they will document what they find. Because it is a training program, they will be paid a very modest honorarium for the semester, and at the end of the program we will have some sort of public exhibit or presentation where participants can showcase the work that they completed.

Q: Where did the idea of the program come from?

A: We started doing this work two years ago, and our program is loosely modeled after the Mind-Builders Community Folk Culture Program in the Bronx, a highly successful program that engages youth and allows them to interact with their communities in a very meaningful way.

Ideally, we want to enroll youth between 14 and 16, but if we receive applications from others slightly outside of this range, they will be considered.

Q: What are some examples that kids can be looking for?

A: Some examples of traditional life that kids could be documenting include a range of activities and practices, from informal games and activities like double-dutch jump-roping, cricket, hand-clapping games, and bocce ball; traditional foodways like Italian wedding soup, tamales, baklava, beef on weck and roti, as well as traditional food practices like canning and community gardening; traditional music and dance, such as the traditional drumming and dance that Zorkie does, steel drums, old-time or Irish fiddling and stepping.

Also, traditions carried out at particular special events like birthdays, weddings, and funerals; special cultural celebrations such as Diwali, Quinceanera, Hanukkah or Phagwah; and all kinds of traditional material expressions like the carved chairs from Amish craftsmen, pysanky eggs, quilting, hair braiding, Mohawk baskets and beadwork, cornhusk dolls and so on. Finally, there are lots of traditional verbal forms of folklore, from tall tales and legends, to jokes, riddles, rhymes, verbal duels and so on.

Q: What is folklore?

A: It’s a tricky thing to define folklore, and it’s often misunderstood. Most people understand folklore only as stories, tales or myths. While these genres do encompass a wide variety of what we document and research, and although it is how the discipline of folklore got its start, there is so much more to it than that.

Here at the Folklore Society, we understand folklore as the expressive, everyday traditional life of a community. It’s a particular way of relating to the past, of remembering and expressing practices and ways of life that have been passed down from one generation to the next. Folklore is always present, and it’s often at the core of an individual’s identity. It is still very much relevant in 2012, just as it is very present in 2012.

Q: How did you get interested in folklore?

A: Ironically, I got interested in folklore through my classical music studies. As a pianist, I was always very interested in music that incorporated folk tunes. It always felt very different to play this kind of music; it was somehow more personal.

When I played a piece by Béla Bartok, a Hungarian composer who collected lots of folk tunes from surrounding villages, for my master’s recital, I just fell in love with it and wanted to learn more about these haunting tunes that the music was based on. I went on to study at Indiana University, where I could actually continue my music studies and also learn the Hungarian language. While there, I discovered the Folklore Institute, one of the premier folklore institutions in the United States. I also began doing a lot of dancing — international folk dancing, salsa, you name it — and it sort of all fell together for me.

Q: What do you enjoy about your job, and what do you do when you’re not at work?

A: I love the work I do at the Folklore Society, particularly when it allows me to go out into communities and learn about all of the rich traditional life that is present in the region. As a statewide nonprofit organization, we often collaborate with other organizations across the state to do folklife programs and so I’ve traveled quite a bit across the state.

Our most recent program was a Music of the Erie Canal Celebration at the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse. It was so much fun and was the first event ever of its kind. When I’m not working on a program like this, you can probably find me dancing. I’m an avid tango dancer and go at least once a week.

I also take drum lessons with Zorkie Nelson, the Ghanaian drummer who will be playing at our reception, and I’m trying to teach myself fiddle as well. It’s much more portable than a piano!

 
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