#50for50

50 for 50: The Harris Brothers

Interview by Sandra Davidson

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

On Saturday, September 29th Reggie and Ryan Harris will perform at 9:45 p.m. as The Harris Brothers on the North Carolina Stage at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Wide Open Bluegrass Festival in Raleigh, N.C. The Harris Brothers are fabulous musicians who are steeped in the cultural traditions of their home region in the western Piedmont and foothills of Caldwell County. They started playing music through the influence of family members and neighbors, who tutored them in country, bluegrass, swing and blues music that you find in and around Lenoir, which was once a furniture making center in North Carolina. They have also immersed themselves in pop music genres and integrate versions of soul, folk and rock songs into their repertory. Devoted to their family and community, they arrange their performance schedule so that they don’t have to spend many overnights away from home. Otherwise, they would be touring across the country. Music is a way of life for their family, and we asked them to speak about their musical upbringing in this 50 for 50 interview.


Why don’t we start with you describing your family’s culture around music?

Reggie Harris: We grew up in northern North Carolina, and our daddy worked in the furniture industry down there. He started working in furniture factories when he was 16-years-old, and he worked in them pretty much his whole life. Music was an escape for him. He started playing guitar when he was a little boy and traded his first bicycle for a guitar. I’ve got a picture of it. It was a tiny little guitar. It was a tiny little picture. I blew it up, and you can see the guitar has Uncle Sam faces all over the front of it. It’s an old Kay guitar. He’s playing a good G chord. He was very good in my opinion. He was a great singer with a lot of feeling and emotion. [He] just played a clean, country, mountain style guitar [and] bluegrass…some of that too. I don’t know how he got so good. I think my granny liked to sing. I used to hear her sing old songs like the “Wayfaring Stranger.” She’d get your attention if she did it. She was really old when I heard her do it. Anyhow, he just played. His sister married another fellow, Cecil Palmer, who was a great guitar player. They were a great country duo. They would get together and play around the house. My dad didn’t play music for a living or anything, but Cecil did play on the weekends. We just grew up around it, and all our cousins play. My older brother Mark played guitar when I was a little kid. [I] learned a lot of stuff from him in the beginning. Ryan…he’s always been singing. He picked up singing from my dad. All we’ve ever done is play music. Every weekend of our life we’ve been playing music somewhere—involved with it in some fashion or another.

Ryan, what’s your earliest memory of singing?

Ryan Harris: I was always real nervous because it was a lot of pressure. I put a lot of pressure on myself I guess. I remember people would come over, and I’d hear my mom and dad start hollering “Ryan,” and I’d have to go and sing. They wanted to show me off to everybody. I always wanted to play basketball. [I] grew up loving the Wolfpack. Singing was just something I could do. It was something I knew I could do, but it’s a little bit of pressure. But Reggie…he was a natural. I think he had more fun at music than I did.

When did that change for you?

Ryan: I guess when I got out of high school. [I] got my first band with Reggie and we got influenced [by] the Allman Brothers. The blues really influenced me a whole lot. I love all kinds of music.

Would you describe what it was like when you played with your dad? Can you set the scene for me? Would that be a weekend thing? Would it be when he got off work?

Reggie: It could be anytime. You never can tell when we might get into playing music. My dad had an old Gibson—a Southern Jumbo—that he got in 1959. I think my mom got it for him. He said, “Boy, don’t mess with my guitar when I’m not home.” I knew enough not to be getting it out and dragging it around. I was a little kid. I’d open the lid on that thing, and I’d take my thumb and go across the strings. I memorized the sound before I ever even played. My older brother, he might be strumming around. He liked to write the words of the lyrics down in a notebook and then put the chord over the word. He’d switch like that. He was always messing around with a Bob Dylan song or something like that. I finally got my own little guitar.

How old were you?

I don’t know, maybe 5 or 6. I’m not sure.

But you were always drawn to it?

Reggie: Well, it was just fun. Seems like when music was going on it was really fun. I just liked it. My dad, I would listen to him. I remember laying on the floor right between him and my uncle, and they played serious. They’d sing and play. [It] really sounded good to me. Then my cousin, Brent—he was five years older than me—started playing. We’d just all like to play. We’d break out sometimes in the middle of the week. Even up until my dad passed away in 2002, we’d break it out and play all night through the week if we wanted to. We were just into it.

What kind of stuff were you playing?

Reggie: My dad sang old mountain songs like “East Virginia Blues.” Hank Williams was one of his heroes. Country music, some bluegrass tunes —all that kind of thing. He’d sing “Step It Up and Go,” [an] old Blind Boy Fuller song, in a country style. He always had the blues in his music, the blues feel, the blues tones. Soulful. I didn’t know it was called the blues when I was first hearing it, but that’s what I was drawn to.

What other influences shaped the music you play today?

Reggie: When I was a kid, our sister would babysit us like maybe on Saturday afternoon. My mother was a beautician, so she’d be at work, and my dad might be off hunting or fishing. She’d babysit us, and she played records all day. Back in those days, like in the early 70s, mid 70’s there were a lot of hippies around. People I like, you know?  They would trade records a lot. So, she would trade records with her friends next door. So, there’s always different vinyl 33s coming in and out all the time. She had her collection, and she’d always write her name on the back, “Debbie.” She would have ZZ Top, lots of Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

Ryan: Eagles.

Reggie: Van Morrison. Doc Watson. All sorts of different music. What we play is music. We don’t really categorize our stuff.

 

 

 

 

When did you start performing together?

Ryan: I was 3 or 4 years old. We had songs that he could play, and I could sing. I guess as a duo, probably about the last 20 years maybe or a little more.

Reggie: We still throw our band together from time to time.

Ryan: My dad was always real important about keeping timing. My dad would pat his foot. I remember when I was a kid, I would be downstairs playing. I remember hearing his foot up there playing. Now, Reggie, he plays an old suitcase. He takes a kickdrum panel and hits. I think that come from our dad.

Reggie: I can’t afford a real drummer.

Ryan: Yeah, less mouths to feed.

Was your dad creating original music?

Reggie: Mostly old songs. When we first heard his music we didn’t know who sang them. I didn’t know who the original artist was. My dad would sing “Tennessee Stud.” He’d play his own style. It’s way different than the way Doc Watson played it. It took me a while to get used to Doc Watson’s version because I heard my dad play it since I was a kid. He played it more bluesy. Both great versions. I’d say, “Where’d you learn that song?” He’d say, “I heared that all my life.” He wouldn’t say “I heard it.” He’d say, “I’ve heared that all my life.”

How did your dad feel about y’all playing music together?

Reggie: He loved it.

Ryan: He was proud of us.

Tell me about your creative process. Do both of you write? Do you take turns? How does it all come together?

Reggie: We write a lot of songs. We don’t play all our songs that we write. We just play. People ask us, “Do y’all practice? When do y’all practice? I want to come hear y’all practice.” I’m like, “We don’t practice. We just play.”

Ryan: We’re practicing when we play, basically.

Reggie: Sometimes we get together and work something out, but mostly we’ve played so many gigs, we know.

Ryan: We don’t write a set list out or anything we just—

Reggie: —We go and start playing, and I understand what to do. Because we’re brothers [it’s]  like telepathy.

Ryan: I know what he’s thinking. I know what song he wants to play when he puts his hand on the guitar. I can just pick up on it. It’s crazy.

Why do you think music is such a part of western North Carolina?

Reggie: It’s really hard to say. We [just] went to a surprise birthday party for this guy, and there was all sorts of musicians playing. My cousin was over there singing, and she was just killing it. Another friend, was over there just killing it too. [Our friend] was like, “I’ve been all over the world. There’s no place like right here in Caldwell County for music when you stack it all up.” I can’t explain it. Within five miles of where I grew up and was raised, I could name you so many guitar players that are very professional and competent that can play any style. If a Nashville artist called and said, “Hey, I need you to play my show with me this weekend. You got two days to learn.” I could tell you several that could ace it. You know what I mean? I can’t explain it. Back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, there was a harmonica player named Gwen Foster. He came out of Caldwell County. Probably one of the greatest harmonica players that ever lived on the face of the earth.

I guess people didn’t have anything else to do. Part of our county is in the mountains. That’s how people entertain their selves. That’s how we entertained ourselves coming up. We weren’t rich or anything. We just got together and played music and went to parties and played music. From there [we] started playing bars and wherever we could get a gig once we started doing it for a living. It’s a way of life for us.

I don’t see a whole lot of new people coming along playing. I taught lessons for a long time, and I did get some people past the hump that [are] still really into it, which makes me feel good. We just hope people will carry it on some way because it is a rich area.

What do you think Ryan?

Ryan: I concur.

 

 

 

 

The North Carolina Arts Council’s mission is to ensure the arts are supported in every county in North Carolina. We have asked every artist that we’ve interviewed for this project to reflect on why they think that matters. So, why would you say public funding for the arts is important?

Reggie: Well I think because kids need something. You need to be influenced by music when you’re small. I 100-percent believe that. There’s a thought or a study that says that every baby is born with perfect pitch, but there’s only a small window you have to develop it. You can speak any language you want to learn when you’re just a baby. It depends on which one you hear. It’s the same.

I loved when the music teacher came to class and sang songs. That was my favorite part of school. I think they should give every kid some sort of little toy trumpet or violin. The world’s changing. It’s all about phones. Kids in school need art. They need to see real people sit down and sing and play an instrument. The arts are the key to our humanity. I think our feelings for each other have to do with that and how you treat people. Usually, music people are nice people or good people. Not all of them, but for the most part, people that are in the music get along, don’t matter what race [or] what language you speak. If you like music, it’s something that ties you together.

Do you have anything else to add?

Ryan: He says enough for both of us. When I die, I don’t want to hear speed metal. I want to hear a Carter Family song. Then I’ll be going to the right place.

What do you each respect the most about each other’s musicianship?

Ryan: Reggie…he’s probably one of the best guitar players, seriously, [that’s] ever been. I’m not just saying it because he’s my brother. We were over in France…in Paris. It was the last day there, and he was teaching a guitar class. One of the guys that was sitting over beside me, he could barely speak English, he says, “He never misses a note.” His playing is like a river. It’s just flowing. There are no stops. He never misses a chord. He never misses nothing. He can play every style from bluegrass to jazz to blues with feeling. He’s a great singer too. My older brother, I guess he’s probably one of the main reasons I’m in music really. He’s just a good person too.

Reggie: I didn’t know you felt that way about me. Thanks.

Ryan: I do. I love you, buddy.

Reggie: Ryan…from the time he was just a kid coming home you could hear him get off the school bus. You could hear him singing. There was a couple hills you’ve got to cross to get down to where the school bus stop was, but his voice carried. He was born with a gift. There’s lots of people who sing, but you have to be born with what he has. I always knew I wanted him to be the singer in whatever music I was involved in. It was just how I was going to get him to do it was the problem. I tricked him into it.

Ryan: Once I realized I couldn’t play for N.C. State. That was not [in] the cards.]


 

 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

 

In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Jaki Shelton Green

Intro by David Potorti | Interview and media by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Jaki Shelton Green and her poetry are both deeply rooted in the North Carolina experience. As our state’s first African American poet laureate, her words soar while keeping us close to the earth: the touch, the smell and the sound of the everyday are made holy in Green’s writing. In the same way, her receipt of the distinguished North Carolina Award for Literature in 2003 and induction into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2014 are balanced by her work on the ground as a community arts advocate, giving voice to the incarcerated, the homeless, the chronically and mentally ill, and victims of domestic violence. A native of Efland, Green has been active in North Carolina’s literary and teaching community for more than 40 years, penning eight books of poetry, co-editing two poetry anthologies and writing one play. She currently teaches Documentary Poetry at Duke University Center for Documentary Studies, a practice she will incorporate into her work as our state’s newest ambassador for literature and the spoken word. We invited her to talk about how poetry became such an integral part of her life, the debt she owes to her ancestors, and the importance of letting everyone tell their own story.


You’ve said before that your grandmother was instrumental in guiding you to writing. Will you tell me about her and the influence she had on your writing?

My grandmother was Eva Tate. She was a lovely very petite prim and proper little southern Methodist. My grandmother was central to the family. She was the matriarch when I was growing up, but a very quiet-spoken matriarch. She just carried a big stick in her being. She was very humble. 

As a child I was very fidgety and very precocious and curious, and by grandmother fed that with stories. She also fed it with little tiny notebooks that she would give me so I would be quiet in church. I would sit in church and scribble and draw pictures. They were my stories. I was writing about what was going on around me. As a teenager I started bringing my own little journals to church, but I would listen and I would capture pieces of what was being said on Sunday mornings into poems.

She was part of my source. She really stimulated me to be creative in many different ways, but writing was one thing that she really pushed me to do. I never really wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to be a scientist or an oceanographer, but it was my grandmother who said, “You must tell the story, and there are many stories that you must tell, and you must help other people tell stories.” My grandmother was a keeper of stories, and she’s passed that down to me. It’s a rich responsibility, but I’ve totally taken it on.

Will you describe what it was like to grow up in Efland?

I grew up in an extended family meaning that my three first cousins were less than a mile away. My grandmother lived next door to us with my mother’s middle sister. My mother’s siblings were all teachers and principals, except for one uncle who owned the store in between his house and our house. It was one of those little – now we call it a convenience store – but it was really a little community store. You could buy fresh bread. You could buy soda pop. You could buy cigarettes. You could buy gas. The community was small in that everyone knew everyone. People were interrelated by family relations or by marriage. It was a very interconnected family, and people were very interdependent on each other in terms of making sure that everyone had what they needed.

My aunt taught [at] the elementary school that I attended for 38 years. She taught all five of us, all five of the grandchildren. So, I grew up in this family of educators and first cousins who were older than me, who were in college when I was still in elementary school, so I was always around adults. My one and only brother is three years younger than me, so he and I had a kind of magical growing up with the other kids in the neighborhood, but I was always reading books. So deep community. This time of the year we’d be picking beans, snapping beans, canning tomatoes, making jellies. All of those southern rituals are dear to me. I was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. My grandmother was a missionary, and a lot of my writing is built on containers I’ve created for those memories. Those memories of bearing witness to women sitting in circle doing what they do as powerful women.

I really appreciated the life I had as a child, but I’m really happy that I grew up in a family that fostered me to fly away; that did not create obstacles for me to stay home. There was a part of me – and this is going to sound horrible – there was a part of me that felt like I belonged somewhere else. That I wanted to be in a bigger space. I would look at the sky and think, “What’s over here? I know there’s something over there, and I want to find what over there is.”  I left Efland in my teen years to go to a private Quaker boarding school in Bucks County, PA. I hate to use the word gypsy because it has such negative connotation, but my great uncle used to call me his little gypsy because I always wanted to go. And I still want to go. I still want to know what other people are thinking in other parts of the world, and how they live, and how they play, and how they love and what art looks like for them, and how their art influences my art.

One of the things I’ve heard you speak about is that literacy is very important to your family for a very particular reason. Will you tell that story?

When I was a child especially when there was a summer thunderstorm, my grandmother would tell me the same story over and over. It is the story of my grandmother’s grandmother, [who] was the property of her white father on the plantation that my family lived on. My grandmother’s grandmother was the sole property of her half 3-year-old sister. It was her responsibility to take care of this little girl. To make sure she was cleaned, clothed, fed every day.

Her older half-siblings secretly taught her how to read and write, and it was their secret. But one day the mother of the white children was in a room where my grandmother’s grandmother was also present. The woman was very stern. The woman also did not like my grandmother’s grandmother for very obvious reasons, and her mother always told her to stay out of her way, to be obedient and stay out of her way. On this particular day the mother was teaching a lesson to her children, and she asked the other children a question, and the child had forgotten the answer, and as children do, they start looking at each other, and then they looked at my grandmother’s grandmother because they knew she knew. She was a little older. They just kept staring at her. 

So my grandmother’s grandmother blurted the answer. On that day it was discovered that she could read and write. On that day she was literally removed from the house violently. She was physically beaten and sent to live on the edge of the plantation with an old black woman who was too old to be of service anymore. Finally the white wife was willing to have her way. She’d always wanted to sell my grandmother’s grandmother and [she]  was sold to a plantation owner a few counties away. The day he came to take this child away, he arrived in an old wooden buck wagon. [Her] mother ran behind the buck wagon screaming and crying as it was going out the driveway. An old rusty nail fell from the wagon, and my grandmother’s grandmother’s mother picked up the nail, and she put it in her apron pocket. She kept the nail.

That nail has been passed down on the matrilineal side of the family. It was passed down because year’s later my grandmother’s grandmother’s mother was able to buy her out of slavery. So this nail has remained. My grandmother gave me this nail perhaps when I was too young to bear the responsibility of the nail. I’ve lost the nail a lot of times, but now I have the nail and it’s very safe, and that nail directs me and instructs me. It’s another container for the work that I write. It reminds me of sacrifice. My grandmother’s story was, “Someone who looked just like you almost died for the right to read and write, so you will write.”

I write because I love to write. It’s my yoga. It’s my zen. There’ve been times in my life when it’s the only thing I had to hold on to.

I think that sometimes our life’s work finds us because I didn’t choose writing. I’m happy writing. I love writing. But sometimes I wish I didn’t write. I wish I were an oceanographer and I would have something really to write about, but it’s that story. It’s that story that has instructed my life’s work in a very deep way and with integrity. I’ve never had an ego about writing. I write because I love to write. It’s my yoga. It’s my zen. There’ve been times in my life when it’s the only thing I had to hold on to.

 

 

Poet, teacher, and community arts advocate Jaki Shelton Green is North Carolina's ninth poet laureate. In this clip she speaks about the goals she has for her tenure as the state's ambassador for poetry and the spoken word.

 

 

You’ve said before that writing can help people understand who they are and where they’re from. I wonder how it’s helped you understand who you are?

When I left N.C. as a teenager to go to boarding school it was the late 60s. There was the Civil Rights Movement. There was the Cambodia issue. There was Vietnam. There was a lot going on in our world. There was a lot going on for an adolescent rural black girl from the South. I was very confused about my identity and where I belonged in the South. I was plucked out of that, and here I am in Pennsylvania with people from all over the world. I’d never lived away from my parents, my family. I had a roommate. Never had a roommate. And I learned so much about other people, and how I began to see myself over and over again in what I was studying, what I was learning. Other people actually hold up mirrors for you, and I learned that at a very young age, and that’s when my poetry really flourished. I started depending on my journal. I’m very outgoing, but as an adolescent I was very introverted. I was very introspective until I felt like I knew what I needed to say, and if it would be appropriate. I was always trying to be discerning. I didn’t know that word then, but now I understand that I was practicing discernment and, in a way, mindfulness. So, writing continues to show me who I am. 

I started keeping a journal when my oldest daughter Imani became ill in 2008. I wrote in that journal every single day up until the day she died which was from late August of 2008 to June 5, 2009. It was a very quick illness. One day last year I was looking for a book in my study and another book fell from the shelf on my foot. When I picked it up I didn’t recognize it. I opened it, and it was that journal. I’d forgotten about it. I read that journal, and I was also reading Imani’s journal because she was journaling her illness. There was almost a conversation going on between the two of us, and inside of that conversation it made me really think about the depths of motherhood but also the limitations of motherhood and the boundaries…because it was the first time in her life that mama couldn’t fix it.

So writing has shown me myself over and over again. It continues to. When I think about identity and writing, I’m always interested [in how] the anatomy of voice changes. The geography of your voice changes. I also see that when I’m working with any number of writers…my college students at Duke in addition to non-traditional writers. We all are writing for our life. I just believe that on some level. Even if people will say, “Well I don’t write from a personal perspective.” I think it’s very difficult to not have a lens that also includes some visceral or emotional or mental or brainy piece of who we are.

 

 

Jaki Shelton Green reflects on her historic appointment as North Carolina's first African American poet laureate.

 

 

And you have talked about Imani’s death and how you went through a period afterwards where you were not able to write? Will you tell that story and how you got to the other side of it?

Certainly. Yes. I wanted to write. I was listening to friends who’d recently lost parents or lost children, and they were writing every day, and they were just writing, writing, writing, and I was paralyzed. I was creatively paralyzed. I told my husband, “I want paint and canvases for Christmas.” And he was like, “Why? You don’t paint.” And I was like, “But I can’t write, and I need to do something with my hands.” My process is not to use the computer when I’m creating. It’s where I go back after the piece is done in my journal or on my cell phone. I use my cell phone a lot as pad and pencil. The computer’s where they live, it’s where I edit, it’s where I deconstruct and reconstruct them. But I couldn’t write, so I painted. And she started showing up in the colors, in the strokes. I could feel my anger. I could feel my pain, my sorrow. You know how when someone dies you get stuck in the last time you saw them? I was stuck in hospice, and my spirit would only let me experience her in the last two weeks of her life, and I was struggling to get beyond that. I was struggling to see her walking into my house grinning. To see her jogging, or to see her rushing in to take a shower after coming in from the gym. I was struggling to see her beauty and her wittiness which was wicked. She was wickedly humorous and funny. So I just let it be. I stopped trying to write. I didn’t push it. And then last year this poem I Want to Undie You just showed up at like 4 o’clock one morning. I was really tired, and I just picked up my telephone and I started composing it in my phone.

I think there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to memorialize her. I want to keep her alive. And these words “I want to undie you” just kept feeding me more and more and more of the pieces of her life. And I had to remind myself to get out of the way of the poem because this is not my poem. I felt like Imani was someone channeling herself through me. And that happens quite a bit for me. I think I channel my grandmother a lot. I think I channel my ancestors a lot.

 

 

Jaki Shelton Green lost her daughter Imani to cancer in 2009. After months of writers block, she awoke one night with this poem in her head.

 

 

What do you think poetry as a literary form offers as a mode of expression that is different than narrative writing? 

I think a spirit of resilience for most of us. I think the world right now needs poetry more than ever. Once upon the time the United Nations used to have this United Nations Day of Poetry, and I used to always think if they had poets sitting amongst the United Nations people or if they had to open every session with poetry from around the world that it would be a different energy in that space.

But I’ve seen resilience. I’ve seen it in my non-traditional writers: writers who are homeless, children who are struggling, newly literate writers. I think it does give us a spirit of resilience, and I think that my role as Poet Laureate is to be present in many, many different types of communities and to definitely foster an appreciation for voices that are marginalized. Voices that are outside of the canon. Voices that don’t show up at poetry readings. Voices that would never come to a retreat, but they’re there. And North Carolina has rich community, rich diversity of community, and there are amazing stories that I want to help people excavate and tell and write about and publish and celebrate in their communities. 

Poetry builds community.

My role as Poet Laureate is to be present in many, many different types of communities and to definitely foster an appreciation for voices that are marginalized.

I think a very good example of that is when you look at the spoken word community. It’s a movement, and when I have been in a debate with some of my more scholarly or academic writer friends and even colleagues in the literary community, I remind them that “When was the last time that we had 300 people come to a poetry reading on a Monday night at a bookstore?” It doesn’t happen. But they do. Even if it’s horrible! I’ve heard really bad. I’ve heard fabulous. But what I have witnessed is a sense of community. The sense of no judgement. The sense of rallying each other on. The sense of creating opportunities for people’s voices. Pulling people to the mic. Standing there with them. Supporting them to share their voice. It’s powerful. Poetry is powerful, and I think we need the energy of poetry right now because I’ve seen how poetry can build bridges. I think poets are architects. We don’t even give ourselves credit for being amazing architects of these bridges where we meet with all of our otherness, and then we’re able to look at our deep connections. 

 

 

Jaki Shelton Green describes documentary poetry and how she intends to engage the people of North Carolina with it during her tenure as poet laureate

 

 

Will you talk about what you intend to do as Poet Laureate? What are some of your hopes?

I’ve already been invited into a very diverse landscape of settings around the state, from rest homes to public schools, arts councils, and even out of North Carolina. I’m going to be performing in South Carolina with a symphony orchestra and a jazz musician. I want to use my vocation as a documentary poet to go into communities and to get people to pull out their memorabilia, to bring the stories that they’re holding. Because I also teach from a perspective of what we keep keeps us. So what do we keep? We keep our grandmother’s bible. We keep photographs. We keep scrapbooks. We keep our father’s and our mother’s medals. I keep my family stories. My mother is 100-years-old, and she was a Rosie the Riveter. She may well be one of the oldest ones still alive. There are stories like this everywhere. I want people to bring their photographs, and I’ll bring my nail, and we will look at them as primary and secondary documents and write and write. All of those objects are holding stories, and I believe that the poetry is embedded inside a story. Poems are inside a story. That’s where all my poems come from.

I believe that we’re all human museums, that we’re carrying around our anthropology inside of us and writing is an archaeological dig. For me it’s like how many pens can I hand out to start doing the digging across the state, and how can I convince people that we are our own curators? That we can tell our stories, that the stories will not be erased. They will not be marginalized. They will not be silenced because we need all the stories of all the people of North Carolina. We need those stories. What are we going to leave as a legacy? I believe that what we’re leaving is what we have to tell.  

Will you talk about where this appointment fits into your own personal narrative as a woman of color? We’ve never had an African American Poet Laureate in North Carolina. Can you tell me what that feels like to you?

I’m overwhelmed to be honest in a powerfully beautiful way. It’s very endearing to me. Never on my journey inside of a literary community did I ever aspire to be the Poet Laureate. I just always wanted to be a good writer. I’ve always wanted to build community through literature. I’ve always wanted to interface with as many people as possible, so I kind of feel like a bride, like my groom finally showed up and said, “Okay I know you’ve been waiting for me let’s go to the ball now.”

I know that becoming the Poet Laureate is not just about me. It really isn’t. I know it’s symbolic for many, many people of color across the state. I’ve received emails and messages from people I’ve never met, people of color, who’ve said, “I don’t know you, but when I saw that on TV I screamed. I cried.” Because it does mean something. I think right now it’s a very sad, turbulent social, cultural, political environment for all of us, and it was really nice to have a celebration. It’s really nice to have something joyous. For the moment it feels good. People have said, “Wow I’ve stopped looking at stupid stuff on Facebook. I’m following you now and wanting to know what you’re doing and I’m so happy for you.” And with that joy comes responsibility.

I’ve said this before. I serve the state of North Carolina. I don’t serve only people of color because I’ve always said to myself if I’ve written a poem and only the black people in the room get it, I’ve failed. If I write a poem and only women in the room get it, I’ve failed. If I write a poem and only the black women in the room get it, I’ve failed. If I write a poem and only Southerners in the room get it, I’ve failed. I’ve struggled. It’s been a struggle to find that authenticity in voice, in metaphor, that connects to anybody’s humanness.

I’ll give you an example. When I was in Morocco last year presenting at an international prose poetry symposium an elderly man came to me after my reading. He was a professor. He said, “I have to tell you something. I was sitting with a group of elderly men in the back. They speak no English. But you read your poem about police brutality and they were weeping. They kept asking me to tell them what you was saying, and they were saying we don’t know what her words are, but we feel the poetry of her words. We feel the story. It is touching us very deeply.” They were weeping.

Or when an elderly old-as-the-mountain white man in my community chases me around the grocery store to tell me how much he loves my grandmother poems…I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Because our lives really don’t connect around commonality except he was almost weeping. He said, “When I hear you reading my grandmother poems, it makes me think about my own grandmother and they make me happy and sometimes they make me sad. So just keep doing what you’re doing little lady.”

That matters to me. But it also matters to me that I know that my wings are being held up by my ancestors. They’re being held up by many, many people of color who are just carrying this legacy of pride with me. Because they know what it takes to be here. They know what it takes to get here, so I want to honor all of us. And I want to honor my mom. She’s 100-years-old and never would she have thought she would have seen this. For her it’s like Obama getting elected. That’s how my family feels. They’re like this is the inauguration of Obama all over again, and maybe I’m taking this too far, but it really is an honor and I’m humbled. 

I know that my wings are being held up by my ancestors. They’re being held up by many, many people of color who are just carrying this legacy of pride with me. Because they know what it takes to be here.

Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share about Shelby Stephenson, the outgoing Poet Laureate? 

I’ve known Shelby forever, and I was very, very happy when he became Poet Laureate. I’ve penned blurbs on several of his books and that has been such an honor. My family loves him. My husband just thinks he’s one of the greatest souls that we know. When Shelby was writing about his family, he called me. We’ve had rich, deep conversations about a Southern past that we share. Shelby talks about July the slave girl whose grave that he found. I was one of the first people that he called. We had a long conversation about, “Should I write about this. Is it my story to tell?” I was like, “You have to write about it. How else would we know who July is? You have to give her breath.” So, there’s a lot of trust, and he’s a good soul. I’m happy to pick up where he’s leaving. 


 

 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

 

In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Rhiannon Giddens

Interview* by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Lately, Rhiannon Giddens has been telling her kids to enjoy being bored. The quiet, idle moments of her own childhood on Grand Oaks Drive in McLeansville, N.C. sharpened the very imagination and creativity so many have come to know her for.  “We were really bored, and we spent a lot of time outside just trying to make something out of nothing,” says Rhiannon of she and her sister’s upbringing in the small community outside of Greensboro. “That’s usually where good stuff comes.”

These days moments of stillness aren’t easy to come by for the award-winning musician. Classically trained in opera at the renowned Oberlin Conservatory, Rhiannon’s career took off in 2010 when she, Dom Flemmons, and Justin Robinson’s Carolina Chocolate Drops won a Grammy for their album Genuine Negro Jig. In years since, Rhiannon’s released two solo albums, landed a recurring role on the hit television show Nashville, and, most recently, received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, which recognizes her work “reclaiming African American contributions to folk and country music and bringing to light new connections between music from the past and the present.” 

Rhiannon will manifest that mission at the upcoming North Carolina Folk Festival, which features programming she developed as a guest curator. Several months before the festival, we met at the Greensboro Cultural Center to discuss her career, the influence of North Carolina Heritage Award recipient Joe Thompson on her work, and the importance of public funding for the arts.


We are here in the Greensboro Cultural Center. Tell me why you chose this location for our interview.

My dad used to work for the Opus Series, and his office was here. I would come here for Greensboro Youth Chorus rehearsal, for auditions for Livestock, and to see the art galleries. I also brought my kids here to do art programs, so I have a lot of good memories of this place and the place that it holds in the arts community here in Greensboro.

Will you describe the music environment of your childhood?

What I remember out [at] my grandparents was listening to the radio—usually R&B. They had a lot of blues and jazz records, and I’ve said this before, but we used to watch Hee Haw on Saturday night, so that kind of bluegrass also had a place in my mom’s parents’ side [of the family]. The other side was old, old country on the radio. My uncle was in a bluegrass band, and I was of course exposed to bluegrass through my uncle’s band and just being around this area. And then, of course, my sister and I were exposed to the modern music of the day. When MTV came on, we watched MTV. It was a real half-rural, half-urban southern upbringing.

And when did you first start creating and making music?

They tell me I started writing songs when I was itty bitty—that I was singing in the crib and that I would sit in the rocking chair and make up songs. I sang with my dad a lot. He’s a great singer, and I think my pitch is so good because we used to sing all the time. I sang with my sister. My mom was always playing great music, and we’d sing folk revival stuff [like] Peter, Paul, and Mary, but I didn’t really start creating music until I was an adult. For the most part, I was into visual arts when I was a kid, so music was just a part of the fabric of my life. It wasn’t what I was going to do until I was a teenager.

Tell me about how you arrived at that—pursuing music.

Three really important North Carolina institutions had to do with why I’m in music now.

The first is the Greensboro Youth Chorus which set the foundation for singing.  I did that for quite a few years, and I learned a lot of really great things about singing and making music in a community. It was run by Ann Doyle, who just retired. She was a huge figure in my early years.

Then I went to Governor's School for choir as a rising senior in high school, and that’s when the bug sort of bit me. I had entered some competitions in singing, but ironically never really got anywhere. I didn’t get into honors choir. When I did a competition in Greensboro, I got to the finals with my poem, but not with my singing because I had a natural voice. I wasn’t a kid trying to sound like an adult. When I went to Governor’s School, I found my tribe. I was surrounded by music people.

The third institution was the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. I was there when I discovered that I wanted to do music. I started an acapella group there, and for a math and science high school—it’s so embracing of the arts.

Without those three things, it’s hard to know where I would be music-wise, to be honest. North Carolina is just kind of inextricable from my music journey, even in the latter years where I found my calling.

 

 

Rhiannon Giddens cofounded the Grammy award-winning string band group The Carolina Chocolate Drops.

 

 

In your Fresh Air interview, you mentioned you were first drawn to classical music because you didn’t have to speak on stage. You really done a one-eighty in that regard.

I know. That is absolutely true. When I was looking for schools, I didn’t know anything about musical theater or opera. I just knew they talked in musical theater, and I hated talking in public, and I hated talking on stage, so I went into opera which was great because I learned a lot technically through Oberlin Conservatory, and I’m grateful for that.

But as I got into folk music – being a black woman playing a banjo and advocating for this not well known but immensely important music with my fellow Chocolate Drops Dom Flemmons and Justin Robinson—we discovered that it was actually easier to preface [the songs] rather than to answer at the end. We would just get people going, “Well why are y’all playing this kind of music?” As if we have to explain ourselves. That got annoying, so we just started jumping in front of that and going, “Let us tell you about this music, so you don’t wonder why we are playing it.”

When you’re talking about difficult things like race and music, you have to be really specific with your terminology because otherwise you’ll get misquoted, and then it’s a mess. We got really good over the years at condensing and making things immediately make sense so that people without much background could understand what we were saying; I find that it’s just kind of second nature now. So, when I got asked to make a speech I was kind of like this is the natural next step, even though ten years ago I would have totally jumped off a cliff at the thought of it.

Are you referencing the IBMA speech?

Mhmm.

Such a powerful speech.

Thanks.

 

 

 

 

Was there an “a-ha moment” where you realized you were done with opera?

While I was at UNC-G, I attended this professional music seminar. They brought in Marc Janicello who was a graduate of UNC-G and from North Carolina. He sang in the subway and got discovered and made his own career being a classical singer. They brought him back to talk about being a professional musician, and he gave a really informative seminar. If I had an “a-ha moment: it was when he said, “Nobody’s going to make your career for you. You have to do it. YOU have to make it happen. People will help you, but you create the group of people who are going to support you while you do it. You have to generate the energy.”

I remember at that point I was doing graphic design for this executive benefits company [and] had a 401K. [I was] kind of dying inside a little bit going, “I want to do my music. When is someone going to discover me? Everybody tells me I’m a good singer. Why am I not doing this full time?” That was the moment where I was like, “OH! Okay, let me get off my butt and stop complaining and actually do something.” I do credit that moment to really lighting the fire. I went halftime on my job, and then I went full time not having a job and just started making it happen.

Well, tell me about how you met Joe Thompson.

Meeting Joe Thompson was probably one of the most important moments of my life. I had already come to folk music from opera, and I started discovering these old recordings. I discovered Marshall Wyatt’s Old Hat Records label, and he’s got a lot of great compilations of black string band music. I found images of blacks playing fiddle and banjo and [I remember] going “What it is this?” That led to me discovering the black banjo group and helping to organize the Black Banjo Gathering [and to] meeting the other Chocolate Drops, Sue Wilson, and all these people that went into that first iteration of the mission.

One of the people I met was Cece Conway because she wrote African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia which was the first book I discovered dealing with this topic of black banjo songsters. She told me about Joe Thompson. I couldn’t believe that he was from Mebane, which I had been going to for family reunions every year for decades. So, I met some of the people who played with him, and they set up a meeting and were very supportive of me playing with him. That was this great moment, and then he had a stroke. I kind of gave it up, but then he came back from the stroke with the help of his community in Mebane—the white musical community that had been playing with him ever since Odell died. Then I got to start going down with Justin and Dom, and that was the special key. It was that we all went together—the original Chocolate Drops went down to Joe’s together. That’s what formed a unique bond and the unique musical language that nobody else really speaks like we do. I think that’s one of the reasons why the original Chocolate Drops was such a thing. It comes from playing with Joe for hours and hours and hours.

 

 

Rhiannon Giddens grew up in and around Greensboro, NC. Early formative experiences she had with public arts programming in North Carolina deeply shaped her trajectory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As a student of history in many ways, I wonder what stands out to you as unique about North Carolina’s music community?

When you look into the history of where we are in the South, there are a lot of interesting cultural things that I think lead to interesting musical things. Virginia and South Carolina were the rich states and North Carolina was sort of the “country cousin.” We obviously had some plantations in the east, but nothing like Virginia, nothing like South Carolina. They had all the money. It was one of the last states to secede. There’s always been an interesting push-pull in this state. A lot of working-class people [were] living together, even if the races were segregated. So, I feel like a lot of the music in North Carolina is kind of a mix. You don’t have so much isolation like the deep South, like the Mississippi Delta. There were more opportunities where normal, ordinary people could influence each other musically and culturally—which is not to say there was any kumbaya happening. The closest we got was Wilmington.  

I come from both of these sides. I come from black and white working-class people. My obsession is the beauty that’s found where those people influence each other and where that music comes from.

I come from black and white working-class people. My obsession is the beauty that’s found where those people influence each other and where that music comes from

Will you talk about your Wilmington project?

Wilmington 1898. It’s a pivotal, pivotal piece of American history that nobody talks about–even in North Carolina where it happened. That was a shocking thing to me. I grew up in North Carolina. There’s so much of our own history I didn’t learn in school, unfortunately. It’s amazing. Wilmington is such a big deal because of the fact that there was a coup on American soil that we don’t talk about. There was this huge effort to destroy the black middle class, to destroy black prosperity. This has happened all over the country for hundreds of years, but the vividness and all of the aspects of what happened in Wilmington—it’s just the perfect picture of what was going on at the time and what’s still going on. People get so surprised at these things like Klan rallies in Charlottesville. The more you dig into the history, the more you realize that these groups and these attitudes have always been here. When you look at what happened in Wilmington in 1898, it is absolutely clear. You can’t spin it. The folks led what they called a revolution—and they called it a revolution, and they called it getting back their culture and their country—these white supremacists. I think it’s been suppressed for that reason because it is so ugly, and it is so obvious, and it opened the door to many other instances in other places.

I’m obviously a musician. I’m not a historian...I mean I’m kind of a historical musician. That’s my art form. As Hamilton has shown, you can create an artistic, musical piece that is completely historically-based and it can change the story. It can move the needle. It can get a lot of people inspired to look into history. This is an opportunity to explore the history through the music. We just started on it. I’m working on it where my schedule allows. That’s the idea of the MacArthur. Everything takes a while because music is scheduled so far in advance, but it’s happening slowly.

Will you speak about why public funding for the arts matters?

I think that public funding for the arts matters an awful lot because not everybody gets the same opportunities in their personal lives, in their families. We all know that there’s quite a lot of inequality in this country, and public funding for the arts means that a kid like me who yeah, I got support from my family…it’s not that they tried to talk me out of music…it’s not that I didn’t have music growing up, but that I got formal education. I got opportunities to be exposed to the larger musical world through Governor’s School, through coming to the concerts that my dad used to work—Sunday Evening in the Park. [I was] exposed to music that takes a lot of economic support. An orchestra takes a lot of financial support. To bring that to everybody takes state and federal funding because of the way that we have set up our lives here. That’s just the way we’ve done it. We’ve set it up so that not everybody has access to those things. So, to do that everybody has to commit. It’s like people want the benefit of these things but they don’t want to put into it. And I actually think they do. I think if they get the opportunity people have historically said, “Yeah we value these things. This is what we want to do.” Some of the most powerful pieces of art have come from historically marginalized people. People who you wouldn’t think had access to these things, but through public schools, through public organizations, they have gotten the wherewithal to create this incredible thing that generates millions of dollars in revenue.

To that end, how can North Carolina better support artists?

There are two very different ways of making art. I think the true future is somewhere in the middle. We have the commercial way, and then we have the arts funding way. The commercial way is you make art that sells, and you then support yourself through selling your art. As a musician, I sell tickets to my show, and that’s how I make a living. The MacArthur was the very first grant I’ve ever received. I just didn’t go that route. I didn’t know enough about it.

I wouldn’t be able to tell the stories I tell now without all that foundational support I received in North Carolina”

So, there are two very different ways of operation, and they’re both precarious right now because of advents in technology that means that artists are making less and less money from their product, especially musicians because people think it should be free. Now the pools of funding—especially the small to middle grants—are under threat constantly. A lot of them have been lost already, and they’re very dependent on the current administration which means that there’s no sort of solid we don’t have to worry about things right now. The big grants that are privately funded—that’s a different ballgame, but these small to middle grants are the most important ones because those are the ones that help artists get to that next step.

We historically don’t have health insurance. We don’t have savings. People in other countries get these things as artists which means that they’re valued by their countries. We don’t get valued like that because people don’t look at art as a real career even though they consume it every day. The average person consumes music all day, every day, but they don’t look at it as a real career. They think you’re lucky if you get to work 250 days a year on the road, not having insurance and getting paid very little. They think you’re lucky. I lobbied on Capitol Hill for a bill trying to get Pandora among other things to pay royalties [to] artists pre—I think—1973. They’re just not paying royalties. I remember talking to a black Democratic senator who said, “Well you know…you’re doing what you love, and if you get a little money on the side, that’s great.” I didn’t say this, but I have a million dollar business that pays people. I am a small business owner, and I have to pay my mortgage. I have to take care of my family. I, for four years, have paid five people’s living wages, not to mention contributing to scores of other people’s income from my art, and you’re telling me that I should feel lucky that I get to do it for a living? It’s really important that we put our money where our mouth is. Right now, the people benefiting off of the arts are the people who aren’t making it. It’s Apple. It’s movie execs. It’s all this administration in the middle. It’s people who invented the MP3 player. It’s not the artists other than the very top echelon. I’m a successful musician, and I stress about money every day. I just got an amazing grant, and I am so grateful for it, but I still have to think about what’s going on, and who am I paying, and who am I supporting. All that takes away from the time I can be making music. It’s a really complicated answer. We have so many things that we need to change to really change the paradigms for arts in this country. We just gotta keep pushing. Every little bit counts. Every grant that doesn’t get cut. Every organization that can survive. That’s why I do things like this… to talk about the organizations that helped me out because I’m quite aware that they’re a big part of my career, and I wouldn’t be able to tell the stories I tell now without all that foundational support I received in North Carolina.


*This interview was edited and condensed. 


 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

 

In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Billy Kaye

Interview by Sandra Davidson | Video by N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources | Editing Support by Scott Stegall

Friday, August 17, 2018

Earlier this summer Wilson, N.C. welcomed home a native son: legendary jazz drummer Billy Kaye. Born Willie King Seaberry in Wilson in 1932, Billy has performed with jazz titans like Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Lou Donaldson, and George Benson. His performance career began in 1950 when he played with Percy Mayfield.  A performer, composer, and educator, Kaye was the featured drummer for jazz workshops at the inaugural Newport Jazz Festival and is currently a music educator in the New York City public school systems through the Jazz Foundation of America’s Jazz in Schools program. Billy learned to play drums during his tenure in the U.S. Air Force, and has traveled the world as a musician. His concert on June 7th at the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park marked the first time he ever played in his hometown. 


Tell me what you remember about growing up in Wilson.

I was born in ‘32 a couple blocks from the train station near the Cherry Hotel, one of the top hotels in Wilson. My grandparents’ home was 517 Church Street which was something like a two-block walk to the train station. It was a block off Nash Street. Most of the employment was done there. Nash Street had [a] drug store, dentist, doctor. There was a Ritz Theater on Nash Street. There were three churches in that area. That was basically it. I grew up running around the yard playing the Lone Ranger with a broomstick between my legs. I used to enjoy coming home in the summers when I was a youngster to play in the dirt, climb the trees, play under the house. That kind of stuff. 

 

 

Billy Kaye reflects on what his first hometown show means to him.

 

 

Tell me how you came to be a jazz drummer. 

That’s a hard one. It wasn’t a thing that I decided as a boy. During World War II, my folks moved to Brooklyn. Back in the ‘30s and early ‘40s, many people bounced back and forth wherever the work was. The music started in grammar school in Brooklyn. We had a class called Music Appreciation. My teacher played music and we had to identify, “What do you think this person who wrote this music was thinking about? What do you hear in this music?” [Once] the teacher [played] the William Tell Overture. We didn’t know that. All we could think about was, “Oh, that’s the Lone Ranger.” No, that’s not the Lone Ranger. We learned that was the finale from William Tell by Rossini. So, we start to learn about these writers. That’s where the life came into the music. They were musically photographing, so to speak, their imagination or what they were thinking about. 

Then I had to start taking piano lessons. I had this thing about “I think I want to play the drums,” [but] my father said, “You’ll learn how to play a piano so you’ll know what you’re beating on those things about.” 

It didn’t make me want to be a drummer, but as things went on and I grew older, I started listening to jazz, and I started hearing different things. I started listening more closely and fooling around on my grandmother’s piano. That really started the music.

You’ve played with some amazing jazz musicians, and you’ve toured all over the world. Is there a recording you’ve done that stands out as your favorite? 

That’s hard to say. Financially, [that’s] one thing, but spiritually speaking, is another thing. I think the greatest thing that really did something was the Sugaralbum with Stanley Turrentine because that was [a] pretty outstanding thing with Ron Carter and the group involved in that. Ron Carter had gotten a new electric bass, and he wanted to play his electric bass. He literally laid down and pouted because he couldn’t play his new electric bass on that particular recording. That particular recording is what really took off. Had it been electric, who knows? 

I have to say this. There was never any music to read on these sessions. I [once] did a session where there was music, but it was not [with] any one of those guys. It was just a recording session, and I was trying to play and read at the same time. I was telling the producer, “Hey, what’s going on over there? I’m trying to check out what this music is about.” He says, “The melody tells you what it’s about. That’s just a reference. Just play the music.”

So, a lot of it’s about feeling the music? 

Yeah. 

What does it feel like to play?

 Well, that’s what I learned from Papa Jo. He was the mentor of all of us—Art Blakey, Max Roach. Even though he was a drummer, he was always telling you that the melody tells you what’s supposed to happen…where you put your exclamation point, question mark, period, comma. The music tells you that. It don’t need to be on the paper. It’s in the melody, so just listen to the melody and you’ll get by. Alright. It worked.

 

 

 

 

Will you tell me about your relationship to the Jazz Foundation of America?

I was traveling with Leon Thomas, the scat singer, when I joined the foundation. I came off a road trip and somebody brought my attention to it, and I got interested in it. They were working on a program [to] get guys strung out on drugs out of their drug thing. It was just [a] small organization. What little money they could get—they got. So I got involved. I had a snakeskin jacket that Miles Davis gave me. I saw it in his closet when we were at his house. I liked it and [said,] “That’s a bad jacket, man.” He said, “Yeah, you can have it. I don’t bother with that.” So, he gave me that jacket. I wore it once and put it in the closet. [When] the foundation had a fundraiser, I gave them that jacket. Two people bid, and they were fighting together. They had a deal with each other, “I’ll keep it this time, and you keep it that time.” That was the first $25,000 that came in [to the foundation]. 

You did tour with one of North Carolina’s most famous jazz musicians—Thelonious Monk. Did you talk about how you were both from North Carolina?

No, we never even talked about it. We just knew. We were born 18 miles apart. We ended up playing together. I met him through The Baroness. I was crossing the street leaving my gig at Count Basie’s. She was a Rolls Royce fanatic. She drives up, and she stopped. With her accent, she leaned out and says, “Get in.” It’s like, “Alright!” She drove me downtown to meet Monk. That was my first meeting of The Baroness.  

We only have time for one more question. What is it like for you to play your first hometown show? 

It’s hard to explain. It’s the biggest thing that ever happened. Playing at home was something I wasn’t even about when I left here. I had no history. I was just a guy that moved up [North]. I played in Greensboro some years back. It was okay. It was North Carolina, but it wasn’t Wilson. Goldsboro—that was great, but it still wasn’t Wilson. Home is where I was born. So, this thing here, it’s hard to explain. I’m playing at home. I’m seeing things that I didn’t see and appreciating things. I see these trees, the most magnificent things. There’s nothing there but trees. Man, they are the greatest trees I’ve ever seen. It’s like home. 


 

 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

 

In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Ira David Wood

Interview by Sandra Davidson | Editing support by Scott Stegall | Archival images courtesy Ira David Wood III

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

A native North Carolinian, Ira David Wood III was raised rural in Halifax County. Realizing his passion for theater in high school, Wood was invited to join the inaugural class of the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1965. After graduating, Wood deliberately chose to stay in North Carolina to build a career in theater. 

As an arts advocate and founder and Executive Director of Raleigh’s Theatre in the Park, he’s inspired countless North Carolinians, including author David Sedaris and his Golden Globe nominated daughter actress Evan Rachel Wood, to pursue careers in the arts. He’s currently the Director of The Lost Colony, the longest-running outdoor drama in America, and his comedic adaptation of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol – performed annually since 1974 -  is a Raleigh institution. Wood is a recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest civilian honor.


Tell me where you’re from and describe what role the arts played in your childhood.

I was born and bred in the briar patch in Halifax County, North Carolina, in a small southern town called Enfield. I was a Future Farmer of America in high school, not by choice. That was just what you did with your life, and that was what you were raised to expect your life was going to be. You were going to spend it on a farm in this community. There was no drama department in our school. I started writing my own plays and putting them on for high school assemblies. One day, the guidance counselor walked up to me, and he said, “You belong with a bunch of other crazy people like yourself.” And I said, “Well, where would that be?” and he said, “You know, there’s a place called the Governor’s School of North Carolina. You have to audition to get in.” My guidance counselor drove me to Greenville where I auditioned for the Governor’s School. To my absolute shock and amazement, I was accepted, and I spent my summer on the campus of Salem College in Winston-Salem in Governor’s School. 

While I was there, this wonderful Italian man came and spoke to us. His name was Vittorio Giannini. He was the first Chancellor of the School of the Arts which was set to open the next year, 1965. The School of the Arts was, at the time, the only school in the Western hemisphere that taught dance, drama, music, and academics under the same roof. I auditioned and went back home to Enfield. I was sitting in vocational agriculture class one day. We were learning about how much liquid drains off of a manure pile over a period of time. I kid you not. The principal’s voice came on the speaker: “David Wood. Come to the office.” I was very nervous, and I started walking down the long hallway in our school towards the principal’s office, and I look way down at the end of hall, and my mother was standing there. So, I was ready for the last cigarette and a blindfold. When I got to mom I looked up, and I said, “What is it? What’s wrong?” She said, “Nothing. You’ve been accepted at the North Carolina School of the Arts. This is the last time I will see you walk down this hallway.” That was pretty powerful and changed my life. 

I say that, but I add this to that statement: I have quoted my vocational agriculture teacher more than I’ve quoted Shakespeare because my vocational agriculture teacher taught us that you can take so much out of the soil, but if you keep taking and taking from the soil without putting something back, the soil becomes depleted, and it won’t grow new life. That has been my life’s quest—to put something back. That’s why rather than going to New York or to California, I’ve remained in North Carolina because it’s my home. 

I know there are still young people who are like me out there somewhere, who think that they are odd and strange and different in a negative sort of way because they had rather practice the piano than football. They are put through hell, often. As Helen Hayes said, “We lose some of our greatest talent early on because they can’t survive that.” That’s why I think it’s so important to locate, as I have, in Raleigh where I hope to make a difference culturally. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What drew you to theater specifically?

My father died when I was 12 years old. When death passes across your life like that, you lose your childhood. And mine was taken away from me when I was 12. So I retreated into a world of make believe. It was a world I could control. It was a world that death had no place in. I think that was initially drew me into theater. It was a safety net. 

When I finally was accepted at the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1965, I walked onto a square foot of the universe that I knew belonged to me. I was around other young people who shared my love and my passion for theater, for the arts. I couldn’t get enough of it. I was like a sponge. I got the lead in the first play put on at School of the Arts which was a great honor for me. I met incredible people—Agnes De Mille, José Ferrer, Helen Hayes, and Paul Green. While I was at the school, I was invited to spend my summers as a leading actor in Paul Green’s The Lost Colony, and that too changed my life. Skip forward years after that, I was asked to go back as director of The Lost Colony, and that was a great honor. This will be my sixth year as director of  the oldest and, we think, the best outdoor drama in America.

I’ve been able to stay in North Carolina and have an incredible career. I have done movies without leaving the state. I’ve had three books published. I write plays. I have my own theater. We’ve made a difference. We’ve changed lives, and we’ve touched hearts. I’ve seen young people come in who have gone on now to greater things in bigger arenas. That warms my heart. I turn 70 this year. I can’t believe that, and I know I’m closer to the end than the beginning. But someone asked me once, “What is the greatest line you ever got to say on the stage?” And for me it was playing Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha. It was one line when Aldonza turns to him and says, “Why do you do the things you do?” And he looks at her, and he says, “I hope to add a measure of grace to this world.” That’s been my quest. There’s a theater in Raleigh that wasn’t there before. There are young people who are out pursuing wonderful careers who, maybe, wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for some Future Farmer of America who decided to put something back into the soil and to stay in his home state and to make a career. I’ve raised a family here, and I love it. It’s home for me and always will be.

Will you talk about when your path intersected with the North Carolina Arts Council?

Well, years ago I met the North Carolina Arts Council, and we became good friends. I did a lot of television commercials for the Arts Council. It was a wonderful learning experience for me telling the world about this incredible state. We’re the first arts council, the symphony, the School of the Arts, the oldest outdoor drama. We are a state of so many firsts. The list is unbelievable when you really sit down and get to know it. Through grants from the Arts Council, I was able to go into schools and, again, to talk to young people, and to tell them, “Yes, you are different. But you’re different in a positive way, not a negative way, and you need to be around other people who share your same passion and joy.” 

Young people are the future. The arts should be a part of their lives, and the Arts Council, and the state of North Carolina has helped to make that a reality. 

 

 

Years ago, actor, playwright and director Ira David Wood starred in a series of public service announcements about the arts, commissioned by the North Carolina Arts Council.

 

 

What would you say to someone about the value of public dollars to fund the arts? 

Why should people invest in the arts? Investing in the arts is investing in the heart and soul of our nation, and particularly the young people who will be the future of our nation. The arts are all about communication, and if we need to learn anything in this day and age it is how to communicate better with each other. It’s to forget our differences to overcome them, to have civil discourse, and the arts enable us to do that. Theater, for instance, is a wonderful pulpit where the medicine doesn’t have to taste bad to do good. 

Good theater, good art transcends all the barriers—race, color, creed, politics, religion, nationality. Once we’re able to do that, transcend the barriers, and sit down with each other, country to country, person to person, political party to political party, we change the universe. We create a light that goes forever. I believe it is that powerful. 

So, how do you measure that? How do you say, “My dollar makes a difference?” That’s up to you to look and to measure because you have to find what matters to you: if it is a concert, if it is a ballet performance, if it is a theater performance, if it’s a work of art hanging on the wall. I know a person who wanted to commit suicide and walked into an art museum, saw a painting on the wall, and it changed his life. What is that worth? That painting has a value, but it also has a worth, and we have to get clear on that. There’s a dollar value to everything around us, but there’s also a worth. What theater, what the arts are worth is incalculable. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ira David Wood's adaptation of Charles Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" is a Raleigh institution. Performed annually since 1974, attending the show has become a holiday tradition for many North Carolina families.

 

 

Going off of that, I think about your daughter testifying in Congress. She’s using her platform as an artist to raise awareness. Your son is also in the arts. Do you think them growing up in this community theater context has a particular kind of effect on how they see the power of the arts? 

Oh, yes. When my children were young, we used to bring them to the theater when we would perform. I remember one night we were doing Othello. I was doing Iago, and my wife had to die onstage every night. Othello choked her to death—strangled her. My kids were sleeping in sleeping bags right offstage in the prop room, and the door was open. Every night, when Othello finally strangled Desdemona, they’d wake up, they’d look out, and they’d look to each other and go, “Mom died really well tonight,” and they would go back to sleep. So, this theater was their playhouse. I would pass by some days and look in, and my daughter would be sitting alone on the stage doing a monologue that she was making up. I just quietly watched. I’ve heard her speak now, so eloquently and beautifully, not long ago, to a Congressional committee. I sit back, and I marvel. Kahlil Gibran said, “Our children are arrows that we shoot.” We don’t know where they’re going to land, but we’re the bow that sends them forward, and we hope we’re aiming it in the right direction. I look at my grown children now, and I’m so proud of them. I’m so humbled by who and what they have become. 

How has the theater community in North Carolina evolved?

When I first came to Raleigh [many] years ago, there were six to eight theaters in this town. Most of them were university theaters. Now there are over seventy companies. Seventy. So, in a way, we’re going through something of a renaissance. When, for instance, the politicians took away the incentive for major motion pictures to come to North Carolina, independent movies began to flourish. I did three independent movies this year. So, it’s like that line in Jurassic Park, “Life will find a way.” The other thing that’s been incredible has been the Research Triangle Park because it has brought people in from all over the world. Those people, in some cases, have come from larger metropolitan areas who have incredible arts programs, incredible theater, symphony orchestras, dance companies, and they have demanded better quality from us as performers. It’s been a wonderful, reciprocal thing where the audience has come up in what they expect and demand, and we’ve come up to meet that demand. 

I think if we’ve done anything, perhaps we’ve taught a few people that the arts can be a main course in your life, not just a dessert. It can be a wonderful main course. You come into a place like this. You sit in the dark with strangers, and you go through incredible emotions. You’re moved to laughter and tears. If you’re lucky, the process of communication, which is what all art really is, goes a dimension deeper and becomes what I call communion. That’s when souls meet on one wavelength. It changes your life as good art should always do. And once you’ve been there and had that moment, you want it again and again and again.


 

 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

 

In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Joseph Bathanti

Photos Courtesy Joseph Bathanti | Interview responses written by Joseph Bathanti

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Joseph Bathanti's relationship to the North Carolina Arts Council is one for the books. As a Literature Fellowship award recipient, as our former Poet Laureate, and as a leader in arts programming with underserved communities, both his personal writing and public arts outreach manifest our agency's central mission: to nurture and promote arts for all. From teaching poetry and creative writing to veterans struggling with PTSD during his tenure as North Carolina Poet Laureate, to chronicling our historic Visiting Artist Program in the 2007 book "They Changed the State: The Legacy of North Carolina's Visiting Artists," Joseph's been a champion and ambassador of our work for decades. Not to mention, he's the author of 17 books and the recipient of the North Carolina Award for Literature.  We invited him to write about his art and relationship to us in a special 50 for 50 interview below.


Where do you live, and what do you do?

I live with my wife, Joan, in Vilas, NC, in a small mountain valley, a few miles west of Boone. I’m the McFarlane Family Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Education and Writer-in-Residence for Appalachian State University’s Watauga Residential College. I am also the seventh North Carolina Poet Laureate (2012-2014).

Why do you write?

Writing is a reflex, a physical impulse, what Flannery O’Connor termed “the habit of being” – quite simply my life's practice, a daily office, though there are days when I’m able to write only in my head. I don’t want to get too profound or over-mystify it, but writing is inextricable from the way I make sense of the world. Things not terribly clear in my head often come clear on the page, moving into another realm, another ken, that I can only call enlightenment, epiphany – a spiritual experience.

I write because it affords me a chance to be a better person, to see and speak a truth perhaps invisible during the actual experience I'm writing about, a truth I cannot always afford to acknowledge in my minute to minute existence.

So, I write to tell the truth, to be a better person. When writing, I talk to myself, so there’s no use lying. Writing also brings me great joy.

When did your path first cross with the North Carolina Arts Council?

I certainly knew all about the N.C. Arts Council long before it knew about me. I started my teaching career at Central Piedmont Community College, in Charlotte, in 1977. This was during the very earliest moments of my attempts to write. One Saturday, I attended a writing workshop in Concord. The workshop was led by Tom Heffernan, a poet, who was assigned to the English faculty at Central Piedmont under the auspices of the N.C. Visiting Artist Program, an amazing one-of-a-kind initiative that placed professional artists, from a range of disciplines, in each of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges. I couldn’t believe such a program existed. In 1984, I applied, was accepted and a life-changing romance and adventure with North Carolina began.

 

 

Tell me about the Visiting Artist Program and your work with it. What was special about that program?

The N.C. Visiting Artist Program, in the spirit of Black Mountain College, was an innovative, interdisciplinary group of renowned artists specializing in different media under one banner; and towers, along with its famous predecessor, as the State’s most visionary experiment in education. Long before the arts were professionalized, both possessed an unabashed and fierce allegiance to the arts as the principle avatar of education and, by extension, community. The N.C. Visiting Artist Program achieved neither fame nor legendary status – nor often the notice it so richly deserved. Nonetheless, the 321 Visiting Artists who roamed North Carolina from 1971-1995 were supremely and multifariously talented artist-educators with world-class credentials, pioneering zeal and stamina to match. Visiting Artists willingly took to the road: packed up their cellos and trombones, easels and palettes, scrap metal and blow torches. They sat at rickety out-of-tune pianos in gyms and cafeterias and played Chopin or Scott Joplin with good cheer and brilliance. They fashioned dark rooms out of school supply closets; read poems to book club luncheons at local fish camps; helped serve lunch to the elderly, then sang an aria in a mobile Meals-on-Wheels unit; played Debussy and Leadbelly at prison Christmas parties.

Across North Carolina, in countless towns and hamlets, like Bear Grass, Millenium, MacFarlan, Buladean, Rural Hall, and Oriental; in large cities, like Charlotte and Raleigh; in the hinterlands, from proverbial Murphy to Manteo, there exists a convincing and astonishingly varied battalion of monuments left behind by the Visiting Artists who for 24 glorious years called those places home and in many instances still live there: the theatres, county arts councils, music academies, artists series, community college degree programs they founded and which still sustain their communities; the sculptures, paintings, murals, cloth quilts, earth quilts, and all manner of public art that grace colleges, universities, libraries, public schools, retirement homes, banks, and hospitals; every seed of inspiration they sowed in the plow-soles, hollers, inlets, sand hills, coastal plains, urban alleys and boulevards, along the Blue Ridge and deep into the Smokies; every grand and tiny arts initiative, far too many to list, instituted by wayfaring Visiting Artists.

The greatest testimony, the most profound monument to the program’s indisputable far-reaching influence and vision, however, are the North Carolina citizens, people of all ages, creed, color, sexual orientation, and economic stripe, whose lives were not merely touched, but changed, by their contact with Visiting Artists. Many of those folks, especially the children growing up in out-of-the-way places, had never heard before the Visiting Artist Program the lyric testimony of poetry, an arpeggio, the wail of a trumpet, the keen of a flute, had never touched a dulcimer, bassoon or harpsichord. They had never made a pin-hole camera out of a Quaker Oats box, taken a real photograph with it, and developed it in a makeshift dark-room under the eye of a renowned photographer. Nor woven a basket of river cane or learned from a Cherokee artist how an authentic arrowhead is flaked. They had not known what a buck dancer, mime, or woodwindist is, much less met one, and taken a lesson at his or her feet. And those same citizens, young and old, had their own well-established cultures validated by Visiting Artists, especially in the areas of traditional music, folk art, crafts and storytelling – arts long indigenous to North Carolina. Communities, rich in these traditions, came to realize that all along, their entire lives, they had been making art – though not calling it that. To them, life and art had always been seamless: utilitarian, practical, essential, as inalienable and true as the First Amendment. In democratizing the arts, the Visiting Artists Program created an arts renaissance in North Carolina. As someone with working-class-immigrant roots, I have never forgotten the charge of the program to teach and perform among underserved, marginalized populations.

 

 

Jazz singer Nneena Freelon shares her experience in the visiting artist program of the North Carolina Arts Council. She’s one of 300+ artists the program sent to community colleges across the state, including Joseph.

 

 

You are an artist and an arts educator. Will you reflect on what the practice of educating people about the craft of writing and literature itself means to you?

Poet Richard Hugo, in his wonderful book on writing poetry, The Triggering Town, unabashedly claims, "A creative-writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters." He’s right. Class after class, my students march into writing workshops and enter into contractual generosity and candor with one another, perhaps never again duplicated in their lives.

This is news to no one: everyone has a story. Yet often people with the most poignant stories – that the rest of us who live rather pedestrian lives cannot even imagine – don’t think their stories are important, that no one cares about those stories.

Our stories are essential, and I would hazard that sharing them comes as naturally to humans as eating. It’s what makes us jointly human, what kindles intimacy.

Stories can save us even when we don’t know we need saving – by returning us to who we are essentially, to what matters most to us, taking us back home, wherever home resides: where one hangs one's hat; where the heart is; where, as Robert Frost writes, "[W]hen you have to go there, / They have to take you in." The creative writing classroom is indeed a safe place, yet filled with unpredictable risk. I am daily astonished at the risks my students willingly enter into. They tote their lives into the workshop: secrets, fury, mad desires, heartbreak. Accompanying them are their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, rafts of mysterious friends and relatives, teachers, dead dogs, failed love, the breathtaking yield of having walked on earth with great passion – passion they don’t realize they possess until they see it on paper under their ink-stained hands. My job is to keep them passionate, to keep them writing, to keep reminding them that there is no writing, only rewriting.

How have you seen writing transform your student’s lives?

When I arrived as a VISTA Volunteer, in North Carolina, in 1976, I was assigned for 14 months to Huntersville Prison, in Mecklenburg County. I like to say my first teaching job was in a prison. More importantly, my VISTA teaching in prison was not only the beginning of my own education, but the genesis of my writing life. Much later, as North Carolina’s Poet Laureate, I wanted to get in front of every citizen of the state I could manage to visit, but I was especially keen on those people and regions – rural and/or underserved, without regular access to writers and literature – that my service in VISTA and the Visiting Artist Program revealed to me.

When I declared my signature project as N.C. Poet Laureate – to work with military veterans, those returning from combat and others, and involve their families, to tell their stories through poetry and other genres – I didn’t know what I was getting into. I’m much smarter today about issues plaguing veterans and their families than I was six years ago, but I’m still on the front end of that apprenticeship. In January of 2016, I was named Charles George VA Medical Center (Asheville, NC) Writer-in-Residence. In collaboration with Dr. Bruce Kelly, a physician who has pioneered Medical Humanities at the VA, I taught a cohort of 18 Vietnam veterans, from eight mountain counties in western North Carolina, struggling with PTSD. Born from the writing produced by those veterans was Brothers Like These – a staged reading of the men themselves reading their work. On August 31, 2016, it premiered at the Asheville Community Theater to a packed house and was later reprized on April 19, 2017 at Appalachian State University for a crowd of 300-plus people. St. Andrews University Press published Brothers Like These, the compilation of the staged reading. Those Vietnam veterans – none of whom thought of himself as a writer – committed to paper stories and poems that had been banging around inside of them, deviling them, since their service in Vietnam, paradoxically the same stories that have empowered and lifted them and for which they’ve discovered language. As one of the brothers of Brothers Like These, states: “When asked to participate in this pilot program, we all had the same reservations and doubts about what we were getting ourselves into. Introducing arts and humanities through poetry to help wounded vets initially sounded like a cockamamie idea. This journey has been a catharsis for many of us. It provided us the opportunity ourselves through writing and discussion in a safe nonjudgmental environment; we shared as brothers our most intimate feelings, fears, recollections and thoughts. We found a voice we didn’t know we had and that we weren’t alone or different. We have all gained something from this experience and know it has helped in our understanding and healing.” Another of the Brothers claimed: “This is the closest thing to a miracle that’s happened in my life.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What makes North Carolina’s creative community unique?

The community of North Carolina artists is the real thing, not merely a rhetorical community, but familial. The artists of this state tend to know, support, and care about one another.

It’s a big state, but the artist community is very connected. I can speak more directly about the community of North Carolina writers. It’s like a union. Writers are celebrated in every county, in large and small places: public schools, universities, community colleges, public libraries, local arts councils, and book stores. When I arrived in North Carolina, 42 years ago from my home town of Pittsburgh, yearning to be a writer, I could not have been treated more graciously by the established writers of North Carolina. They nurtured me and welcomed me into their ranks. Not a one asked to see my CV. That spirit of generosity, inclusiveness and camaraderie continues to earmark North Carolina as the best place to be a writer, the best place to be an artist.

Why does public funding for the arts matter?

The dividends public funding for the arts pays is exponential, not just in literal dollars, but also in terms of dramatically enlivening communities and their citizenry. I’m reminded of a quote from Steven Lloyd, who became executive director of the Haywood Arts Regional Theater after his two years as Visiting Artist at Haywood Community College (1988–1990): “It would be egocentric for me to say that HART would not exist without me, but the truth is that the Performing Arts Center would never have been built without the input of a professional who knew what needed to be built and could provide the leadership to raise the funds and build the organization. I had those skills, but without the Visiting Artist Program, I would never have been here. It changed my life, changed this community, and the investment has been paid back a hundred times over. My three years as a North Carolina visiting artist cost the state about $60,000. A rough guess is that the organization I built and the activities I have been responsible for in the 15 years since have directly generated more than $4 million in the economy of this community. The spin-off in tourism revenue would be many times that.” The Arts (and Humanities), apart from the pure enjoyment and edification they impart, reorder and discipline our instincts in profoundly human and humane ways. They assure us we have hearts and souls and dispense enduring advice on how to keep the two from sundering.

We are celebrating a big birthday this year! And you are one of our oldest friends. What are your wishes for us?

First off, I’d like to order a cake as big as North Carolina with a huge blazing taper for each of those 50 glorious years. Across its face, I’d like scrawled in chocolate the names of every person, at every station of leadership and support, visible and invisible, who has made the NC Arts Council a cherished, one-of-a-kind, indispensable, life-affirming agency: the visionaries, starting with Governor Terry Sanford who through executive order created it in 1964; folks in the fledgling county arts councils all over the state who took up the torch with missionary zeal; the simply extraordinary band on Jones Street who tirelessly and with great love daily perpetuate that vision; and, of course, the artists validated, developed and equipped over the past 50 years by NCAC to do their brilliant work across the state. And most importantly, the thousands upon thousands of names of the beneficiaries of that good work, that epic and ongoing collaboration: the great citizens of all 100 counties of North Carolina, especially the children with whom we’ve entrusted the compassionate care of our planet. Then we would sing in one united voice a boisterous rendition of Happy Birthday, joyously toast, and begin plotting the next half-century.


 

 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

 

In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Cynthia Hill

Interview* by Sandra Davidson | Photos Courtesy Cynthia Hill

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

I first heard of Cynthia Hill in an undergraduate folklore class at UNC-Chapel Hill. One morning my teacher, folklorist and rock-and-roller MC Taylor, screened “Tobacco Money Feeds My Family,” Cynthia’s first feature film, as an example of a folklorist’s approach to documenting something controversial — and cultural — like tobacco. In the film, Cynthia chronicles the lives of tobacco farmers from her hometown while reckoning with the deathly implications of the crop. It was the first time I’d seen a documentary about a North Carolina community like the one I am from, and the first time I’d heard of a woman from our state doing that kind of work. It was life changing, and it greatly influenced my own choice to pursue documentary work. 

It’s been over a decade since Cynthia scrapped together the resources to make that film, and things have changed dramatically for her. She’s produced two feature films: “The Guestworker: Bienvenidos a Carolina del Norte” (2006), a film about Hispanic farmworkers in rural North Carolina, and “Private Violence” (2014), a documentary about women who are survivors of domestic violence which was screened on HBO. She’s won two Emmys and a Peabody Award for her hit television show “A Chef’s Life,” and moved Markay Media, her production company, from her house into an office-space in Durham, where she now employees around 10 people full-time. In our interview, she reflects on her unlikely journey to filmmaking, her dream of making North Carolina a celebrated documentary hub, and how she managed to get unprecedented access to film one of the best NASCAR teams in the country.


What got you interested in making films?

It’s not a natural path for me to get to being a filmmaker. I grew up in eastern North Carolina in a very rural community. Professions for women were pretty much schoolteacher, nurse, and then pharmacist, [which] was an outlier but I had a direct connection with the pharmacist in town because my mom worked for him. I thought, “That sounds like a pretty good profession.” I was always really good at science and math, so it seemed fairly logical and I went to pharmacy school. When I was in college, I wasn’t necessarily enthralled with pharmacy, and you had to have a huge chunk of hours in a pharmacy, and I just kept putting it off because I didn’t really like it. 

At the time I was bartending [at a place] called the Omni Europa. I met this crew [there] from Los Angeles, and they were there doing one of these accident reconstruction shows that was really popular in the early 90s. I started hanging out with them and going on set and I thought, “This is kind of fun.” So, I went to LA. that next summer and worked in a pharmacy, but [I] got to hang out with people who were doing more creative things. [I] realized there were other things out there you could do besides science and math. It was just a whole new world, and I didn’t even know it existed. 

So when I came back to school, everything I started doing had a video component to it. If you were supposed to write a paper, I would make a video instead. I [had] this weird roundabout way of getting into it. I just was good at it, and I don’t know why.

I was just good at storytelling. I think that’s probably something about being Southern and hearing your grandma and your granddaddy tell stories all your life. You just sort of pick it up, and you don’t even know you’ve picked it up.

I was going to ask you about that. I notice narrative similarities in how approach documentary work and the way my family has always shared stories. I’ve wondered if you felt that when you’re putting together a story or a film. 

I think so. It’s also [about] trying to make connections. All my life I’ve been really shy. I’d stand back. I don’t usually engage. That’s how I developed as a filmmaker. I’ll go into a scene, and I won’t say anything. It makes me a really good observational filmmaker. These things felt like deficits when I was growing up. I wasn’t really comfortable engaging with people, or having conversations. But what it’s allowed me to do is just be really curious about other people. I’m a really good listener. I pay attention. That is something I’ve carried over to the filmmaking process. 

How did we get from you making films associated with coursework to you making your first independent project?

I started really brewing on this idea of wanting to tell the story of tobacco because through pharmacy school and graduate school, tobacco was really vilified. I grew up working in tobacco, and my family did that kind of work. That’s what I did every single summer. I was struggling with how to compartmentalize my affinity for the crop. I didn’t know what to do with knowing it was so harmful. I also could see tobacco farmers struggling, and I could see on the horizon that things were really going to change for our community and the regions that depended on tobacco. So I had this notion that I was going to make a film about tobacco farming. I set out to try to raise $10,000, and I was going to spend a season filming tobacco farmers. I was going to have a film by the end of that. Five years and about $100,000 later, I had my first film. 

It just was an organic process of having a story inside of me that I needed to tell. I’ve tried to continue on that path of telling stories that are important to me. [I’m] not just doing this to be a media maker. The drive for me is the story. If I don’t have that, it’s hard for me to do anything. It’s hard for me to work if I’m not really passionate about the story itself. 

 

 

 

 

When did you first identify as a documentarian?

After my second film. Or maybe it was my third film. It took me even longer to call myself an artist because I didn’t feel like I really was.

And why was that?

I don’t know. I just didn’t feel like I was legitimate. Until this past summer, I was still on the roster of Walmart and working periodically as a relief pharmacist. It took me that long to feel, one, financially comfortable with letting go of that security blanket of being a pharmacist, and two, to say, “I really am a filmmaker, and that’s what I do.”

How has that changed the way that you carry yourself as a working artist?

Now when I fill out forms, filmmaker is the first thing I put instead of pharmacist. When they say occupation, filmmaker is the first thing because before I would put pharmacist/filmmaker. 

I think that would surprise people.

I struggled with it. I think it’s because I didn’t have any training for it. I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t do any of the coursework. I didn’t know the history of the format. When I think about what is my training as a storyteller, I watched a ton of T.V. growing up. That’s what I did. That’s it, and listening to the folks around me tell stories, and just being observant. That’s really my training. For a long time it felt like I’m just sort of dabbling in filmmaking. I realize I’m no longer dabbling. I’m really making films.

When did “A Chef’s Life’ become a concept that you wanted to pursue?

Vivian reached out to me because she was really interested in telling these stories about the dying foodways of our region. We met a couple times and talked about it. I got to know her and realized that she could be a good conduit for that story. Her story in [and] of itself was really compelling. She was impressive, and I really didn’t know that. We grew up together, [but] she was much younger than me. I knew she had come back to Kinston and opened a restaurant, but I honestly didn’t think it would succeed because that town was dying, but she was doing it anyway. I admired her drive, her tenacity, and her bravery. Then I realized she really knew what she was talking about, so it made sense to try to use her as a conduit.

At the time, I had this loose connection to somebody in New York who was like, “Yeah, I can get something on the Food Network.” So I talked to Vivian and was like, “Let’s just shoot the pilot and just see if we can get it on the Food Network. The Food Network said no. Vivian was an unknown in the South. I was an unknown in the TV world. They didn’t pay us any attention whatsoever. 

I knew we had something special, but I needed somebody else to realize that we had something special. I sent my friend from the PBS station in South Carolina [an] 11-minute clip and she called me back in 12 minutes. She was like, “Oh my God. This is so good.” It took off from there. I think both Vivian and I were naïve enough and passionate enough just to jump [in] headfirst. We didn’t care if it was going to be successful. We just wanted to do it because we felt like it was important. That’s the reason it is successful, because our motives were pure. We wanted to tell a story about our region and the people we love. We felt like the South had been maligned for a very long time, and we felt like we needed to tell a different story about the South.

To see what has happened in Kinston as a result of what y’all have made together definitely shows the power of the arts. How has the success of that show changed or challenged the way you think about impact? 

It’s like how do you repeat that? That’s really the scary thing, and also it’s sort of scary thinking that we can’t stop. It seems like there’s a lot that relies on us telling these stories and having that presence on national T.V. We do recognize the power of that. We recognize that it’s much larger than either one of us. That’s a lot of pressure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well tell me about your new NASCAR series which seems like quite a lane shift.

Yes and no. It might look like it from the outside, but for me it’s one of those iconic, Southern topics that people think they know. I’ve had this list of things I would love to do, and it’s always been in the top five. I grew up watching it on Sundays because my granddaddy was a huge Richard Petty fan. You had to watch it. There was no choice. It was on. 

I think that you have to be really passionate about what it is that you want to do in this world because, if not, you lose your way. You really do. You get so many roadblocks in the process. You have to be driven.

Sometimes things work out for you, and that was the NASCAR thing. We had a connection via another connection who sent notes to Hendrick for us, and then we got a reply back. Within six months of us proposing it, we were filming with Hendrick Motor Sports, which, I would say, is the most successful NASCAR team/company out there. We were getting access like no one else was getting access, especially to their teams because they were so private, but they really liked the work me and the team had done, and they understood what we were trying to do. It was really challenging for us, but I’m really proud of what we were able to accomplish.

What’s in the hopper now?

We are working on a new concept with Vivian that’s going to be an hour-long and on primetime. It’s still rooted in the South, but it’s about looking at other communities in the South — immigrant communities and native communities — and their foodways and how our food overlaps. The first season is going to be six episodes. It’s different. It’s a new challenge for both me and Vivian and the team. We’ll see, but just because you’re successful with one thing doesn’t mean that it’s going to translate for the next thing. It makes me nervous. The other thing we’re working on is a future doc with HBO. We’ve been working on it for about two years, and I really can’t talk about that too much because it’s kind of secret. It’s exciting. 

Tell me about your role in establishing the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF).

I founded that with a group of people. I don’t think that when we started the organization that I knew how important it was going to be. I was struggling, personally, and the filmmakers and the artists in this community were also struggling because we didn’t have a support system. We were operating in our silos. We needed to have some connections, some connective tissue. We also just needed basic functions of being able to raise money, and we didn’t have anything set up here in this state or even in the region that served that purpose. It was so hard. We weren’t respected outside of the region, and we weren’t respected in the region either because there was this thought that if you were talented you wouldn’t be here. You would be in New York or LA. Because we stayed here, because we wanted to stay here, because the stories we wanted to tell were here, we were looked down upon. We were making — and I was told this on many occasions — local stories with a little “l.” I started saying, “We’re making local stories with a big L.”

Every film is local. Every story is local. It just depends on what your local is. If you’re making a story about Brooklyn, that’s local. But for some reason that has more of an appeal than making something about Pink Hill, NC. Why? If it’s a good story, it’s a good story no matter where it is.

I agree. Amen. So, when was Southern Documentary Fund established? 

2002. I think there’s maybe 60 projects that SDF is sponsoring. I’m very proud of that legacy. I’ve stepped back, and I’m an informal advisor. It’s way bigger than I ever thought it could be.  

The Southern Documentary Fund has received fiscal and leadership support from the North Carolina Arts Council and I believe you received a program grant for your film "Tobacco Money Feeds My Family." What that mean to you?

It validated the work for me. It showed that other people thought it was also important, not just me. Knowing that other people saw the value in what I was trying to do and the stories I was trying to tell was important to me, especially early on. That’s why these grants that we’re trying to give out with SDF are so important for people who are getting started on projects. It’s showing that other people see value in what you’re doing.

What are the biggest strengths of the arts community that you are a part of in North Carolina? 

I would say that we’re all really supportive of one another. It doesn’t feel competitive, which I think is really unique in this community. I hope that this area becomes an area for makers. It’s not just an area for education. I think we are getting to a place now where other filmmakers think, “You know, I could end up in Durham, North Carolina, and there are folks like me there.” People who graduate from schools here and want to be a filmmaker—they don’t automatically just leave. That wouldn’t have been a reality for folks ten years ago.

How can North Carolina better support artists?

Valuing it more. The resources are limited, and that’s always been [a] big frustration for me. Understanding how intricate art and artists are to the success of a community and a state is really important. You are out there talking about economic development and trying to woo companies to come and be a part of North Carolina. Having that art community is a big draw, and artists need support so that we do have assets to offer to our own communities. 


*This interview was edited and condensed.

 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

 

In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Thomas Sayre

Interview and video by Sandra Davidson | Photos courtesy Thomas Sayre

Monday, June 25, 2018

Thomas Sayre came to North Carolina for college, but he stayed because of our state’s preternatural creative appeal. Part sculptor, part visual artist, part architect, Raleigh’s Thomas Sayre built his career from the ground up. From “Gyre,” the three large rings that adorn the North Carolina Museum of Art’s fantastic art park, to “Shimmer Wall,” a glittering homage to the City of Oaks mounted on the side of the Raleigh Convention Center, Sayre’s large-scale earth-castings and sculptures speckle landscapes across the state and the world. A long-time advocate for public funding for the arts, Sayre’s has served on the North Carolina Arts Council board for well over a decade and is a champion of thoughtful, place-driven public art projects.


What are your earliest memories of making things?

I grew up in the shadow of the Washington Cathedral. We lived on the grounds of the cathedral, and that was an amazing place to grow up. My father made cherry cabinets in the basement. That was his way of not being an Episcopal minister, and he was very skilled. So, I made stuff in his shop, but the earliest things that I [made that I] still have are little lead soldiers that I cast on the family stove. The lead came from the roof. I would climb 200 feet up the scaffolding and find little snippings of lead on the floor of the scaffolding. I would gather them in my backpack, scamper back down and cook them on the family stove to make lead soldiers. Can you imagine lead? All my siblings are okay. They’re not damaged (laughs).

Why were you drawn to working with your hands in that way?

Well, through the cathedral came a lot of personages. Some very famous people…presidential candidates, Martin Luther King, and famous artists. They were held in a certain reverence, but I noticed the workers, the laborers, the stone carvers, the masons, [and] the carpenters who were building the cathedral were held in this magical light by my parents and by everybody. I saw that this reverence had to do with [how] they were getting the spirit of the place there through their hands – not through fancy words or great elocution – but by every day sweating away working with their hands…with materials. I saw magic enter the cathedral from that. At an early age, I knew that space was capable of expressing deep human emotion and meaning, and I think that meaning got there through the many hands that made that place.

When did you decide you were going to pursue creating art for your career?

I very timidly stuck my toe in the art world so to speak at college [in] the Art Department at UNC. I didn’t regard myself as an artist at that point. I made things, and I loved making things, so I quietly took classes and majored in English. When I graduated from UNC in the Vietnam era, it wasn’t cool to get a job because that was working for “the man,” so I just proclaimed I was an artist and I worked for myself. I’ve never had a real job.

What did “I’m an artist” mean for you in terms of how you spent your time and what you did?

I didn’t want to teach. I wanted to make. The obvious place to do that would have been New York City, and that just seemed scary and daunting to me. I sensed that I needed to live life a bit, so I moved to Western North Carolina to the lawless northern part of Rutherford County and bought a farm which one could do for practically nothing, and I built a house from scratch with my own hands knowing nothing about that. It was the first time I put a shovel into our wonderful dirt here in North Carolina. That began my making in North Carolina. First a dwelling, then a studio, and it wasn’t too long after that I started making things out of concrete.

Concrete is a great material. You don’t buy it at the art store, but it’s everywhere, and it’s been around for thousands of years. We make sidewalks out of it and driveways and buildings. I like that kind of common man quality to that material. It’s pretty inexpensive and if you work it right it can be very, very strong, so I started using concrete to make outdoor things. I was interested in things that work in the landscape [but] don’t take over the landscape.

Eventually the molds got looser and looser and rougher and rougher, [and] the older I got, the more I could take imprecision. I started thinking, “Well what if I dug a hole in the ground and filled it up with concrete?” Which is an odd thing to do, but I now know why I thought about it…it’s because there’s an inherent interaction between the human hand and the hand of nature…or the hand of God depending upon how you want to look at. Nature pushes back and the exact contours and the exact color and the exact way the castings come out have everything to do with what lives in the earth. That interaction of control and not control is of great interest to me.

I’m attracted to art that asserts itself but listens to the world and actively collaborates with what’s in the world, rather than trying to control everything.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, an underlying value and philosophy that drives that your work is a curiosity about and an investment in the notion of place. Why place? Many people are drawn to your work because you are drawing from the physical soil in which it is created. Why is that important to you?

Whether we like it or not, part of our role as humans on the planet is to make places. We need shelter. We need towns. Maybe we need cities…and we fashion our spaces accordingly. I think that we could do a better job of balancing what is already here on the planet with what our needs are, so the way I create place is to do that in concert with the physical place. I sometimes work in urban spaces, and there it’s a matter of injecting the human…the handmade…the quirkiness of who we are as people into those often-sterile cityscapes. When I work out in nature, it’s very different. There [I’m] trying to create place in a humble insertional way where there’s a little bit of humanness inserted into the landscape to help us understand that landscape…like the beauty mark was said to do on the face of a Victorian woman.

What has made this state a good place to do what you do?

Well, I didn’t set foot in North Carolina until I was 17 or 18. I show up in Chapel Hill and lived in the rural community right around Chapel Hill…and here I was in the agricultural south which I knew nothing about! I realized there was a richness here. It’s not surprising that richness has produced art here for 2500 years, starting with the Native Americans. [It’s] produced unbelievable music, pottery, [and] storytelling. It is a very rich place. I have learned that our Arts Council has done an amazing job in fostering and encouraging the art that comes from the richness that lives in the land of this state. It’s done a surprisingly good job in all 100 counties of saying, “This part of our state is important. Our culture of makers and players and singers is really important to the spirt of this state.” The arts council has said that through thick and thin and [they’ve] encouraged, in a way that a lot of other states have not, our own culture and held it up high.

Why do you believe in public funding for the arts?

The arts feed the soul of the public in so many different ways, so why shouldn’t the public pay for art? I mean it doesn’t pay for all of it! Art is going to happen no matter what. Artists will make art no matter what – funding or not. But with funding magical things will happen more often, more fully, for more people to consume and enjoy and be uplifted by. 

How can the North Carolina Arts Council better support artists?

I think the North Carolina Arts Council does an amazing job connecting to the whole state. It’s in all 100 counties, and it’s very aware of the differences across our state of what arts groups need what kind of support. I think younger artists are under-supported because they’re riskier. Supporting the arts is risky business in general, but I think we all need to get more conversant with how technology is intersecting with the arts. I think we need to take more risks in how we support these younger artists and enterprises that are not just individuals. Not all of them succeed! That’s the risk part, but that’s okay. Real art is inherently risky, and we all need to understand that. Great things come from that, but so do nonstarters and so do things that don’t blossom. One has to go through times of failures to reach success.


 

 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

 

In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Arvil Freeman

Story by Sandra Davidson | Photos by Linda Fox | Archival Photos courtesy Arvil Freeman

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Arvil Freeman likes to say, "I can teach you to play, but how good you’ll be depends on you."

He’s talking about fiddling. Arvil Freeman is one of western North Carolina’s most respected fiddlers and fiddle instructors, and he’ll receive the North Carolina Heritage Award on May 23 for his life-long devotion to the region’s traditional music. He’s been on the traditional music scene since 1950 when he made his radio debut on WCYB in Bristol Tennessee as a 14-year-old member of the Green Valley Boys. His long career is full of moments with bluegrass heavy-lifters, but he’s proudest of his work as a fiddle instructor. For him it’s personal. In this special podcast profile, Arvil freeman explains why.

"I had a hard time learning to play the fiddle because we lived way out back on Paw Paw when I was a youngster. There was nobody within miles that even played fiddle," says Arvil. "I’m self-taught. I had to work hard. Sometimes I would sit as a youngster for four or five hours in the chair and never get up and play. That’s what I’m talking about…more time you put into it the more you’re going to get out of it."

Arvil grew up in Paw Paw, a remote community in Madison County so isolated that his family only headed into town once a year for supplies.

"If you lived on Paw Paw nothing was easy," says Arvil.

"But those were good days. We had no worries. We always had plenty to eat. I’m not sure that them wasn’t better times in life. I think they were. As long as you had good seasons to grow then you was in business because you grew everything you eat. The only thing we ever bought when I was growing up was flour, salt and sugar."

 

 

 

 

His older brother Gordon was the first of his siblings to pick up the fiddle, and Arvil quickly followed suit. The boys came of age as musicians in the 1940s and 1950s when visionaries like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs were crystallizing the definitive sound of bluegrass. They played with many of the era’s most famous innovators, but Arvil’s playing style falls somewhere between bluegrass and old-time and versatility is something he intentionally honed throughout his career.

"I can play just about any type of fiddle you want to play including western swing…a little bit of jazz. I used to play country a lot," says Arvil. "Over the years I learned enough to be able to play any type…enough to get by if I was asked to get by. You have to, to survive. I teach my students to play everything. If you’re going to play in a working band, you’re going to have to play all kinds of music."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arvil became a decorated veteran of region's fiddling competitions, and he spent some time on the road as a touring musician. He toured briefly with the popular bluegrass duo Reno and Smiley in the 1960s and even had the opportunity to join Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers, but the lifestyle of the road didn’t suit him. Arvil ultimately chose to make a career of playing local venues around the Asheville area. He’s been the lead performer for decades at Asheville’s annual Shindig on the Green and he spent 14 years as the fiddler for the Marc Pruett band.

Arvil's widely respected for his ability to improvise around a simple melody, and he says his unique style serves an artistic and practical purpose.

"There’s hundreds and thousands [of fiddlers]. If you sit down and take CDs and play exactly like somebody that’s recorded…well then who is going to play like you? So you know, use your imagination! Good Lord give you a brain, so use it."

Arvil’s artistry and perspective have drawn students from all over, and he’s as passionate a teacher as they come. He’s driven by his own memories of teaching himself how to play fiddle, and by the joy his students bring to him. 

"I’ve been very fortunate to have the wonderful students that I’ve got," says Arvil. "It’s made my life worth living because I accomplish something every week."


Arvil Freeman will perform in their family band at the North Carolina Heritage Awards Ceremony on May 23. Tickets to the North Carolina Heritage Awards are available at here.


 

 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

 

In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Dick Knight

Story by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Dick Knight says there's something about Kinston.

"It’s hard to leave Kinston. They say if you drink some of the Kinston water you won’t go nowhere," says Knight. "It seems like a quiet town but there’s so much happening. At one time Kinston was like a little New York. Five or six different bands on the weekend [that] you’d go out there to see and play. It was great."

Knight is a professional musician, retired school teacher, and 2018 North Carolina Heritage Award recipient. He's is one of several excellent soul, R&B and funk musicians with deep ties to eastern North Carolina, but his Kinston story is an unlikely one. In this episode of Arts Across NC, we get the scoop on how Kinston led this music-loving Georgia native to James Brown, and a fulfilling career as an arts educator.

The episode features original music from The Monitors and a clip from James Brown's Grits & Soul album.

Dick Knight was born and raised in Camilla, Georgia.  Music was a part of his life from the very beginning. His mother played organ at church and his father played the blues. He was 6-years-old when he got his first trumpet and not too much older when a band teacher at school changed his life.

"He had gone to A&M and he was playing so well, and I said I just want to be like this man. I want to do this. I wanted to be like everybody that was good," says Knight, who saw Florida A&M's legendary marching band when he was in middle school.  "When I saw that band I think I was in 8th grade at that time. I knew then that was it. I wanted to be a professional trumpet player and a band teacher. There wasn’t a question about it."

Florida A&M was home to the crown jewel of college marching bands, and Knight set his mind to being a part of it. He was only 16 when he graduated from high school and traveled to Tallahassee to audition for the legendary program.

 

 

 

 

"When I went there they had 30 members in the trumpet section. About 100 freshman trying to get into that school…about 100 trumpet players. We had to go two weeks before the school was open and they had 5 slots available. They selected five out of the 100. I was in the five," says Knight.

Knight sped through college and graduated in three years. His department’s job placement program identified two positions for new graduates in North Carolina: one in Kinston and one in Farmville. Knight and a friend flipped a coin to see where they each would go and as luck would have it he ended up in Kinston. 

"Never in my life had I ever heard of it," says Knight. "Never head of Kinston."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He took a job as a band teacher at Savannah High School in Grifton. He was only 19-years-old when he showed up for work, and he had no idea what he was walking into.

"When I came to Kinston I wanted the band at Savannah where I taught to be just like Florida A&M. At the time I came up here the band room was upstairs in the gym in the shower room. My principal was a man by the name of Mr. Rufus Flanagan. He said: I’m going to send for the band members. The band members came over – there were about 17 or 18 - and they played for me. When I heard that sound I said, 'Oh is this really it? Do I have to live with this now?' I didn’t have a bicycle, a car, or nothing. If I had a car I think I would’ve gone back to Florida at that time," remembers Knight.

"But I sat down with him and explained and he said ‘You’re in the real world now. You wanted a job, you got it. And we expect you to build a band program.’ So that’s what I did."

As luck would have it, Knight quickly fell into a community of ambitious, active musicians like himself. He became friends with Melvin and Maceo Parker - the brothers who later became influential members of the James Brown band - and Nat Jones, a fellow band teacher at a neighboring school, who left Kinston a few months after Knight arrived.

"Next time I hear of Nat, he was in New York. He was the band leader for James Brown," says Knight. 

"So he called me on a Wednesday. He said, 'Dick Knight, do you want to be the first trumpet player for James Brown?' I said, 'Yeah, but I don't have any money [and] I don't know if my principal and my superintendent will release me.' And he said, 'Well find out, and I'll call you back tomorrow. I want you to be at the Apollo Theater 4:00 on Friday evening. The job is yours if you want it.' So, I talked to the principal and I told him what I wanted to do and the next morning he carried me to the superintendent and they released me. That Friday evening I was knocking on the back door of the Apollo."

Knight joined the James Brown band and performed on several of his records.  He even toured with Otis Redding. But life on the road wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and he never stopped dreaming of being a band teacher. 

 

 

 

 

"You know you think it’s so great, but when those lights up there go out, that bus is outside getting ready to go. And you better be on it or you going to get left. All the admiration and all the stuff people thought was going on…the lights go out then you’re back to reality. It’s all dead," says Knight.

"It was a great experience to do that, but it means a lot to come home and get in your bed every night and work with children. My reward wasn’t money. It’s just like now – a lot of kids say, 'Oh that’s Mr. Knight! You taught me in high school. You did this you did that!' And I feel so good about it. That’s my reward."

Knight taught music for 47 years, many of them in Miami. He moved back to Kinston in 1998 and taught music in elementary and middle schools until 2007. Today he performers with The Monitors, and as a solo act called The Captain. He’s thrilled about winning the North Carolina Heritage Award.

"I made pretty good money out on the road, but this award means more to me than money," says Knight. "To win it…I almost fainted! I said what! Ain’t nowhere else left to go."


You can see Dick Knight performing at the 2018 NC Heritage Award Ceremony and Concert on May 23 in downtown Raleigh. You can get your tickets here.


 

 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

 

In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

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