Friday, March 26, 2010

Happy Appy Follow-uppy

As expected, the Appalachian Studies Conference was a weekend of amazing weather, engaging intellectual and spiritual community, free-form fun, and rewarding hard work. We rode down with our old friend Deborah and our new friend Deborah, which was an amusing and confusing conundrum to solve throughout our collective adventure. We even considered calling them by the primary instrument each of them plays: Banjo (Deborah Thompson) and Fiddle (Deborah Payne). They were easy-going, amiable, and intelligent roommates (though Timi and I didn't get to hear them play music during our trip).

Banjo Deborah was working part of the weekend on her presentation, "Performing a Sense of Place: Traditional Music in Eastern Kentucky," which is part of her doctoral dissertation research in the University of Kentucky geography program. She was an excellent model of discipline even as we continued to distract her with chatting, but she was good-natured about our interruptions. So Saturday morning, she went to the public library and I stayed behind at the hotel to gather media materials and work on a rough outline for our presentation. Then that night after an excellent meal and an intense and beautiful theatrical production (keep reading for more about that incredible experience), Timi and I stayed up to finalize it. We came up with our final set of audio and video as well as their order and estimated time that would comprise our 75-minute multi-media presentation the next day at 9:15 a.m.

We didn't really anticipate a large turn-out for our presentation Sunday morning because a large number of people typically depart the conference or skip out on early sessions to sleep in. We had specially requested the less-than-ideal timeslot because there was a chance that I would be  double-booked for the rest of the weekend, but the other opportunity fell through. So we were extremely pleased that 16 people attended altogether (not counting Timi or me), and only a couple of people left early or arrived late. A couple of folks we know and love from Berea College were there as well as both of our musical travel-mates. There were several young people there, including a couple of young women from Barbourville who knew David Lundy.

As we were leaving the presentation, several people came up to Timi and told her how much they enjoyed the presentation and the project she was doing in honor of her relationship with her grandparents. The oral history with Timi's mamaw was charming as ever, and some audio of her papaw really tickled folks. We did well in selecting our media samples and were able to include everything we had planned. We even managed to squeeze in a quick peek at the YouTube video of Bob Dylan singing "Somebody Touched Me"!  The media set-up in the room was excellent and all technical components went smoothly. Thanks to the Tech folks at NGCSU for their attention and assistance; we had one guy help make sure we were set up beforehand, and afterward a woman came in to ask for feedback about how everything went. Kudos for work well done!

One of the main highlights of our weekend was our Saturday night activities with the Deborahs. After the conference events, we rushed to the Backporch Oyster Bar for supper so we could make it to the play by 8:00 p.m. The place was packed and cacophonous with a mix of Appy folks and locals alike. Timi and Deborah P. both ordered salads and coconut shrimp. I got a dozen cold oysters, only my second such delectable foray, which I shared some with Deborah T. who in turn shared some of her divine jumbo scallops and spinach.

We were a little late arriving at the theatre and were worried that the show had already started. When we went inside, the cast was all lined up outside both rear doors preparing to make their entrance. They smiled and waved us quickly through their line so we could sit down before the show began. We found four central seats in a row near in the back as director Robert Gipe finished his introduction of the Harlan County production of Higher Ground, a play written by Jo Carson using stories collected by the community. 

What transpired over the next three hours was an astounding series of skits, storytelling, singing, and soul-searching performed by an incredibly diverse and large cast. There was an astounding mix of race, gender, and age among the more than 50 performers who were excellent as real down-home folks playing real down-home folks. The play highlighted both the strengths of the community and the devastation caused by prescription drugs, natural disasters, and mining accidents. The combination of heavy issues confronted by the hope and resilience of the community was powerful and emotional.

Timi and I recognized three folks from the Eastern Kentucky Social Club in Lynch from our visits there on the Berea College Appalachian Tour, and afterward the whole cast came down into the audience asking everyone what they thought about it and hugging people right and left. Altogether, it was an intense and insightful experience... that inevitably transformed into a pep rally when fans began asking for that evening's basketball score and then chanting "UK! UK! UK!" when they heard we were 30 points ahead.

Other conference highlights included a session on "Engendering Nature, Endangering Mountains: An Ecofeminist Challenge to 'Progress' in Appalachia" that Timi and I attended, which was a dream come true as long-time Appalachian ecofeminists and activists.  Timi also attended a session on "Returning to our Mother," which included a paper by Gurney Norman called "Alienation from the Body: Separation from the Mother." She was incredibly moved by the entire set of presentations in which white men were calling for respect for all people and the earth, but she was especially inspired by Gurney Norman's outright claim to his identity as a "Matriot" of his country and planet.

And we both got weepy when Appalachian musician, scholar, filmmaker, and all-around super-star Jack Wright was honored with the well-deserved Cratis D. Williams/James S. Brown Service Award. Finally, I had a conversation with Jim Webb, WMMT DJ and fellow Berea College alum, about the possibility of doing a show on Frances and John's music, and he just told me to contact him and let him know when we'd like to do it! So we look forward to reporting on the results of this request...

We enjoyed a lovely, and vivaciously curvy, journey home via a different route than we took (in the dark) to get there. Our homeward path included many stops on an eventually successful search for boiled peanuts that we found at an intriguing flea market that straddled both sides of the road and reminded us all of Latin America or, for me, many Sunday afternoons spent with my papaw at similar flea markets throughout Kentucky and surrounding states. We definitely plan to go back when we have more time and a sunny day to enjoy a winding ramble through its many stalls.

We're glad to be home and to have received such positive feedback about our work. We have returned feeling renewed and rewarded with some exciting prospects for the future and fresh energy to tackle the work ahead.

p.s. Thanks to Deborah Thompson for taking and sharing photos of our good time together.