University Libraries receives NFPF grant to preserve Southern Folklife Collection films

We are pleased to announce that the University Libraries has received a preservation grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) to preserve two 16mm documentary films found in the Southern Folklife Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library.

The first film (Jarrell and Cockerham, 1971, by Blanton Owen) captures footage of legendary old-time fiddler and banjo players, Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham, both of Surry County, NC, while the second film (A.R. Cole, Potter, 1969, by Terry W. Rushin) looks at the traditional ceramist and potter, A. R. Cole, and his family’s multi-generational pottery shop in the eastern Piedmont region of the state. The NFPF grant will support the production of new 16mm preservation prints and digital access copies of both films.

Both films present their local subjects directly and honestly, giving them the space to share their own stories, songs, and art, which they express through traditional creative practice. Both documentary projects also present exciting research opportunities, not just for folklorists, scholars, and students, but also for artists, musicians, filmmakers, and our region at large. The films complement and connect closely to other Wilson Special Collections Library materials, particularly those held by the Southern Folklife Collection- an archival resource dedicated to collecting, preserving and disseminating vernacular music, art, and culture related to the American South.

The National Film Preservation Foundation is a nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. The Foundation supports activities nationwide to help organizations and institutions preserve American films and improve film access for study, education, and exhibition.

The grant-writing process was a cross-departmental effort at Wilson Library. Thanks to Anne Wells (that’s me, hi!) and Jackie Dean of Special Collection Technical Services; Steve Weiss, Erica Titkemeyer, Hunter Randolph, and Andrew Crook of the Southern Folklife Collection; and Aaron Smithers of Special Collections Research & Instructional Services.

We’ll be sure to keep you posted as the grant process proceeds. Please read on below to learn more about both films – their subjects and makers.

Jarrell and Cockerham
(1971, by Blanton Owen, found in the in the Blanton Owen Collection #20027)

Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham playing fiddle and banjo on Fred Cockerham's porch in Low Gap, North Carolina
still taken from the 16mm “pix” (F-20027/10) of Jarell and Cockerham found in the in the Blanton Owen Collection #20027

Back in the summer of 1970 Blanton Owen (1945-1998) traveled to Surry County in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains to document old-time musicians, Tommy Jarrell (1901-1985) and Fred Cockerham (1905-1980). Blanton was a folklorist, musician, and photographer. He studied folklore at Indiana University and for nearly three decades engaged in the documentation of folklore and music in Appalachia, other regions of the South, and in the West. 

The outcome of Blanton Owen’s 1970 documentary project on Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham resulted in close to thirty image and sound elements, including an edited workprint (F-20027/10) and a corresponding 16mm magnetic soundtrack (F-20027/9) created by Owen (if you frequent this site, you might remember Aaron Smithers’ post about these film elements back in spring 2016) – all of these elements are found in the Blanton Owen Collection #20027. Sadly, Owen never made or released a final composite print from his edited workprint and soundtrack (pictured below)
. The NFPF grant presents an exciting opportunity to merge the images and sounds created by Owen almost a half century ago, making this footage accessible to the public for the first time.

edited film elements created by Blanton Owen
Film elements, including an edited workprint (F-20027/10) and a corresponding 16mm magnetic soundtrack (F-20027/9) created by Blanton Owen. found in the in the Blanton Owen Collection #20027

Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham played their instruments in the Round Peak music traditions of Surry County. During the folk revival movement of the 1960s and 1970s, this regional style of playing gained popularity with outside audiences. Folklorists and old-time enthusiasts and musicians would flock to the region to hear and learn from Jarrell, Cockerham, and others, including Kyle Creed and Sydna Myers. Some of these visitors, like Blanton Owen, Alice Gerrard, Cece Conway, Les Blank, and Mike Seeger, would come to the region not just to listen and play, but also to document and record images and sound of these local musicians.

Fred Cockerham made a living playing the fiddle and banjo, performing on radio broadcasts and for medicine shows across the state. Cockerham was a member of The Camp Creek Boys, an old-time string from Surry County that was active from the 1930s-1960s. Banjo player, instrument maker, and Surry county native, Kyle Creed, was also part of this group. In the footage captured by Owen, we see Cockerham playing Kyle Creed’s handmade banjo with gold-flecked Formica fretboard – a banjo that is now housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Owen’s footage captures distinct personalities as well as the chemistry between Cockerham and Jarrell, who had that time had been playing together for many years. As folklorist and musician David Holt points out, “while Tommy Jarrell was outgoing and never met a stranger, Fred was more reserved and circumspect. But when he let loose on the fiddle or clawhammer banjo there was no one any better.”

Tommy Jarrell learned to play the banjo when he was just eight years old, learning most of his tunes before the influence of commercial recordings and radio broadcasts. As Cecelia Conway points out, “In addition to being a remarkable musician, Tommy was a singular vocalist with a powerful style; his repertory included many unusual fiddle and banjo songs, ballads, and Primitive Baptist hymns. An exceptional storyteller, he related family reminiscences and regional lore with a fine wit and was an inspired performer and transmitter of regional styles and repertory. To his last days he continued to add imaginative and subtle variations to his stories and tunes” [1]. Jarrell dedicated himself to music after his retirement, gaining notoriety later in life by participating in fiddlers’ conventions and festivals across the United States. Almost a decade after Owen captured these two musicians playing together, Jarrell would receive the National Endowment for the Art’s National Heritage Fellow award in 1982. And a year later, Alice Gerrard, Cece Conway, and Les Blank would premiere, Sprout Wings and Fly, a short documentary film about Jarrell, at the Chicago International Film Festival (if you’re curious, we recommend checking out our post on Sprout Wings and Fly materials in the Alice Gerrard Collection).

black and white photo of Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham on Fred Cockerham's front porch
Tommy Jarrell (left) and Fred Cockerham (right) on Fred Cockerham’s front porch. Photo by J. Scott Odell. Found in the J. Scott Odell folk music collection (CFCH.ODEL) in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

I’ll end this section with a lovely photograph found in the J. Scott Odell folk music collection at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. It was taken in 1966 by musical instrument conservator and researcher of American music traditions, J. Scott Odell. I love how similar the scenes are between the film stills of Blanton Owen’s 1970 documentary project and Odell’s photograph – it’s like they’ve just been playing for four years straight on Cockerham’s front porch. I wonder if the geraniums are the same?

A.R. Cole, Potter
(1969, by Terry W. Rushin, found in the the Terry W. Rushin Documentary on A. R. Cole #20402)

A. R. Cole throws pottery inside his pottery shop in Sanford, North Carolina

still taken from the 16mm print (F-20402/1) of A. R. Cole, Potter (1969) found in the Terry W. Rushin Documentary on A. R. Cole #20402

As the title suggests, this documentary film looks at the artistic practice and pottery shop of Arthur Ray “A. R.” Cole, whose family has worked in the ceramic arts in the eastern Piedmont for more than three generations. Filmmaker, Terry Wayne Rushin (1945-2012), made the film while he was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he took film courses under Professor Earl Wynn in the Department of Radio, Television and Motion Pictures.

The Southern Folklife Collection’s Terry W. Rushin Documentary on A. R. Cole #20402 contains a unique 16mm black and white composite print of the film. Terry W. Rushin shot the film entirely at A. R. Cole’s pottery shop in Sanford, North Carolina in the Seagrove area of the eastern Piedmont, one of three regions in the state known for its pottery production, with Catawba Valley and Buncombe County being the others. The film includes footage of A. R. Cole grinding clay and throwing a pot on the wheel, as well as scenes of A. R. Cole’s daughters, Celia and Neolia, making their own pottery and preparing orders for the shop.

North Carolina has a rich pottery tradition that reaches back centuries.
As David M. Egner notes, archaeologists have documented nearly complete pots crafted by Cherokee and other indigenous makers that date from the early 1500s. After Europeans colonized the region in the eighteenth century, folk potters adapted techniques from their native England, Germany, and elsewhere. These potters took local clay, glazed their pieces with lead, wood ash, or salt, and fired them in wooden kilns to produce functional vessels for daily use. Through the nineteenth century, although functional use of folk pottery declined, the state’s potters continued to practice and refine their craft, passing it to subsequent generations. In time, folklorists, collectors, tourists, and others came to appreciate the distinctive forms of North Carolina pottery as artistic expressions [2].

A. R. Cole and his family are embedded in this statewide tradition. According to the News & Observer, the first Cole potter moved to North Carolina from Staffordshire, England, in the 1750s. The Coles settled by the rich clay beds of Seagrove, 75 miles west of Raleigh, and have been turning and firing pots ever since. They helped make the Piedmont into one of America’s centers for traditional, handmade pottery [3].

A. R. Cole was born 1890 in Asheboro and moved to Sanford in the mid-1930s to open his own pottery shop, A. R. Cole Pottery, to cater to tourists traveling alongside the busy Route 1. Terry W. Rushin’s film mostly depicts a day in the life of A. R. Cole, but we also see the traditions being passed down and practiced by Cole’s daughters, Celia and Neolia. Their voice-over provides essential family history and context from which to understand their family’s ties to the region’s ceramic arts. After A. R.’s death in 1974, Celia and Neolia took over the operation with grandson, Kenneth George, and renamed the shop, Cole Pottery. In 2003, Neolia Cole Womack received a North Carolina Heritage Award. Sadly, the shop closed ten years later, followed by Neolia’s death in 2016.

I’d like to end this post with a short film by UNC student and frequent Field Trip South contributor, Hunter Randolph, who was a tremendous help during the grant writing process. Hunter grew up in Sanford, where he and his family have close ties to the Cole Pottery shop and the local Railroad House Historical Association. Hunter’s film, Stories in the Clay: The Pottery and Poetry of Neolia Cole Womack, showcases the work and inscriptions of A. R. Cole’s daughter, Neolia Cole Womack, weaving together original footage of her pottery, video footage shot by Hunter’s father, Jimmy Randolph, and clips of a previously digitized version of Terry W. Rushin’s A.R. Cole, Potter.

[1] Conway, Cecelia. “Jarrell, Thomas Jefferson.” Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996. https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/jarrell-thomas-jefferson
[2] Egner, David M. “Pottery.” Encyclopedia of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006. https://www.ncpedia.org/pottery
[3] Cecelski, Davis. “Listening To History”. News & Observer, 12 November 2000. https://www.ncpedia.org/listening-to-history/george-kenneth

First Impressions: June Appal Recordings


First Impressions” is an ongoing series on the “first records” of several independent record labels releasing folk, blues, bluegrass, country, and other vernacular musics. Drawing from records and other materials in the Southern Folklife Collection, the focus of this virtual exhibition is on the albums that started it all for these labels in the LP era.


The Album

LP cover, gray background with image of Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens on a porch
Nimrod Workman & Phyllis Boyens, Passing Thru The Garden | FC-1286

June Appal Recordings was founded to release traditional and contemporary mountain music, recorded by and for the people of the Southern mountains near their Whitesburg, Kentucky home. At the time, it would have been difficult to find a more complete embodiment of that mission than Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens. Nimrod Workman had been a mine worker, singer, and union activist in the mountains of West Virginia for over six decades by the time June Appal Recordings was created in 1974. Phyllis Boyens, Nimrod’s daughter, had been raised in that culturally rich environment and quickly took to the musical and activist inclinations of her parents and grandparents. Passing Thru The Garden marked the recorded debut of June Appal, Nimrod and Phyllis, the first example of the cross-generational efforts that would come to define June Appal as a label. Most of the songs on Passing Thru The Garden are credited as arranged by Nimrod Workman, and most are sung unaccompanied by instrumentation. Nimrod and Phyllis take many of the songs alone, while joining voices on others. Listen to excerpts of two tracks from the album, and read on below.
Here is an excerpt from Track 1, “I Am a Traveling Creature,” featuring both Nimrod and Phyllis:

Also listen to a clip from Track 10, “Oh Death,” featuring Phyllis Boyens with some spare instrumentation:


NIMROD WORKMAN

Nimrod is shown performing during a workshop with others seated around him
Nimrod was active with the Highlander Folk School, and he is pictured here (standing) at a 1972 workshop organized by the group. Photo by Doug Yarrow. Image Folder PF-20008/70 in the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection (20008).

Born in 1895 in Inez, Kentucky, Nimrod Workman moved to West Virginia to work in a coal mine at the age of 14. For the next 42 years, Workman continued to mine coal, until black lung and other injuries forced him to retire. He was an active union member and activist for worker’s rights from the early years of his career, but he became most well known later in life as a singer of unaccompanied ballads. Nimrod Workman was already 79 in 1974, the year his first album, Passing Thru The Garden, was released. While he was an active performer for the rest of his life, he recorded only one more album, Mother Jones’ Will, for Rounder Records in 1978. Workman continued to be associated with his career as a coal miner, frequently singing coal mining songs and contributing to different coal mining-related projects. He recorded several songs for Come All You Coal Miners, a collection of coal mining songs also produced by Rounder Records, and he appeared in the Academy Award-winning documentary Harlan County, USA.
His appearance in the acclaimed documentary, which followed the “Brookside Strike,” translated into a brief appearance in the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter. In the film, Nimrod leads a group of mourners at a funeral in a rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The recording appears on the soundtrack to the movie, and Nimrod can be heard calling out each line before the rest of the crowd joins in. Listen to a brief clip from the song below:

At first glance, Workman’s appearance always seemed to announce his increasing age – from his uniquely dimpled cheeks to his tall and lanky frame. However, whenever Nimrod Workman sang or moved, he constantly betrayed just how young his spirit was. To help demonstrate that trademark youthfulness, below is a clip from Carry It On, a nine-part series produced by the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project in 1984 and aired on PBS. In the clip, Nimrod states his age (“87 in years, 18 in feelings”) and demonstrates to his daughter Phyllis Boyens and host Mike Seeger how to do the “frog walk.” The full video, VT-20004/21 in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (20004) is streaming through UNC libraries here.


Phyllis boyens

Promotional photograph of Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens. P-2992a in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (20004).

Phyllis Boyens-Liptak was born Phyllis Workman in 1947 in West Virginia, one of the youngest of Mollie and Nimrod Workman’s 13 children. Raised by musical parents, she quickly took to singing the songs that her father sang, and frequently accompanied him in casual venues and on tour. 1974’s Passing Thru the Garden was, like her father, also Phyllis’s first album. Also like Nimrod, Phyllis only recorded one more album, the 1983 solo outing I Really Care. Phyllis was active in the same musical and activist groups as her father, contributing songs to albums like They’ll Never Keep Us Down: Women’s Coal Mining Songs and touring with the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project. Although she did not have a prolific recording career, she maintained an active presence in the folk music world, and she also expanded into the world of acting. Phyllis had appeared in the documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. alongside her father, and attention from that appearance helped her land a supporting role as Loretta Lynn’s mother in the film Coal Miner’s Daughter
Phyllis’s mother Mollie Workman was also an accomplished singer, as she demonstrates in this field recording made by Mark Wilson for Rounder Records’ “North American Traditions Series.” In this clip from FT-20503/16073, Mollie Workman sings “I’m Going Back With Jesus When He Comes” unaccompanied:


THE label

The Appalachian Film Workshop was founded in 1969 in Whitesburg, Kentucky, part of the United States government’s legislative War on Poverty. Federal funding helped create several of these community workshops, which aimed to provide access to film production training and education in impoverished areas. In 1974, the organization underwent a few major changes, diversifying beyond film production and evolving into an independent nonprofit company. Around this time, the name of the organization was shortened to Appalshop, reflecting broader goals and a new direction.
These 1974 changes included the creation of June Appal Recordings, a record label within Appalshop. The goals of this new label reflected those of Appalshop as a whole – producing content for, by, and about the people that live in Appalachia. The June Appal discography includes Kentuckians like Buell Kazee, I.D. Stamper, and Nimrod Workman, but it also includes a broad range of traditional and contemporary folk musicians from across the U.S. June Appal has maintained a relatively steady pace since 1974, releasing more than 80 albums on LP, CD, or cassette in the past 45 years since its founding. Some of that discography is still available through the June Appal portion of Appalshop’s website, found here.

four covers of recording catalogs, illustrates different June Appal logos over time
These four recording catalogs show different June Appal logos over the years, all emphasizing their focus on “Music From the Southern Mountains.”  Folder 275 in the Art Menius Papers (20406).

June Appal Recordings is unique among its contemporary independent record labels for many reasons, chief among them being its origins within a cooperative nonprofit company. Due to these unique beginnings, there are no individual founders widely credited with the creation of June Appal Recordings. However, there were of course individuals involved in the creation and maintenance of June Appal from its beginnings, including: Rich Kirby, who produced many records on the label and recently retired from Appalshop’s Mountain Community Radio station, and Jack Wright, who recorded on June Appal with The Payroll Boys, produced a film for Appalshop, and ultimately became a professor of film.


THE Southern folk cultural revival project

The Nashville-based Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project (SFCRP) was founded in 1966 by musicians and activists Anne Romaine and Bernice Johnson Reagon. The primary goal of the SFCRP was to “present traditional musicians from black and white cultures in performance together at a time when this was considered controversial.” In pursuit of that goal, the group recruited a large number of musicians, including Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens, to perform on tour together. However, the work of Romaine and the SFCRP extended far beyond these tours. One such endeavor was the production of a nine-part series on traditional music that aired on PBS in 1984, Carry It On. Each episode of Carry It On consisted of interviews with and performances by traditional musicians. Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens are featured in an episode of the series on mountain ballads. A videotape recording of the episode, VT-20004/21 in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (20004), is streaming through UNC Libraries here. Watch two brief clips from the episode below, featuring Nimrod and Phyllis singing “Passing Through The Garden” together and Nimrod singing “Burglar Man” alone:


APPALSHOP FILMS

Appalshop, true to its origins, is perhaps best known for the films it produces as Appalshop Films. Appalshop’s current website hosts over 80 films, ranging from narrative features to documentaries on a wide range of subjects. There are documentaries on craftspeople, like 1976’s Quilting Women and 1980’s Oaksie, about eastern Kentucky basket maker, fiddler, and harp player Oaksie Caudill. There are activist documentaries and documentaries on activists and protests, like 1995’s Justice in the Coalfields and 1992’s Belinda, about Kentucky AIDS prevention and education activist Belinda Mason.
One of the largest shares of the Appalshop filmography, however, is occupied by music documentaries, following performers and traditions rooted in Appalachia. These include works on Sarah Ogan Gunning, John Jacob Niles, Lily May Ledford, Ralph Stanley, Hazel Dickens, and Nimrod Workman. In 1975, the year after the release of Passing Thru The Garden, Appalshop released To Fit My Own Category, a 35 minute documentary following Nimrod Workman. Directed by Scott Faulkner and Anthony Slone, the black and white film features interview and everyday footage and incorporates Workman’s music. Watch a brief trailer for To Fit My Own Category below, and stream the entire film for free on Appalshop’s website.


ROADSIDE THEATER AND THE LOCAL CONNECTION

Appalshop also created several other prominent divisions beyond June Appal Recordings, including the Appalshop Archive, the Appalachian Media Institute, Culture Hub, Roadside Theater, and Mountain Community Radio (WMMT 88.7). Roadside Theater, one of the earliest new divisions of Appalshop, shares the spirit of the original film workshop and June Appal Recordings. Focused on providing a platform for young people in Appalachia to tell the stories of their lives, Roadside Theater is “a company of unreconstructed Appalachians who make stories out of the kind of history ‘that generally never gets written down.'” The group began by producing and maintaining a repertoire of Appalachia-centered plays, like South of the Mountain, Brother Jack, Red Fox/Second Hangin’, and Mountain Tales. Written by and starring members of the troupe, these productions would tour around the country, visiting schools and larger performance venues along the way. The below article from the April 3, 1987 issue of the Durham Morning Herald describes a Roadside Theater stop in Carrboro that day. Sponsored by The Arts Center in Carrboro, the group was set to offer a workshop on “Storytelling from Oral History” and perform South of the Mountain at Carrboro Elementary School. Roadside Theater continues to produce and perform new plays, and more of their work and history is available here.

newspaper article describing a Roadside Theater stop in Carrboro in 1987
This clipping from the April 3, 1987 Durham Morning Herald contains an article titled “‘Roadside’ Brings Mountains To Stage.” The photo features Roadside members Ron Short, Nancy Jeffrey, and Tom Bledsoe. Folder 275 in the Art Menius Papers (20406).


SHOW ME MORE!

There are an abundance of materials related to June Appal Recordings, Appalshop, Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens, and the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project in the Southern Folklife Collection, as well as an extensive portion of the June Appal catalog on LP and CD. Check out a few other items of interest below or search the collection yourself.

cover of a newspaper featuring a picture of Nimrod Workman at the Kentucky Folk Festival
This June 10, 1973 edition of The Courier-Journal & Times features “Kentucky Folk Festival is fun,” an article on the 1973 Kentucky Folk Festival in Lexington. The photo on right, by Pam Spaulding, shows Nimrod Workman dancing for an audience at the festival. Folder 676 in the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection (20008).

poster for the Jubilee Festival features a photograph of Mollie and Nimrod Workman
This poster for the 18th Annual Jubilee Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, features Mollie and Nimrod Workman, advertising a “special tribute” to the couple. Folder 676 in the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection (20008).

Promotional photograph of Nimrod Workman. P-2993a in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (20004).

Nimrod Workman performing at the 1985 Tennessee Grassroots Days. Photo by David Hildebrand. P-2995 in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (20004).

A group photo of Nimrod Workman and other traditional musicians
This photo features Nimrod Workman singing with several other prominent traditional musicians. From left: Tillman Cadle, Lois Short, Sarah Ogan Gunning, Nimrod Workman, Hazel Dickens, Goerge Tucker. PF-20008/63 in the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection (20008).