Folklife in Motion

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One of the reasons we love hearing from all of you brilliant researchers out there is that your questions give us the opportunity to explore parts of the collection we may not have seen in a while. One recent query led me back into into the Robert Bolton Collection (20408). When I opened the folder of negatives, my eyes were immediatly drawn to the one-word description of five sleeves of negatives, “GYROCOPTER.”

Our attention to Bolton’s work in the past has generally led us to his mid-1960s documentary work covering music performances like Bob Dylan’s first tour with The Band, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and more at the 1965 Chicgago Jazz Festival, and the Ole Time Fiddler’s & Bluegrass Festival in Union Grove, N.C. However, the nearly 2000 images in Bolton’s collection reach far beyond cultural events. Bolton frenquently traveled from his home in Knoxville throughout the Eastern United States, photographing the people he met and the places he stopped along the way, documenting the social landscape of the American South from the mid 1950s through the early 1980s. Apparently, at some point along the way, Bolton ran into Al Cudney, a Canadian-born gyronaut and engineer who worked, at least temporarily, for the rotorcraft pioneer, Dr. Igor Bensen. The Bensen Aircraft Corporation was located near the Raliegh-Durham Airport, possibly resulting in a higher-than-average percentage of gyrocoptor owners in North Carolina compared to other states. Bensen organized clubs and associations of rotorcraft builders and perhaps these photographs docment a local club gathering. For an excellent review of Igor Bensen and gyrocopters in NC, see this excellent post by Harry McKown on our sibling blog from the North Carolina Collection, North Carolina Miscellany.

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Bolton’s photos of Cudney (and possibly others) flying the autogyro in the clear skies over this rural airfield in North Carolina in 1968 are magnificent, but they raise so many questions: Where exactly is this airfield? What is the nature of this exposition or event? Who is flying that thing? And especially: How can we get our hands on one of those?. If you are rotorcraft hobbyist or researcher, we would love to hear what you think!
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Something else we love about queries from intrepid researchers that lead us to discoveries like Bolton’s 1968 gyrocopter session, is the push to constantly review and reassess the “the stuff” of folklore. Music and stories surely come to mind first for most students we work with at UNC, but students of material culture can also find many wonderful resources in the Southern Folklife Collection‘s holdings documenting architecture, quilts, gravestones, sculpture, woodworking, and more. Bolton’s photographs push the boundaries even further, revealing communities and the craftmanship of makers and machinists experimenting with technology and tradition like Cudney and Benson’s rotorcraft enthusiats.

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