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 Smither’s 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