The toe-tapping power of old instruments and forgotten tunes

What’s old is new again as musicians explore “Making American Music” at the National Museum of American History.

Group photo of musicians and their instruments

From left, : Libby Weitnauer, Hannah Rose Baker, Artist in Residence Dom Flemons, Kelly Bosworth, and Rose Alia Rodgers of the inaugural Making American Music program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

It’s tough for the interns selected for the inaugural Making American Music program at the National Museum of American History to choose what they liked best about it, but intern Kelly Bosworth underscored the unique vantage point the collections offered.

For the internship, “I put together a program on the musical and political contributions of women in 20th-century protest movements in the United States, including songs on women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, and civil rights,” says Bosworth, a guitarist and PhD student in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University. “It was a highlight to perform it for museum visitors in front of the actual lunch counter from Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C., a symbol of the long and proud tradition of social protest in the US.”

The program’s first Artist in Residence, Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons, also cited a powerful moment when NMAH collections made the century-old folk music he knows intimately tangible in a whole new way. “I remember the day I held a banjo from the 1840s,” he said.  “I literally got to hold history in my hands.”

Bosworth; Hannah Baker, a fiddle/guitar player who recently graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music; Rose Alia Rodgers, a singer and flautist who recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz; and Tennessee native/fiddler Libby Weitnauer, a graduate of New York University, were selected from a pool of two dozen applicants to participate in the program this past summer under Flemons’ mentorship.

The interns have carried their newfound knowledge and skills with them since the program concluded. Weitnauer just returned from a month-long stint touring with Jake Blount, while Baker is working on her second EP, Songs for Serious Children. Rodgers is mulling grad school options while job-hunting in the museum field, and is still processing all she learned. Until she was chosen for the MAM program, “I [hadn’t really been] exposed to many midwestern and southern genres of music” or the “deep-rooted histories that surround the pioneers of those musical genres,” says.

Flemons, who recently relocated with his family from North Carolina to Maryland, describes himself as a performer, presenter and advocate of myriad genres of American music, particularly old-time, ragtime, jazz, country and blues.

The NMAH team assembled by Chris Wilson, NMAH Director of Experience Design, includes Program Lead James Zimmerman; Program Manager Carrie Heflin; Lead Education Aide Alex Piper; Curators John Troutman and Theo Gonzalves; video production intern Sarah McCoy and social media manager Erin Blasco. Notably, Gonzalves, Heflin, Troutman and Zimmerman are all musicians in their own right.

NMAH’s archives and others around the city were full of treasures for the interns to explore.

“I wanted the program to be completely focused on material found in the archives,” said Flemons “We took trips to the offices of Smithsonian Folkways, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. We took the information we learned from many wonderful curators to create a body of work that showcased each individual as [both] a soloist and an ensemble member.”

In addition to researching their genres, the interns—dubbed “The First Ladies” by the internship team—offered multiple public performances over the course of the summer. They worked with Flemons on stagecraft, presentation and methods of engaging with different kinds of audiences.

Group prepares to perform on Catalonia stage

In performance at the 2018 Smithsonian Staff Picnic: “Artists in Residence: Making American Music” featured Grammy-winner Dom Flemons (far right) and National Museum of American History Museum interns Hannah Baker, Libby Weitnauer, Kelly Bosworth and  Rose Rodgers.

Creative director Wilson says that MAM is the culmination of a long-held dream. “Former SI Assistant Secretary—the late Claudine Brown—and I used to discuss that we had a great opportunity [here] to demonstrate what we do in a small way for millions of visitors to the museums and research centers every day by developing intensive intern and student programs.”

Wilson had long been a fan of Flemons’ former band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Years ago he’d invited the Drops to come explore NMAH’s archives; afterward, the men discussed Wilson’s dream of seeing and hearing instruments from the archives played for new audiences. When Wilson heard that Flemons had moved to the D.C. area to develop recordings for Smithsonian Folkways, he invited him to be the first artist in residence for the fledgling program.

Flemons released Black Cowboys on the Folkways label in May; in addition, he was recently nominated for two Emmys for his songwriting on a program called Songcraft Presents. Now at work on a new compilation of banjo pieces for the label, Flemons said he learned from the interns as much as he sought to impart to them.

“One of the things I learned very early on is that as a single individual there will never be a way for me to hear and read everything,” he said. “Each intern came with a completely different direction and it was a joy to follow each one down the rabbit hole.”

The MAM program was generously supported by the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation and the John M. Hammond Music Performance Endowment.


Posted: 20 September 2018
About the Author:

Amy Rogers Nazarov writes about D.C. culture & history and manages social media for non-profits and small businesses from her home on Capitol Hill. Her byline has appeared in Cooking Light, The Writer, Psychology Today, The Washington Post and many other print and Web publications. Before going freelance, she spend a decade reporting on high tech for a wide array of newspapers and magazines.