We began our quest to present traditional and ethnic artists, musicians, and craftspeople in the late 1970s. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, we hired folklorists (Ray Allen, Jay Orr, Ricki Salzman, Debbie Gibson) who traveled throughout the Memphis/Mid South Region to meet, learn from, and record men and women whose art and performances helped define the region. This research was directed by public historian George McDaniel.
These folklorists helped produce several concert series and three community festivals where groups of blues artists, bluegrass musicians, quilters, gospel choirs, Chinese choirs, Israeli Dancers, African drummers and many others performed for large community audiences. These events (Gaston Park Community Folklife Festival July 30, 1981 in South Memphis, Sorghum Days Folk Festival on September 26, 1981 in North Mississippi, and the Ethnic Heritage Folklife Festival on January 31, 1982 at the Memphis Jewish Community Center in East Memphis) provided the Center with the experience to produce its first major Folklife Festival (Mid-South Folklife Festival) on Mud Island in Memphis on August 14-15, 1982. Many of these musicians, artists and cooks became the nucleus of people we presented and continue to present at festivals and special events.
When the Center’s Mid-South Folklife Festival premiered on Memphis’ Mud Island the event drew a large and diverse audience. Produced with support from the Coca Cola Bottling Company, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the City of Memphis the festival drew 23,000 people the first day with 7,000 attending the second day following torrential rains which stopped as the performances began on Sunday. Several of the artists who performed at the Festival still perform at the Center’s annual Memphis Music & Heritage Festival are the Spirit of Memphis Gospel Quartet, Jim Dickinson and Friends, and Eddie Bond.
In 1988 the Center began producing the annual festival beginning in 1988 as the Mid South Music & Heritage Festival and changed to the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival in 1992. The Festival has grown in its audience and performers over the last 20 years.
While locations changed due to construction of the Mall along Main Street in Downtown Memphis and the Center’s sojourn on Beale Street, each venue provided diverse visions of the Memphis/Delta region’s folk arts and music. Seasoned performers shared stages with emerging artists, cooks told the audiences secrets from their kitchen, and traditional craftspeople, dancers and storytellers engaged festival-goers to learn about their lives and communities.
Every summer our on-line exhibits will showcase a peek at festivals past to enhance our experience of the current festival. Each as special and unique as the people, place and time it occurs.
Visit the Center for Southern Folklore Store to view and purchase posters and other items from festivals past and present.
See you Labor Day weekend!!