NEA National Heritage Fellowship Tribute Video: Bob Fulcher

My name is Bob Fulcher. I’m from Clinton, Tennessee, and I’m an
NEA National Heritage Fellow. My interest in traditional culture came about
without my own will working over it. I simply moved to TN and found that I loved
the music that was being played by older musicians in Tennessee. I couldn’t resist it. I wanted to play it. And then I became in interested in the people
were playing the music. Both were profound experiences and discoveries. The material that laid before me when I first
discovered it—it was just like a great banquet. Seemed bottomless, but that was fine. When I got my first job in state parks, I
put on an old timer’s day. This was at Pickett State Park in 1976. People from the community started to speak
to me about musicians that they knew about. I wanted to meet their friends and take my
little cassette recorder there. Some wonderful people—Opal Sharp was one
of the most important—started to introduce me to the Sharp Family. Then I’d hear about other musicians, and
others. And I began to visit them and to record their
music. They were so welcoming and happy that someone
was interested enough to knock on their door and ask them to play. There was nothing to it. I went to seek out a man named Dee Hicks. Dee Hicks, who was sitting there before me,
was the greatest reservoir of Anglo-American folk song who has ever been documented, to
my knowledge. When I heard Dee Hicks sing “Old Bangum,”
I’d never heard anything like that, and I was transfixed. Dee Hicks singing: Old Bangum (field recordings) They had just opened a new program at the
Library of Congress, the American Folklife Center, and a loan program, to loan out equipment,
like this Nagra recorder right here. I wrote them a letter with a list of the ballads
I’d collected on my little cassette recorder and a list of the fiddle tunes I’d recorded,
and said these are examples of some of the musicians. As it turns out, I was, I think, the fourth
person to get an equipment loan from the Library of Congress. With that equipment I was able to record also
Clyde Davenport who I’d already met and he was a brilliant fiddle player. This is a style that holds notes, so that
the droning strings pick up sympathetic vibrations and fill the room with the sound of one fiddle
by itself. The
National Endowment for the Arts had just started a grants program. I heard that Bess Hawes, who was over Folk
Arts program of the NEA would be in Memphis, and I drove to Memphis to hear her talk about
that grant program. I had an idea that was a folklife survey. But I said, we’ve got to have a folklife
team and we need to document the culture and the arts of Tennessee and Tennesseans. Well the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project
place folklorists in state parks around Tennessee, over a summer period. And their responsibility was basically to
do as much fieldwork as they possibly could and then put on public programs in the state
parks, and it was very intensive and very rigorous. But you also learned how to work in a community
and how to build relationships and how learn what the obligations and responsibilities
of that were. And Bobby is one of the best fieldworkers
I have ever seen in my life. He really knows how to get people talking,
he knows how to get people to the heart of the matter, and he goes at their pace. He kind of lets people reveal themselves at
whatever level they want to that, and that’s a really valuable thing. I’ve had about 60 positions, funded through
grants or funded through the state budget for seasonal workers, work to create that
collection. That has meant that we’ve had a steady but
unending stream of contributions. This is an extremely significant collection
for the state of Tennessee and I hope that it can survive and persist, because I know
it will be a benefit to people Bobby is master of capturing and conveying
real sights and sounds, made by real people in a most compelling way. In the state of Tennessee, there is no really
even comes close to matching Bobby’s standard and stamina for public programming. He’s had had project that have garnered
national attention and had national influence. If you look back at the Tennessee Banjo Institute. It was one of the first event to bring together
African string musicians to show that evolution, to show that continuity, between African music,
African American music, and American music. He’s still producing large scale concerts
with dozens of musicians and interpretive photography and video in major venues in Tennessee. He founded and runs a recording label, Sandrock
Records, that has release many highly significant albums. But I think maybe his most consequential contributions
in the lives of other young folklorists that he has trained, the values that he had encourages. He has a way of knowing and seeing the world
that is addicting. You want to be there with him, you want to
share that with him. All of this is music that has electrified
its listeners. It has stirred its listeners. And so, it’s here, it’s like a birdsong—and
you might listen to a bluejay and say I don’t like that sound. Well that bluejay is still there. And we believe that that beauty is there for
someone that is wise enough to find it.

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