Mining Maryland's wealth of cultural arts, resources

Two folklorists hit the road to collect nuggets of traditional wisdom, tastes and sounds

August 18, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

Everywhere they go in Southern Maryland, folklorists Carrie and Michael Kline are likely to meet an important source -- or someone who can lead them to an important source.

They could be at a flea market, in the grocery store, or the laundromat. Doesn't matter.

Get change for a dollar or discuss the price of broccoli, and suddenly they'll have a lead on a traditional guitar picker, a Filipino basket weaver or a champion oyster shucker.

"There's no reason not to think [any] person you meet is not extraordinary," says Carrie Kline, a slight woman with wire-rim glasses and a thoughtful way of speaking.

From their base in Historic St. Mary's City, the Klines are casting a wide net in their survey of cultural and community traditions throughout southern Maryland. They attend religious services with Mennonites, Catholics and Jews. They frequent flea markets, craft fairs, church suppers and festivals. When a tornado leveled La Plata, they pitched in -- and found more sources.

The result, so far, is a rich sampling of culture and history and personalities, an intricate human web formed by descendants of slaves and religious freedom seekers, by more recent immigrants, by farmers, watermen and trappers. And many others yet to be discovered.

The Klines' work is part of Maryland Traditions, an innovative partnership between the Maryland State Arts Council and the Maryland Historical Trust designed to recognize and celebrate the state's folklife.

The first surveys by folklorists, trained in the collection of tales, customs, songs and other traditional material, are taking place in southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore and Carroll, Frederick and Washington counties. Eventually, Maryland Traditions administrators plan to send folklorists all over the state for a complete survey of its cultural wealth. Audio and videotapes, photographs and other materials collected through the program will become part of a public database.

Since starting his survey in Frederick and Washington counties, folklorist Steve Warrick has become an authority on slippery pot pie, a regional specialty consisting of meat soup with dumplings, and he has become an inquisitive visitor to Hagerstown's Saturday market, which he says has been in continuous operation since 1791.

Some customs haven't fared as well, particularly in Frederick County, "which has been [growing] beyond belief," Warrick says. Washington County, on the other hand, is "pretty much hanging on to its rural traditions: hog butchering, making cheese, smoking and curing meats, quilting."

Old meets new

The folklore survey isn't just aimed at old traditions. It includes new ones, such as those of Central American and Asian crab pickers, Hispanic shop owners and the sizable Filipino population living in St. Mary's County.

"We're looking at cultures today that were not part of Maryland's landscape 25 years ago or even 10 years ago," says Elaine Eff, director of cultural conservation programs for the Maryland Historical Trust. Such cultures "not only link us to places we never would have imagined, they also help us to find parallels with our [older] traditions."

As he conducts research, Warrick considers ways to bring old and new cultures together, "to mediate the social change that's taking place" as newcomers arrive with their own traditions. In the future, for example, Warrick envisions arranging an event where members of the East Indian or Vietnamese communities meet with members of the German or Mennonite communities to compare embroidering techniques.

Supported by a three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Maryland Traditions folklorists work out of rural institutions, including St. Mary's College, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and the Catoctin Center for Regional Studies at Frederick Community College. Next year, a folklorist will also be assigned to the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury. Ideally, each area will continue its folklife project indefinitely once funding has ended.

Pairing folklorists with cultural institutions encourages them to share their expertise with students, faculty and curators, who in turn, will help keep traditions alive through programming and further research.

"This is not just a salvage attempt," says Rory Turner, Maryland's state folklorist. "It's a recognition that even in the contemporary world, there are traditions that continue to be useful to people, [and] that we can help encourage the perpetuation and development of those traditions."

Crab pickers, boat builders, watermen and their families already have become part of the programming at the Chesapeake Maritime Museum in Southern Maryland.

"We're dealing with the living heritage," says folklorist Shelly Drummond. "When visitors come to a museum and hear the voices; then they learn something of themselves and they see a piece of themselves," she says.

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