The Alabama State Council on the Arts was created by the state legislature in 1966 to encourage the wide spectrum of arts in Alabama. The traditional or folk arts are those artistic efforts which are characteristic of communities, therefore Alabama folk arts uniquely represent the state and its people. In 1988, the Folklife Program of the Alabama State Council on the Arts began an awards program to honor Alabamians who have been important within folk art traditions.
Biographies of past recipients of the Alabama Folk Heritage Award
Henry Japheth Jackson (1988)
Henry Japheth Jackson of Ozark is a leader in the African-American Sacred Harp community of Southeast Alabama. He is the son of the famous Judge Jackson who authored The Colored Sacred Harp (1936) and was taught the art form by his father. Mr. Jackson recalls the family gathering in the kitchen to sing Sacred Harp music. Mr. Jackson who is a natural bass was asked to sing tenor by his father and this furthered his understanding of the music and its structure. In the 1960's, Mr. Jackson was contacted by folklorist Joe Dan Boyd who was researching his father's book. Boyd's research brought the small group of singers to the attention of other folklorists at the Smithsonian Institution and an invitation to perform at the Festival of American Folklife in 1970. Since then, the Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers have performed all over the United States.
In recent years, he has carried on the work of his father, including three reprints of his fathers hymnal. Along with elder statesman Dewey Williams, Mr. Jackson is responsible for keeping this community tradition alive through singing schools, as well as radio and TV programs.
John Ned "Johnny" Shines (1989)
Johnny Shines (1915 - 1992) was one of the last of the old style blues musicians and a colleague of the legendary Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and others. His life mirrored blues history from his delta beginnings to his move to Chicago where he was part of the electrification of the blues to his rediscovery during the 1970's by a generation of mostly white blues fans. Despite the monumental influence on world music exerted by Johnny Shines and his generation of blues musicians, they never collected just financial compensation.
For the last twenty four years of his life, Johnny Shines lived in Alabama and influenced scores of young musicians. After a debilitating stroke in the early 1980's affected his guitar playing, these students encouraged and accompanied him on numerous engagements throughout the United States and Europe. Johnny Shines was a recipient of the 1989 Alabama Folk Heritage Award and participated in ASCA's Apprenticeship Program as a Master Artist. He was a crowd favorite at the Alabama Folklife Festival as well as other traditional music festivals throughout the country.
Nora Ezell (1990)
Nora Ezell is a quilt maker of extraordinary talent and dedication as well as an articulate spokesperson for an art form that is deeply rooted in Alabama culture. This Greene County resident taught herself to quilt more than 40 years ago by watching her mother and her aunt make the traditional scrap quilts that were once a necessity.
While Mrs. Ezell continues to use time-honored patterns, such as "wedding ring," "log cabin," and "bear's paw" in her work, she has recently gained recognition from quilt scholars and collectors for her innovative storytelling quilts. Using the traditional techniques for piecing, applique and embroidery, Mrs. Ezell creates individual scenes that are linked thematically to the rest of the images on the quilt.
She began making her narrative quilts in the early 1980's. One of her significant early works, a quilt depicting important moments in the life of Martin Luther King, led to a piece commissioned by the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham called "A Tribute to the Civil Righters of Alabama."
Mrs. Ezell participates in several festivals per year including the Folk Roots Festival in Eutaw. Her work was featured in a one-woman show at Stillman College in 1986 and in the Alabama Artist's Gallery at the Alabama State Council on t he Arts in 1990. She has also received teaching grants through the State Arts Council's Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. In 1992, Mrs Ezell received the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1998, My Quilts and Me, a book about Ms. Ezell's quilting was published by Black Belt Press.
Noah Lacy (1908 - 1993) exemplified the musical heritage of his native Sand Mountain as both an old-time fiddler and a Sacred Harp singer. Born in Jackson County to a family of musicians, Mr. Lacy took up the fiddle at age 15, learning to play by watching and listening to his father, uncle and older brother.
As a young man, he entered and won many of the fiddlers' conventions on Sand Mountain and in Fort Payne. In his later years, he played music everyday and his repertoire included rare, old tunes he learned as a teenager as well as more contemporary tunes he picked up from fiddlers younger than he. His interest in preserving the old tunes led to his participation in a documentation project on Alabama fiddlers. Recordings of his music are archived in the Birmingham Public Library and the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. One recording appears on the album Possum Up A Gum Stump: Home, Field, and Commercial Recordings of Alabama Fiddlers.
As an active Sacred harp singer Mr. Lacy traveled to singings all over the state with his wife Margie. This four-part a cappella music has been a Lacy family tradition on Sand Mountain for more than 100 years. Noah remembered his grandparents singing, and his father, John Mitchell Lacy, was a popular singing school teacher in Jackson and DeKalb counties. He instilled in his children and grandchildren the love of this traditional music as well as the old-time string band music.
To read an article in remembrance of Noah
Lacy click> here.
Gail Thrower (1992)
Gail Thrower is a Poarch Creek Indian and works on their reservation near Atmore. She serves as tribal historian/librarian and is the only granddaughter of the last tribal medicine man. Ms. Thrower is a cornucopia of knowledge of tribal lore, especially her expertise in Native American foodways. She is most generous in sharing knowledge of her heritage with others. Frequently, she gives foodways demonstrations and talks to schools and other groups.
Ms. Thrower has participated in the Alabama Folklife Festival, the Moundville Native American Festival, as well as others. As a leader and articulate spokesperson for Native Americans, she is a member of the Poarch Creek Arts Council and the Alabama Indian Resource Center Advisory Board.
Lomia Nunn (1993)
Lomia Nunn, born in 1918 is one of Alabama's most traditional basketmakers. She learned her craft from her father, who made cotton baskets for farmers in and around Randolph County. This was a serious source of income for the family and all the children participated in making the baskets. She recalls staying up past midnight as a child to help her father complete orders for baskets.
She also recalls the first basket she sold as a young girl and all the wondrous items, such as sewing cloth, she bought with the $1.50 she was paid. In adulthood, she was the person folks in the area went to when they needed new bottoms put in their chairs or to replace a worn-out basket. However, as a single mother raising her 13 children, her main efforts went into raising and butchering hogs and growing vegetables for the table. After developing heart disease, she discontinued her hog farm on doctor's orders and began to devote her efforts to making baskets.
Though her baskets are no longer used in farm work, she still values strength and durability over appearance. She does not "dress" (or smooth) the splits unless a buyer requests (and pays for) that luxury. Her baskets do what they are supposed to do; they are comfortable to carry and feel secure when being used and they last.
Lomia Nunn has taught her craft to her daughter and several of her grandchildren. Her children and grandchildren are proud of her work, and happily assist her in it.
Bettye Kimbrell is one of the South's outstanding quilters known for her precise and elegant applique and quilting. Born and raised in Berry, Alabama in Fayette County, Bettye learned quilting from her grandmother. She later married Calvin Kimbrell and moved to Mount Olive, Alabama in Jefferson County just north of Birmingham. Here, she founded the North Jefferson Quilter's Guild, one of the most influential group of quilters in the state.
As an artist, she has broadened her horizons by constantly learning new skills and mastering them. Her quilts exhibit the most demanding examples of needlework, including the difficult techniques of stippling and trapunto.
In the last few years, Bettye has become an important member of Quilt Alabama, a new state-wide organization. She has also served as a master folk artist in ASCA's Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program and as a featured artist at the Alabama Folklife Festival, the Alabama Sampler portion of the Birmingham festival, City Stages and the Kentuck Festival.
Bettye's extraordinary combination of artistic excellence and organizational skill and vision have made her one of the regions foremost ambassadors of this beloved American folk art form.
Art Deason (1997)
Arthur L. Deason is a revered singing school master, composer and dedicated promoter of his familys tradition of Christian Harmony singing, the oldest of the active seven-shape traditions in the South. The Christian Harmony songbook, originally published in 1866 by South Carolinian William Walker, is now published in Alabama (1958 and 1994 revisions) largely through the efforts of Art Deason and his family. In fact, Deason chaired the 1994 revision committee and, with ASCAs assistance, obtained a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to fund this worthy project.
In his devotion to his cause of promoting the music and distributing the songbook, Deason communicates with Christian Harmony singers in other states and keeps up with their activities. However, it is clear to him and to music scholars that Alabama is the center of energy for this important genre of Southern sacred music.
Art Deason has been recognized by ASCAs Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program as a master artist, which has helped him expand his singing school activities to at least nine counties in West Central and Northwest Alabama, the heart of Christian Harmony territory. He has also worked with ASCA on the annual Capitol City Shape Note Singing (an event that he conceived and continues to organize) where singers have gathered every summer in Montgomery for twelve years now to sing from the four shape-note hymnals published in Alabama: the Christian Harmony, the Sacred Harp (Denson Revision), the Sacred Harp (Cooper Revision), and the Colored Sacred Harp.
Sterling Jubilee Singers (1999)
The original Sterling Jubilee Singers formed the group in 1929. They were trained by singing master Charles Bridges, who helped to form the a capella singing style which attracted a large number of singers in Jefferson County at a time when African-Americans flocked to jobs in the coal, steel and railroad industries. John Alexanders Sterling Jubilee Singers preserve the close harmonies and dramatic pacing--in fact, many of the arrangementsof the original group. They have carried the tradition in performance to City Stages, the Smithsonian Institute and numerous schools and churches, and passed it on to younger groups. The Sterling Jubilee Singers have been awarded the Alabama Samplers/City Stages Musical Heritage Award.
Margie and Enoch Sullivan (2005)
Margie and Enoch Sullivan of St.
Stephens, Alabama are pioneers of Bluegrass Gospel music. They have
performed together for more than fifty years as the Sullivan Family
band playing for congregations in small country churches as well as
entertaining audiences at major festivals across the U.S. and Europe.
They have appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and were inducted into Bill
Monroe’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame in Bean Blossom, Indiana and the Old
Time Country Music Hall of Fame in Anita, Iowa. They continue to keep
a busy touring schedule and to teach young bluegrass musicians in the
bluegrass gospel tradition.
McCain earned the nickname "Boogie" when he began playing harmonica on the streets of Gadsden at the age of five. His primary musical influences were the blues musicians he heard on the jukebox at his father's barbecue stand when he was growing up in the 1930s and '40s. He began imitating the sound of blues legends Sonny Boy Williamson and Sonny Terry. It was the music of Little Walter that inspired McCain to launch his own recording career. McCain made his first commercial recording in 1953 and played mostly in the south until 1965. Then he went on the road with a variety of musicians like the Drifters, the Temptations and William Bell. He recorded his best-known song, "She's Tough," in 1960, was covered and popularized by the Fabulous Thunderbirds in 1985. McCain continues to please audiences with his inimitable harmonica performances.
Willie King of Old Memphis, Alabama passed away on March 8.King’s debut album introduced him into the blues world. King’s music was acclaimed by critics worldwide and received awards from Living Blues Magazine for Best Male Blues Artist (2001), Best Blues Album (2000) and Best Contemporary Blues Album (2000). His grandparents, who were local sharecroppers, raised Willie and his siblings. Music was important to the King family - Willie's grandfather was a gospel singer, and his absent father was an amateur blues musician. Young Willie made a diddley bo by nailing a baling wire to a tree in the yard. By age 9, he had a one-string guitar that he could bring indoors to play at night. In 1967, Willie King moved to Chicago in an attempt to make more money than he could down South. After a year spent on the West and South Sides, he returned to Old Memphis, Alabama, just across the border from the Mississippi Prairie. A salesman - of shoes, cologne, and other frivolities - Willie traveled the rural roads hawking goods and talking politics. Choosing not to work under the "old system" of unequal treatment, King joined the civil rights movement near the end of the decade. In 1987, a chance meeting at a festival in Eutaw, Alabama, blew Rooster Blues founder Jim O'Neal away: According to O'Neal, King's "juke-joint musical style and political lyrics knocked me down." The two kept in touch for the next 13 years, during which O'Neal relocated his label, and King concentrated on his own community, forging relationships with local youth through a blues education program, through his organization The Rural Members Association.
James Bryan of Mentone. Bryan has been a fiddler almost since birth. He won his first competition at 12, apprenticed with bluegrass master Kenny Baker, and took the title of Tennessee Valley Fiddle King at 17. Bryan eventually joined Norman Blake's Rising Fawn String Ensemble, where his mastery of the fiddle and repertoire of old-timey songs was honed. In the mid-1980s he recorded Lookout Blues and The First of May with Rounder Records, a decade later collaborating with guitarist Carl Jones in recording Two Pictures. Bryan now lives in Mentone and continues to make musical appearances. Bryan, one of the 16 former fiddle kings who have reigned during 39 years of competition at the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention (TVOTFC) have spread their musical influence worldwide. He has entertained in places as diverse as the Smithsonian Institute’s Bicentennial Celebration on The Mall in Washington, D.C., onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, and before a U.S. President. Bryan has recorded traditional fiddle tunes for posterity and mentored young fiddlers in their own music studios across the country.
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