Morning Train – The Campbell Brothers under
Nick Spitzer: I began to think that it was important not to just think about America as a kind of nation that’s globalized but to go out into the world with what we try to think is one of our great aspects of life here, which is I call democratic pluralism where we have many voices. You know the old E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one.” That’s on all our coins. Yes, out of many, one, but also let’s remember the many voices that continue forward and continue to feed the oneness of new creativity. And maybe a good way to talk about America and the world is to have others experience our diversity and creativity.
Adam Kampe: That’s folklorist Nick Spitzer, the host of American Routes—talking about taking his popular radio show to China.
Morning Train – The Campbell Brothers up and under, fade into Jump for Joy
An NEA grantee dating back to 1998, American Routes explores just about every idiom of music under the sun: blues, zydeco, rock n roll, and—being based in New Orleans—of course, jazz. but now the show is on the road, sharing american culture with the wider world as part of American Routes Abroad, as it’s called. At the time of this interview, Spitzer and company were preparing for their fourth tour of CHINA—this time with sacred steel gospel band and 2004 NEA National Heritage Fellows, The Campbell Brothers, who you’re hearing in the background. Here's Nick Spitzer on how American Routes Abroad was born and what it’s all about.
NS: Over a period of years I’ve done tours with the Smithsonian and on our own to places like the Seychelles, which is a French Creole speaking set of islands in the Indian Ocean and to exotica musicians there who speak the same language and are also African French people, and then to the former Soviet Union. We brought various groups of American traditional performers of all kinds, Latino and Cajun, African American, Native American, old time country, and that just seemed to go incredibly well as a way to just simply represent our diversity, our way of expressing ourselves, our swagger, what we share and what makes us different individually as groups of people. And so we started out by bring some New Orleans traditional jazz there at the request of a Chinese foundation that gave us an award to travel there. And as a Chinese friend of mine said, “Well, you now have a fishing license to operate here.” <laughs> The jazz band from New Orleans appeared on Chinese national television receiving the award, and it was really the first award going to an American group that was presenting not strictly tradition in some deep old R-O-O-T-S, roots sense but tradition as an emergent form that jazz is, and I thought it was a great moment for us.
Wylie and the Wild West – Uber Yodel
And we followed that with cowboys from Montana playing at a major festival of herding cultures up in Inner Mongolia where they ride horses and herd cattle and other animals, and American cowboys seemed like a good thing to bring, and so they’d play every night in front of 20,000 Inner Mongolians to great note up there, and it went extremely well, having these guys yodeling with high-pitched voices and some of the Mongolian throat singers including women singing down at the bottom of the range on the same stage. Just remarkable encounters.
Wylie – Yodeling with Mongolians
And that in turn led to more and I think some awareness on the part of the embassy in Beijing and the state department that, hey, you know, maybe presenting art that is extraordinary from cultures and communities in America is a really good way to present who Americans are. And, again, away from the ideological struggles that lead you to sort of the metaphor of advancing three yards in a cloud of dust. Let’s just bring Americans and be Americans and let’s work with Chinese to ask them what they want to do with cultural presentation, too.
Jesse Lege - Tippy Toeing
And so in the recent moment we’ve gone abroad to China with a Cajun band for a couple weeks. Some people danced as couples for the first time in their lives in public places in China to Cajun music, then wrote us emails about how it was the most unforgettable moment of their life. And we’re just on the cusp in a couple of days of leaving with the sacred steel bands, the Campbell Brothers, who have received National Heritage Fellowships from the NEA and who are going to bring us essentially sort of a secular form of gospel music, twin steel guitars and music that in our world we might call the voice of the Holy Ghost. I think in China we’ll just refer to it as spirit music.
The Campbell Brothers - Jump for Joy up
AK: you know, I love how dynamic the program is. As you noted earlier, it’s not just music. There’s dancing. There’s oral history workshops, lectures, film showings, so it’s kind of like American Anthropology 101 for the Chinese.
NS: <laughs> Yeah, or top 40 anthropology or something, yeah. You know, history is not just for historians, and music’s not just for musicians. Members of audiences for great books of history and great performances sometimes become historians in their own lives and they sometimes play music and they certainly appreciate it. And I think that if we can't talk to one another about what culture means to us and the arts mean to us we’ve lost a key aspect of our humanity, which is that symbolic realm. And I think for the Chinese to be able to have unfettered access to artists who we might think are extraordinary but not necessarily famous in, say, the terms of Hollywood or Broadway or even the fine arts in modernism, but people are cowboys and farmers and truck drivers who are clearly virtuosic players and capable of talking about their lives. I think it really hit people who live in a society where even the smallest peanut vendor can tell you about Confucian harmony and the meaning of the collective versus the individual. To see people from American communities in this way and talk to them and hear them is to see an America and hear an America that they simply don’t get through either classical performance or bulk-loaded pop culture, for that matter, in China. So, you know, the experience is really riveting for everybody, and I think the Americans on these tours feel-- as one guy said to me, “I feel more American here than I do in America because I sort of have to speak about who I am and what shaped me, but I also don’t have to speak it. I can just, you know, play my music and demonstrate what I can do,” and the value of that becomes apparent to people that I’m here, you know. I’m not here as a famous person. I’m here as somebody who represents a culture and a group in American society. So the responses on both sides have been I think really incredible,
AK: Yeah, and this underscores where I was going next. and that’s this notion of representing American values overseas through culture, which seems to be encapsulated in a term i believe you coined—vernacular cultural diplomacy. would you explain what you mean by that?
NS: I think the vernacular implies something that is the everyday language, but I think we know that in America we have some remarkable vernaculars, and we count jazz as it evolved out of New Orleans traditional music and blues, old time country music as it evolved into country and western, and honky tonk and western swing, and all the different musics that are in America in a sense from Hawaiian to tropical Latin in New York, Klezmer, these are all demonstrations of the pluribus of the society, and so when you’re able to just do that through music and the people that make the music you don’t have to sit around and talk about concepts of diversity. It just is.
So vernacular cultural diplomacy is a great way for people to enjoy one another, to be impressed by the diversity of the arts, and advance I think these lateral relationships unmitigated by the usual ideological-- you know, we compete in politics, we compete in governance, we compete in economy, we’ve competed militarily, we’ve even competed in sports. We don’t have to compete in culture. We can celebrate it.
Wylie and the Wild West – Old Chisholm Trail
AK: That was Nick Spitzer talking about American Routes Abroad in China, and the importance of cultural diplomacy.
NS: And that’s all on American Routes and you can find out where we are at americanroutes.org and more about these programs and what we’re trying to do with vernacular cultural diplomacy and the help of the NEA. And so I’m proud that we can say that our arts agency is supporting the kind of culture that I think actually should be at the forefront of our diplomacy.
AK: And for more stories from the NEA about international arts, please check the latest issue of our magazine online at arts.gov/NEAARTS. Again, that’s arts.gov/NEAARTS.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Adam Kampe. Thanks for listening.
Excerpt of “Morning Train” and "Jump for Joy" by The Campbell Brothers featuring Katie Jackson from the album, Pass Me Not, used courtesy of Arhoolie Records.
Excerpt of "Uber Yodel" by Wylie and the Wild West, from the album Bucking Horse Moon, used courtesy of Western Jubilee Recording Company and by permission of W. Gustafson, Two Medicine (BMI).
Excerpt of "Old Chisholm Trail" by Wylie & the Wild West from the album, Cowboy Ballads and Dance Songs (Wylie and the Wild West) - Anon, Public Domain
Excerpt of "Tippy Toeing" Jesse Lege, Joel Savoy and the Cajun Country Revival, from the album, The Right Combination (Valcour) and used by permission of Bobby Harden, Universal Music-Careers