When we first interviewed Carol Fran for our Still Singing the Blues documentary, we knew immediately that she was a national treasure. The blues she sings are rooted in Louisiana’s swampy soil, from the throaty emotionality of her 1957 hit Emmitt Lee to the French Creole language she uses in Tou’ les jours c’est pas la meme (Every Day Is Not the Same). Her story of reinvention, particularly after she married her musical partner Clarence Hollimon, is classically American. And she toured with some of the great musicians of the 20th century, including Ray Charles and Jimmy Reed. Like many American musicians, she’s been more appreciated by fans in Europe (and Latin America) than by her own countrymen.
So we were delighted when the National Endowment for the Arts named Fran a 2013 National Heritage Fellow, given to practicing artists who are “worthy of national recognition and have a record of continuing artistic accomplishment.” Each fellow receives a $25,000 honorarium.
Last Friday, Richard Ziglar and I drove to Washington, D.C., to attend a performance featuring all nine 2013 fellows, who included musicians, a sculptor, and two Native American tradition bearers. Carol Fran—accompanied by her godson, “Piano Prince of New Orleans” Davell Crawford—was the final act. She traded some Louisiana-style repartee with host Nick Spitzer before launching into a jazzy version of the standard Anytime, Anyday, Anywhere. She followed up with Emmitt Lee and Tou’ les jours c’est pas la meme. After the fierce applause died down, all nine winners stormed the stage, along with friends and family, as Fran led them in rousing versions of This Little Light of Mine and When the Saints Go Marching In.
You can watch her on the above video by fast-forwarding to 1:45:36. But I hope you won’t skip ahead, because the eight artists who proceeded Fran delighted and inspired us, and offered a vision of the United States at its richest. It’s a unique treat to hear Ralph Burns of Nixon, Nevada, tell the creation myth of his tribe, the Pyramid Lake Paiute, and, in the same evening, listen to Nicolae Feraru, an immigrant from Romania, as he plays Gypsy and Romanian tunes at breakneck speeds on the cimbalom (a dulcimer-like string instrument). Not to mention enjoying the ballads of our home state of North Carolina performed by Sheila Kay Adams, of the Sodom community, who threw in a couple of mildly off-color jokes to enliven the evening further. Sacred Harp singing from Alabama; Irish fiddling from Maine; dance from Washington State’s Lummi tribe—this was our country at its most diverse.
It wasn’t a watered-down version, either. Some of the artists discussed the issues they cared about the most. Ramón “Chunky” Sánchez, a guitarist and vocalist who was invited by César Chávez to perform at United Farm Worker rallies and marches, talked and sang about the labor, immigration, and education issues that motivate him. Verónica Castillo, a ceramicist from San Antonio, showed off a sculpture that warned of the perils of global warming.
As the federal government was headed toward a shutdown, I thought about all the divisiveness in Washington, and all the unity inside George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. And I thought to myself: If this is what American culture means, I’m in.
– Barry Yeoman
Above photo courtesy of NEA.