June 11, 2009

YPM Special Edition

Hey everybody. I just got news that my favorite West Virginia music festival, the Stonewall Jackson Jubilee, will be canceled for 2009. It's an understatement to say that I'm extremely disappointed/depressed about this.

On my other blog, I wrote a lengthy piece about the festival and thought it would be appropriate here.

Here's my post copied in full:

If you know me, or if you've clicked around on my profile, you know that beyond geography and education, my real passion in life is old-time music.

I come from Appalachia where music is always nearby, and my in-laws (The Samples Brothers) are pretty well-known in West Virginia.

Old-time music is a great communal experience. The tunes are public domain, the community is always eager to teach, it's social... it's just fun.

Pretty much every state has one or more old-time festivals where people get together in the early summer or fall. West Virginia is particularly good about preserving its cultural heritage through traditional music and crafts festivals. Some of the more well-known festivals are Clifftop, Vandalia, and Augusta Heritage.

One of the lesser known festivals in the state is the Jackson's Mill Jubilee (officially the Stonewall Jackson Heritage Arts and Crafts Jubilee). The connection to Stonewall is that the site is his boyhood home, back when the state was still part of Virginia. The mill and some of the structures are still there, and today it's the site of a 4-H camp.

Since 1974, my in-laws and many of West Virginia's (and North America's, quite frankly) finest traditional musicians have spent Labor Day weekend playing music and buying and selling crafts at the Jubilee. It has always been smaller than some of the other festivals, but that was part of its charm. For many families that have been with the festival since the beginning, it's kind of like Christmas in September.

Interest and attendance have slowly dwindled since peaking in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Every year there was talk of having to drop the festival all together. In 2008, with the economy completely in the gutter, attendance was down... way down. Immediately it became difficult to finance the operation through gate admissions.

Aside from gate admissions, a big source of revenue for the festival has been to rent a space to artists and crafters. In the past, festivals like the Jubilee were the best place to get those handmade traditional products. Now, with gas expensive and attendance at festivals down, it's more worth it for a crafter to stay home and sell on sites like Etsy or other web stores. For those same reasons, it's more worth it for consumers to stay at home and just order online.

As if those two financial difficulties were not enough, the traditional financier, WVU-Extension, has also had to make budget adjustments, and we all know how the arts tend to fare during budget discussions.

These three blows, all related to the recession in their own way, finally took the Jubilee down this year. As the Weston Democrat reports:
In an emergency session Monday night, the board of directors of the Stonewall Jackson Heritage Arts and Crafts Jubilee made a difficult decision. Following a lengthy and sad and sober discussion, they overwhelmingly voted to cancel this year’s Jubilee, an event which has been held over Labor Day weekend at WVU-Jackson’s Mill for the past 35 years. The decision came five days after Jubilee president Debra Walker received a letter from David Miller, Associate Provost, West Virginia University Extension, saying that they would be bowing out of the event. After contacting his office two more times, they found out that the $50,000-$75,000 financial sponsorship of the Jubilee as promised by him in a meeting in January would not be forthcoming.
Most of the recession stories I've read thus far have not pertained to me. I don't own property or a house. I don't have investments. I don't work in the financial industry. It's hard to put into words, but this one stings. This disrupts a significant cultural heritage event, it means family and friends won't be getting together, and it could speed up the decline of traditional culture in Appalachia.

On the one hand, my post here is a personal story about the recession... something that almost everybody has. On the other hand, I think there is something here that people beyond my personal sphere can appreciate.

While we celebrate how the web decentralizes and democratizes the arts, how it opens up shops to more customers for more crafters, we also need to be aware of what we're giving up. People getting together means something. Being able to do a custom search on Etsy is nice, but not if it comes at the expense of actual craft shows. Being able to download music and see videos online about old-time music is nice, but not if it means the death of festivals.

I realize that the closure of the Jubilee has more to do with the recession than with the internet. But the internet does play an undeniable role in the revenue generated from the crafters. Some people paid admission just for that. When then crafters stopped coming, rents went down, and so did admissions.

In reality, Etsy and actual craft shows will co-exist, they may even bolster each other. But the benefits will likely accrue in particular places. The Portlands of the world, the Bostons, the Albuquerques, they'll be fine. People live there already, they don't have to go out their way; in academic terms, they benefit from agglomeration effects. The Westons of the world, the places that are harder and more expensive to get to, the small towns... they will likely suffer. It's good for the customer, it's good for the seller, but it's not good for the community in those instances.

That's why geography will continue to matter in the digital age. Instead of the internet bringing about the "death of distance" like many people expected, the internet increases the relevance of place. Paradoxically, since some communication and economic activity can be diffused by using the web, some communities will be left out. Geographic differences will be more pronounced. When it comes to communal experiences, distance will matter even more.

We need to ask ourselves if a "flat world" is what we truly want. Part of the beauty of art is being able to interact with the artist. The joy of music is best appreciated live; this is especially true of old-time music, which is an experience that cannot be downloaded. As I've said many times on here, I love the internet, I'm not one to denounce change just because it's different. I do think, however, that the way we think about the digital age needs to be more grounded in reality. That reality should include places that are left out; god knows there are lots of them.

The music and arts in Weston will survive, no doubt, but they will take a severe blow this year. It's been hard news to take. Hopefully next year it will be back, and hopefully it will be able to pick up where it left off.

Here I can show you what you're missing, but it's just a crude facsimile. This is more of an experience than it is a audio/visual exercise. Nonetheless, here's a taste from the 2008 Jubilee. In what I hope was not their last performance there, here's my in-laws playing through their set.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons license "attribution-noncommercial-no derivative works" from Flickr user SpoiltCat

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