Ted Kooser and the Wessels Living History Farm

The Wessels Living History Farm of York, Nebraska offers visitors the best of both worlds: a hands-on chance to view an operating farm in the Central Plains as well as the opportunity to then go home and learn a great deal more through their online resources. The Farm’s site presents a decade-by-decade overview of agriculture in the twentieth-century (with Quicktime interviews) and also focuses on many of the cultural events surrounding life on the farm. There’s a great deal of audio and visual presentations here, and, to the Farm’s credit, much of this is geared towards educating younger generations about rural culture. This is a fantastic site with enough to read and watch to keep one busy through a long winter’s afternoon.
The site also features a selection of poems by former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. A Nebraska native, Kooser has received many accolades for his clear eye and revealing use of detail to evoke a place and a people that is at once local and universal. Aside from his collections of poetry, Kooser also published a well-received memoir about life in Southeastern Nebraska: Local Wonders.
Ted Kooser reads his poem “Tillage Marks,” along with others, from his home in Nebraska’s Bohemian Alps region here. Mr. Kooser also writes The American Life in Poetry column, which is offered each week, free of charge, to newspapers and online publications across the country.


Lance Ledbetter’s record label Dust-To-Digital is one of the finest examples of how younger generations are continuing the mission of John Cohen, Alan Lomax and Harry Smith. Ledbetter, who was recently named by Utne Magazine as one of the “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World,” first released the lavish and meticulously-documented Goodbye, Babylon box set in 2004. The set was nominated for a Grammy (as with so many of his subsequent releases) and has continued to gather praise from artists as various as Bob Dylan, Brian Eno and Arcade Fire. The five discs of religious music contained in Goodbye, Babylon have their place alongside Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music as one of the finest documents of American music culture–rural or otherwise.
While I hope to feature and discuss many of these releases in greater detail soon, for now I will include below a short two-part piece that was featured on the This is Atlanta PBS Program. It’s an inspiring overview of the record label and is guaranteed to send you to their site to sample this powerful music.

The Madison County Project

I recently discovered the 2005 documentary The Madison County Project: Documenting the Sound on Folkstreams, an excellent and richly-exhaustive site that “streams” new independent documentaries as well as rare out-of-print films about folklife and rural culture. Here’s a word from Folkstreams:

Madison County Project: Documenting the Sound examines the tradition of unaccompanied ballad singing in Madison County, North Carolina and how both documentary work and the power of family and community have influenced that tradition. The film focuses on John Cohen and Peter Gott’s film and recording work in Madison County in the 1960s as well as the voices of today’s ballad singers such as Sheila Kay Adams, Donna Ray Norton, Denise Norton O’Sullivan, and DeeDee Norton Buckner. The film is a joint project between two graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Part of the project is to create a more transparent form of documentary that invites participation from those featured in the film, advisors, and the general public.

While this short film tells a compelling story and captures both the gravity and joy of these ballads, it also discusses the rift Cohen and Gott experienced after these singers they had befriended found themselves on Folkways records and began to distrust the recording process. Though this film covers the history of the Madison County ballad singers, it also reveals how their descendants are discovering the economic (as well as the cultural) value of this tradition. It’s a shining example of the role the arts can play in community sustainability.
The Madison County Project’s official site is also well-worth visiting. Further videos and interviews are contained therein, as is an interactive time-line of the ballad tradition (from 1300 to 2009!) and biographies of the singers.