UNC Library’s Southern Folklife Collection and the Friends of the Library Present the Masters of Cajun Accordion Festival at The ArtsCenter on Sunday, October 1st


Interview: Steve Weiss
Posted by Jenks Miller


Residents of Chapel Hill/Carrboro enjoy proximity to one of America’s foremost archival resources for American folk music and popular culture, UNC Library’s Southern Folklife Collection. The SFC grew out of the Curriculum in Folklore at UNC – which was itself among the country’s first graduate programs in folklore when it was established in 1940 – and features materials documenting the development of all folk musics endemic to the South, including old-time, country-western, hillbilly, bluegrass, blues, folk, gospel, rock and roll, Cajun and zydeco. The collection spans an impressive range of media: according to the library, the SFC now contains “over 250,000 sound recordings, 3,000 video recordings and 8 million feet of motion picture film as well as tens of thousands of photographs, song folios, posters, manuscripts, books, serials, research files and ephemera.”


One of the challenges facing public archival collections of this size is how to make them accessible not only to researchers, but to the populations they represent. To meet this demand for accessibility, the SFC regularly presents lectures, concerts, and viewings of its materials, often curated to reflect certain topics of interest in today’s popular culture. In this way, archives like the Southern Folklife Collection ensure that we remain informed by our many histories.


The next event to feature materials from the SFC archives will be the Masters of Cajun Accordion Festival, presented by the SFC and the Friends of the Library at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro on Sunday, October 1st. This event celebrates the forthcoming release of Swampland Jewels, a compilation of classic Cajun music produced in a new partnership between the SFC and Hillsborough’s Yep Roc Records. We spoke with Steve Weiss, Curator of the Southern Folklife Collection, about the history of the archive and the details of the Masters of Cajun Accordion Festival.


The ArtsCenter: First off, I wanted to get a little background on the Southern Folklife Collection for readers who may be unfamiliar with the special collections archives at UNC. The SFC is unique not only in its significant size: it also feels more outward-facing, or interactive, than many cultural archives concerned primarily with preservation. Was the SFC originally designed as a platform for festivals, conferences, and publications, or did that function develop as the archive grew over the years?


Steve Weiss: When the Southern Folklife Collection first opened in 1989, it was celebrated with a large event called Sounds of the South which included an academic conference, a concert (held at the ArtsCenter!) and was followed up with a book of the conference proceedings. Ten years later, when I started as the director of the collection, the SFC was co-publishing our second book, a major reference work entitled Country Music Sources which spawned another academic symposium. Since then I’ve made public programming and publications a more active part of our mission, culminating now in our partnership with YepRoc Records.


TAC: This year, the SFC has been involved in presentations on depression-era grassroots music and left-wing politics (March’s “Depression Folk” lecture and concert); the twenty-five year partnership between farmworkers and students in the Southeast, as chronicled in Student Action with Farmworkers’ archive of photographs and oral histories (August’s “Más de Una Historia”); and the legacy of Eno River conservation efforts (August’s “Saving the River One Song at a Time: The Eno River Festival Legacy”); among other themes. The topics here feel less like dry history and more like the living and breathing issues currently debated in our state politics and across the Southeast at large. Looking at the SFC’s activity since the 2016 election season, I’m reminded of that famous Faulkner quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” To what extent are the SFC’s various activities informed by today’s headlines and political discourse? Do you make an active effort to engage on these issues, or is this another example of history’s seemingly inescapable cyclical nature?


SW: Great question! It is inevitable, because of where we live and the important work done by grassroots organizations in our community.  The work documented by the materials in the library is never really dead, only dusty if there is no one to make sure it is promoted to the public.


TAC: The Masters of Cajun Accordion Festival, which will be presented by the SFC and the Friends of the Library here at The ArtsCenter on October 1st, features a free 6:00pm lecture from Barry Jean Ancelet, aka Jean Arceneaux, a Cajun folklorist, author, poet, and lyricist. Before retiring from the University of Louisiana Lafayette faculty, Ancelet gave a talk on “the theory and practice of activist folklore” for UL Lafayette’s Last Lecture series. Some of us may associate folklore with storytelling and oral history, but this sounds different. What do folklorists mean by “activist folklore?” Do you know what Ancelet will be speaking about on October 1st?


SW: I’ve invited Barry to speak on the Cajun Music. I’m not familiar with the definition of “activist folklore” as Barry has presented it, but it isn’t hard to imagine as the role of the folklorist is working with communities, and confronting the issues communities face is inescapable. Of the collections in the SFC, the late folklorist Guy Carawan comes to mind as a great example as he was actively involved in voter rights issues while living in the Johns Island, SC community and recording fieldwork.


TAC: The festival also features a ticketed 7:30pm concert by Jo-El Sonnier with Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. Both Sonnier and Riley are living legends of the accordion, with records on Rounder, Mercury, RCA, and Capitol, among other labels (Sonnier’s cover of Richard Thompson’s upbeat and tragicomic “Tear-Stained Letter” was a country radio hit single in the 1988). Will there be two separate sets, or will Sonnier perform with Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys? What can audiences expect from these artists in a live setting? 


SW: Jo-El will be performing in a small trio setting. Steve will be playing with the Mamou Playboys. I imagine there will be some nice collaborations during the show.


TAC: What else does the Southern Folklife Collection have in store for 2017? Will we see more presentations in off-campus locations in Chapel Hill and Carrboro like The ArtsCenter?


SW: On October 26th, we will be presenting an evening with banjoist and scholar Stephen Wade who will be performing music from his new Smithsonian Folkways CD Across the Amerikee: Showpieces from Coal Camp to Cattle Trail. That event will be held in Wilson Library. In early 2018 the SFC will release our second album with YepRoc, a live recording of Doc Watson at the beginning of his solo career in 1963. We hope to do something for the record release at MerleFest this Spring.


More information:


Masters of Cajun Accordion Festival


Presented by the Southern Folklife Collection and the Friends of the Library


Date: October 1st, 2017
Location: The ArtsCenter in Chapel Hill
Tickets: www.artscenterlive.org.




5:30pm Reception, Nicholson Gallery/Lobby


6:00pm Lecture: Barry Jean Ancelet (University of Louisiana, Lafayette), West End Theater


7:30pm Concert: Jo-El Sonnier with Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Earl & Rhoda Wynn Theater


Concert is ticketed. Reception and lecture are free and open to the public. CD/LP bundles include a copy of the record Swampland Jewels.


For more information contact Liza Terll, Friends of the Library,  liza_terll@unc.edu(919) 548-1203