The Twelfth Annual Ralph Rinzler Memorial Concert in 2006 was a tribute to Joseph T. Wilson, Executive Director of the National Council for Traditional Arts from 1976-2004 and a long-time collaborator of Ralph's and the Folklife Festival's. The concert spotlighted Joe's retirement project, "The Crooked Road", Virginia's Heritage Music Trail, officially designated by the Virginia General Assembly in 2004 to promote 250 miles of highways and backroads that meander through Southwestern Virginia from the Piedmont Plateau to the coalfields of the Cumberland Mountains.
Joe, writing in the guide to The Crooked Road, explained that "Virginia is one of the places where America invented its music. ... This music is the old fiddle and banjo sounds which have roots in Northern Europe, West Africa and colonial America." And, he continued, this "music from early America, treasured by musical families and small communities, is keeping to small places and instruction close to the hearth." The Crooked Road project was a careful attempt to share this regional music without destroying it. Joe and his colleagues in this effort were confident that the tradition was strong and its artists hearty. In local parlance, "taking the crooked road" also means playing an older fiddle tune, too difficult for an ensemble to tackle because it doesn't always follow a single line and offers a few too many unexpected twists. This sums up this individualistic region, its music, and one of its sons, Joe Wilson.
The 2006 Festival also featured a series of special concerts, Been in the Storm So Long, presenting the music of New Orleans. The spirit and sound of New Orleans music, in all of its forms, are heard and felt around the globe. Even today's urban hip hop has given birth to a local rhythmic version called "bounce." New Orleans has remained among the most important and influential music centers in the world. Its laidback lifestyle, family traditions, close community ties, Creole humor, amazing cuisine, and unique view of life promised to ensure that the communal flame and rhythms that run from Congo Square through jazz, gospel, rhythm & blues, the Mardi Gras Indians, funk, and brass bands would continue to sustain its traditions while giving birth to new and exciting music forever.
However, the arrival of Hurricane Katrina of August 29, 2005, dealt a devastating blow to New Orleans - one that has threatened the city's physical, social, cultural, and economic future. More than 1500 Louisianans perished and hundreds were injured. Many homes, businesses, and buildings were destroyed or severely damaged. At the time of the 2006 Festival, nearly a year after the storm, several hundred thousand area residents remained outside of the city or state, as many neighborhoods were abandoned and in ruin, with little or no sign of recovery. A scarcity of jobs, housing, schools, medical services, and other basic needs, as well as environmental and health concerns, left over two-thirds of the pre-Katrina population questioning how, when, and if they could ever return home.
The neighborhoods that produced generations of musicians, social clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, and eccentric characters that gave New Orleans its identity were devastated, their populations displaced, dispersed, and focused on basic survival, not celebration. Many realized that the disaster was not yet over, as they struggled a year later with a difficult and confusing process of rebuilding.
In the year following the hurricane, many musicians were the focus of relief organizations and assistance. Some had been performing steadily around the world. Several musicians had relocated for the long term, citing better conditions and pay in other cities. The fate of New Orleans's musical traditions and cultural heritage was in serious jeopardy, as it was still not clear whether and when residents could return to rebuild their lives. While some predicted the demise of century-old cultural traditions, others believed that tragedy would inspire musical creativity or lead the New Orleans sound farther, influencing other styles wherever displaced musicians reside.
As the vulnerable city struggled for recovery and identity almost a year after Katrina, only time would tell if, when, and how much of the magic city would return. The Festival program offered a good occasion to reflect upon and savor the unique sound, spirit, and euphoria that New Orleans's musical traditions have shared with the nation and the world for generations, and to allow Washington audiences, once again, to enjoy those vibrant musical expressions.
Richard Kennedy was Coordinator of the Ralph Rinzler Memorial Concert. Michael White was Curator of the Been in the Storm So Long concerts; John Franklin was liaison with National Museum of African American History and Culture; and Chuck Siler was presenter. Been in the Storm So Long was produced in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Established by Congress in 2003, the museum is devoted to the documentation of African American life, art, history, and culture. The museum's exhibitions cover topics as varied as slavery, post-Civil War Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights movement. Additional funding was provided by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.