The Seed and the Story: Learning From Students and Folkstreams films

The Landis family. From the film, A Singing Stream. Image from Davenport Films.

The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring folklife, sustainability, oral history, human rights,and community in Yell County, Arkansas.   The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier.  Please remember to support your local paper and independent media!  The Seed and the Story column is just of many features you can find on the Boiled Down Juice.  Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  If you enjoy our posts, please tell a friend. And thanks for reading!


I’ve had two exiting developments recently. I recently found out this column will be running every week rather than every other week! Thanks so much for your support.  I’m looking forward to more opportunities to learn from readers about this area’s history and its present day, and I’ll be working toward making this column more interactive, featuring more voices from our diverse and culturally rich community.

Secondly, this past week I began teaching an online class at Arkansas Tech entitled “Folklife and Oral History.”  I’m thoroughly impressed with my students and their level of engagement.  I’m a firm believer that the best part of teaching isn’t sharing your own knowledge but rather learning from the students themselves.  Their questions require me to think more deeply about the readings, and their observations are opening my eyes to new ways of conceptualizing the importance of traditions, music, and the role of tradition bearers (a phrase folklorists use for people who carry on traditions) in a community.  Plus, they’re teaching me about their own family and community traditions, which I find endlessly fascinating.

This past week I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to teach a subject like folklife and oral history—a subject that dwells heavily on the past and its role in the present day—in such a modern, online format. I’ll be the first to say that I deeply appreciate the lines of communication the Internet provides.  It can be a tool for greater democracy and a way to reestablish connections lost over the miles or years.  Yet I feel strongly that younger generations could use more exposure to a life a bit more unplugged.  Funny how online resources can actually introduce students to traditions that are decades, even centuries, old. So last week I had the students watch a few films via Folkstreams, an Internet site housing hundreds of folklife films.

To give them an introduction to traditional singing styles I chose two films: A Singing Stream: A Black Family Chronicle produced by Tom Davenport and Alemda Riddle:  Let’s Talk About Singing produced by George West. The first film explores traditional African American gospel music as it is passed down in the Landis family from rural North Carolina.  The film highlights how music plays a key role in the family’s fight for civil rights and provides an example of how a study of traditional music opens a window into family, political, and community histories.  This musical link to the past provides a source of strength to fight for a more just future.

The second film profiles Ozark ballad singer Alemda Riddle, a woman who lived her entire life near Greers Ferry, Arkansas.  The well-known ballad Hunter, John Quincy Wolfe, met her in 1952, and began recording her songs, some which dated back to the 16th century.  Riddle became a hero of the folk revival and recorded and traveled extensively.  The songs she was singing may have been hundreds of years old, but her role as a widow traveling the country made her quite a radical figure in her day and age.

Many of the students noted how this traditional music, centuries old, can provide a source of strength for the present day and how the music was a tie linking family members across generations and miles. As I watched the two films together, I began to notice how each individual, in their own unique way, held on to the past with one hand while reaching out for the future with the other. And ultimately that’s what a healthy tradition is about: a link to the past that builds a bridge to a better future.  You can watch these, and countless other folklife films, at  I love hearing stories and traditions from readers.   Or send me a letter with your stories.  I especially love those.