In February, Emily Hilliard came to Whitesburg, Kentucky, for an oral history workshop and celebration of her new book, Making Our Future: Visionary Folklore and Everyday Culture in Appalachia. During her workshop, people shared stories of what brought them to the space–the crowd was wildly varied in interest. Many wanted to collect family histories, a local forest ranger wanted to explore people’s relationships with a local old-growth forest, and one artist was excited by comic strips as an ethnographic tool. Emily’s writing and teaching demystified folklore–removing it from its assumed context as something from the faraway past, showcasing the ways that we engage in acts of vernacular culture every day.
Tucker Leighty-Phillips: How does it feel to have Making Our Future out in the world? How long was this book in development?
Emily Hilliard: This book is really the result of conversations with the communities, artists, practitioners, musicians, whose work and creative practice I’ve learned from and write about, as well as dialogues with other folklorists, cultural workers, writers, and texts. Having the book out in the world feels like an opening up of those conversations, an invitation to include readers–who may also be artists, cultural workers, thinkers, community members, colleagues, and friends. It’s been exciting to see what perspectives others bring to the book and take from it and I’m looking forward to those conversations and learning process continuing.
I think I started working on the book proposal in 2018, but Making Our Future draws mainly from fieldwork I did as the West Virginia state folklorist, a position I started in November 2015.
TLP: Tell me about your role as state folklorist–when you accepted the position, did you have an idea of the type of fieldwork you’d be conducting? Was there freedom for exploration in the role? Were you envisioning writing a book prior to this position?
EM: Starting the West Virginia state folklorist job, I knew that the primary priority at least initially, was conducting fieldwork across the state with traditional artists, practitioners, and cultural communities. I had an idea of what some of that might look like, but really wanted to hear directly from people and communities in West Virginia about what they thought was important and what traditions should be documented and how best they could be supported. In that sense, there was ample freedom within my organization to be responsive to that input and feedback. For instance, I was able to go to the Capitol most days during the 2018 West Virginia Educators’ Strike to record speeches, take photos, and interview participants.
I wasn’t envisioning writing a book until I had been in the position for several years. We shared stories from fieldwork in other ways–through short video documentaries, radio stories, articles, the West Virginia Folklife Program blog and social media, and a digital archive—but sometimes I felt that shorter storytelling formats didn’t allow enough of an opportunity to really dig into the complexity and historical background of the traditions I was exploring. I saw a book format as a way to do that, and also was excited about the challenge of writing a book.
TLP: One of the things that interests me about this book is how you expand the layperson’s general understanding of folklore. For example, before this book, I had never considered how hot dog ingredients can be indicative of a people or culture! Your book feels like the folkloric companion to Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, which you reference in the wrestling chapter (wrestling being a topic you both discuss; one as myth, the other as folk tradition). Have you found the people you focus on to be receptive to their work as folklore? Are they surprised to discover you’re covering/showcasing their work through such a lens?
EM: Yes, I do think that folklore/folklife as a concept generally makes sense to most people, because they know it and experience it and engage with it as part of their everyday lives! And while I personally understand something like wrestling as folklore and see it through that lens because it’s how I have learned to be attuned to culture, it’s also the practitioners themselves who often affirm this. In the case of the wrestlers I interviewed, many of them told me that they identify as storytellers outright, before I even asked.
TLP: While reading your book, I was charmed by so much of the imagination and innovation of small towns, small businesses, and the cultures associated with these places. Yet I kept wondering—as our society leans closer and closer to “Mcdonaldization,” as massive corporations like Amazon and Wal-Mart continue to grow and displace local, smaller businesses and homogenize in the name of efficiency—is there still possibility for the vernacular to exist and prosper in spaces that are growing more and more standardized?
EM: In short, yes. I believe vernacular culture will always exist, because I believe in people and their creativity, though it is true that homogenization and corporatization and all that that brings (including low wage precarious work, exploitation, and environmental destruction) certainly threatens existing cultural traditions. As Mary Hufford says, the many forms of folklore are “spoken, sung, danced, cooked, hunted, sewn, cultivated, and built around the cracks of a hegemonic order that is never complete.” I think of the creative signs posted on the bulletin board of the Bigley Piggly Wiggly in Charleston, the murals painted on the wall at the truck stop in Jane Lew, or the decoration of cakes and cookies in every Walmart bakery department. Folklife finds a way.
TLP: You are also the co-owner and operator of a record label, SPINSTER, alongside Michelle Dove and Sally Anne Morgan. Given that the preservation and amplification of different musical traditions is one of the primary aspects of running a label, it feels like a natural pairing for a folklorist. Are there ways these two positions feed into one another for you?
EM: Definitely. The most concrete connection with the book and my folklore work and the label is that we’re working on a release of songs by Ella Hanshaw, one of four women I write about in the chapter “So I May Write of All These Things,” on the private, familial, and/or communal creative practice of nonprofessional women songwriters in West Virginia. Ella wrote original gospel songs and toured West Virginia churches performing in a country gospel quartet with her husband Tracy and another couple in the 1980s. Her granddaughter also found some tapes of devastatingly beautiful original lonesome housewife country songs Ella wrote when she was younger, and so the album will be split with one side of her original secular songs and the other of original gospel.
Before I took the state folklorist job in West Virginia, I was working at Smithsonian Folkways, the record label of the national museum, and was applying my folklore training to the production, editing, and marketing of our releases. That work, and a general folkloric outlook on music—particularly vernacular music—informs how we approach our releases at SPINSTER. We don’t focus on one genre in particular, but are generally interested in the intersections between experimental, vernacular, and radical music traditions.
TLP: The chapter on Fallout 76 discusses how the virtual documentation and portrayal of Helvetia, West Virginia’s Fasnacht festival had an impact on the actual town and festival itself–seeing increased attendance and interest from fans of the game. Although much of this attention was positive (a larger understanding of Helvetia’s cultural traditions, increased income to support the town), there was also the risk of the town becoming overwhelmed by the attention it received. How do you and other folklorists deal with navigating the role of documenting traditions while also mitigating potential adverse effects?
EM: The impact of your work—both negative and positive—is always something you have to take into account when considering documenting cultural traditions and then potentially sharing that documentation with the world. And sometimes you may not even know the impact until much later! Though there might be a very compelling story you’d like to share, sometimes it doesn’t make sense to tell it—you might not be the right person to tell that particular story because of your own positionality, or you could be putting a community or individual involved at risk. That might be for any number of reasons—because someone is undocumented, or they’re running an uncertified underground food business, or because sharing their perspective could compromise their livelihood or well-being, or like in the case of Fasnacht in Helvetia, it could have the potential to overwhelm a volunteer-run event in a small town and alter a community tradition without the community’s consent.
TLP: I’ve heard you discuss the role of expressive culture in labor, namely protest and work solidarity songs, and in your book, you put them in conversation with the memes and signage of the West Virginia Teacher’s Strike. Online subculture is a huge place for expressive culture, which feels like it is being produced, shared, and replicated at incredible rates. How do folklorists and historians keep up with the rate of production in these realms? Does digital archiving across social platforms make this work easier to collect and preserve?
EM: The speed at which memes are generated and move through cycles of trendiness and popularity does present challenges for collecting, as it can be difficult to discern in the moment what is worth collecting. At the same time, digital formats can also make collection easier, because they are readily available and accessible. There are web archivists at the Library of Congress whose job is to determine what is significant, unique, or might be of use to future researchers, and catalog it in the Web Cultures Web Archive. While that’s a fairly broad collection, there are also initiatives that have a more specific focus—like the Vermont Folklife Center’s collection of over 1500 Bernie memes.
TLP: Has this book motivated you to want to take on a similar project about your home state of Indiana?
EM: Honestly, no. I’m not trying to embark on any kind of ill-fated Sufjan Stevens type undertaking here! Haha. While Making Our Future is very much embedded in West Virginia, I also think of it as a case study that is broadly applicable to vernacular culture and community life in other places, so it wouldn’t make sense to replicate that project elsewhere. I’d want to do something new. The fieldwork I did for Making Our Future was also conducted through the specific lens and position of my work as the West Virginia state folklorist. In some ways, I consider it the annotated companion to the West Virginia Folklife Collection, which has all the raw interviews, photos, videos, transcripts, and other materials from the fieldwork I did with traditional artists and cultural communities across the state. I will say though, that the Indiana state folklorist and I have tossed around the idea of me doing a short-term fieldwork project with cultural communities in northern Indiana where I grew up.
TLP: What’s next for you?
EM: I have some book events over the next few months and I’m looking forward to continuing to share and discuss that work with colleagues and readers. I’m not sure what’s next for me in terms of a writing project, but I have a few ideas I’m still developing. I’m going to be working with the Oxford American on a podcast segment on Appalachian craft, and on the SPINSTER side of things, we’re working on a themed compilation tape and a couple of archival projects (including the Ella Hanshaw album I mentioned) that I’m very excited about putting out in the world.
Tucker Leighty-Phillips is a writer from Southeastern Kentucky. He is the author of the short story collection Maybe This Is What I Deserve (Split/Lip Press, June 2023). He lives in Whitesburg, Kentucky, where he works for Appalshop’s Roadside Theater. Learn more at TuckerLP.net.