Discovering 'Baton Rouge Traditions': Maida Owens talks Louisiana Folklife Program's cultural collection

Friday, 01 December 2017, 01:48:46 AM. Maida Owens, director of the Louisiana Folklife Program, had crisscrossed the state helping musicians, storytellers and craftspeople present their work to the world. But she had never really focused on

Maida Owens, director of the Louisiana Folklife Program, had crisscrossed the state helping musicians, storytellers and craftspeople present their work to the world. But she had never really focused on her hometown of Baton Rouge.

“I was aware of Baton Rouge’s identity issues,” she said. “People feel like we don’t have anything notable.”

But Owens knew better, so she set out to prove it. The result is "Baton Rouge Traditions," a virtual book available at louisianafolklife.org. 

The e-book features more than three dozen essays by Owens and 22 other folklorists and writers about how Baton Rouge works, plays, creates art, gives to the less fortunate and worships.

Baton Rouge can appear to be “plain vanilla” compared with New Orleans and Lafayette, Owens said, partly because the latter two cities have more organizations that present the local culture to residents and tourists throughout the year. While many Baton Rouge cultural groups hold annual public events and presentations, such as Festival Latino and St. Joseph’s Altars, long-standing traditions often remain hidden in private or sacred spaces.

Owens says capital cities, and cities like Baton Rouge that saw rapid growth during the rise of suburbia, often suffer from “low folk cultural esteem.” Baton Rouge’s contemporary artists generally don’t incorporate local traditions, she adds.

“There are some exceptions,” she said. “But nothing on the scale of Lafayette and New Orleans, where the local culture shows up in the contemporary artwork.”

"Baton Rouge Traditions" was compiled over five years using $130,000 in grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Contractors conducted interviews, took photos, created field reports and wrote essays to be posted online. While some were locals, others came from out of state with “fresh eyes,” Owens said.

“Sometimes it takes outsiders to point out things that you just took for granted,” she said, such as the many large church choirs found in the city. “Nationally, the choirs are declining, but not here.”

While they might not know all the details, local readers probably won’t be surprised by much in the "Baton Rouge Traditions" essay about the “Legends and Lore of the State Capitol,” which includes stories about ghosts and former Gov. Huey Long’s shenanigans.

If you know anything at all about the local blues scene, you’ve probably heard of East Feliciana Parish native Larry Garner.

And if you’ve lived in the Baton Rouge area for a while, or visited during Mardi Gras weekend, you’ve probably been to the Spanish Town Mardi Gras parade.

But even third-generation Baton Rouge natives likely will learn about traditions they didn’t know existed in their hometown, such as Chinese folk dancing and the Vietnamese Moon Festival. The African-American experience, in business, worship, music and crafts, is also well-represented throughout the virtual book.

“Baton Rouge has a very rich cultural heritage that continues to expand and grow,” said Renee Chatelain, president and CEO of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge. “We don’t really brand it or collectively market it.”

"Baton Rouge Traditions" can be a useful tool for business, government and cultural organizations looking to promote the city to visitors and residents, Chatelain said. She expects to include some of the artists identified by the project in the Arts Council’s annual Ebb and Flow Festival, scheduled for April.

All of the survey's documentation materials are to be archived in the Folklife Program's Special Collection at LSU's Hill Memorial Library. Field reports are public documents available upon request to organizations wanting to use the research.

Owens considers Baton Rouge a “cultural microcosm of Louisiana.”

“I was really focused on identity, and trying to reveal who Baton Rouge is,” she said. “But there’s so much more [to discover]. We did 144 interviews, and we barely scratched the surface.”

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