Besides being a leading purveyor in music, dance, folklore and crafts group instruction and apprentice mentoring, the Augusta Heritage Center is heavily involved in regional folklore, presenting it not only through concerts and workshops but also unearthing and preserving it. Among the early innovations implemented by Blevin was the addition of a folklorist to the year-round staff. Since then, the folklore side of the house has grown to include administrating West Virginias Folk Art Apprenticeship Program as well as producing over 20 recordings of traditional regional music and four video cultural documentaries.
When folklorist Gerry Milnes joined the staff in 1989, never did he suspect that he would become an accomplished filmmaker. In 1993, Milnes and the Augusta produced their first video project titled Helvetia, The Swiss of West Virginia that depicts the timeless traditions of the mountain Swiss community Helvetia where Swiss German is still spoken. Since then, the film has been aired nationally on PBS.
As you might guess, Milnesposition requires the wearing of many hats, ranging from musical instruction, coordinating the Folk Art Apprenticeship Program and two Old-Time Weeks (Summer/Fall) to being Melvin Wines tour liaison, accompanying dance classes, author and conducting field research.
Oftentimes, when Milnes is doing field research, he will knock on the door with fiddle in hand to gain acceptance. Unchanged from the last few centuries, a fiddler in West Virginia still commands respect, a community resource for music and dance. When I show up at somebodys house with a fiddle in my hand,says Milnes. The doors open really fast. And thats a real tool that I use.
Although Milnes has produced all four of Augustas video projects, he has done the last two in-house using digital cameras and a home-built PC that served as an editing suite. Milnes points out that the current revolution in video documentation and the continually downward spiraling PC costs has made such an effort within reach of many now. In the last few years, we have gone from a situation where it took hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce something to where I can build my own computer to edit the film. You dont have to lay out a fortune anymore.
At this rate, he is already planning his next documentary on outsider artists, sometimes referred to as visionary artists, who go beyond the scope of everyday folk art.
Regardless of how high-tech tools make the job easier, Milnesrole as a field researcher basically stays the same. You got to keep your ears open and keep your note pad handy. When you hear about something, write down the contact and follow up. If you do that, it works and usually one thing will lead to another. In the Witchery film (Signs, Cures and Witchery), I identified a couple of key people in the community who were able to put in touch me with lots of other people. So, it is just the process of finding that information and asking questions.
What I try to do is present these people in a respectful way and people, I think, react to that in a good way.
Believe it, they do.