Print Page   |   Contact Us   |   Your Cart   |   Sign In   |   Join AFS
AFS Review: Featured Folklorist

Featured Folklorist: Karen Canning (GLOW Traditions)

Thursday, March 8, 2018   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Lorraine Cashman

Folklorist Karen Canning (black flowered shirt) with tradition bearers Adriana Alatriste and daughter Emily, Marta Aguilar, and tasters at traditional Mexican foods demo, weekly farmers market, Geneseo NY, 2015. Photo by John Rutigliano.


Karen Canning is the founding Director of GLOW Traditions, a regional traditional arts and folklife program for four counties in western New York, established in 1997.  She holds an MA in Ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University, and a BM in Music Theory from Baldwin Wallace University. Her areas of study include traditional American music and dance, and indigenous Mexican popular music.  Karen serves on the 2018 AFS Meeting Planning Committee and was co-chair of the 2002 (Rochester NY) AFS Meeting Planning Committee.

What is your current job, and how does it fit within the field of folklore? What kinds of things do you do day-to-day in this position?

My current job is Director of GLOW Traditions, a traditional arts and folklife program in Western New York. It is shared by the arts councils serving Genesee, Livingston, Orleans and Wyoming counties (hence, GLOW), which lie between Rochester and Buffalo. The work is that of a public sector folklorist: documenting and researching regional traditions, creating public programs, and advocating for traditional artists and communities.

Please briefly describe your career history, paying special attention to how you got from your very first folklore job to your current position. Did you expect to be doing what you are now doing when you entered the field?

I entered the field of folklore through a “side door” of ethnomusicology, with graduate studies at Wesleyan University (MA 1991) focusing on Mexican indigenous wind bands and American traditional music. In the early 1990’s my percussionist husband and I relocated to my home turf in Geneseo, NY to develop world music residencies and school programs with a colleague. Fellow ethnomusicologist and mentor, Jim Kimball (SUNY Geneseo), invited me to the NYS Folk Arts Roundtable in 1994, saying “There are some people here you should meet.” This not only introduced me to a raft of interesting and knowledgeable folklore professionals, but also to the practice and possibility of public sector work. I began doing contractual programming in the region, continuing the foundations laid by Bruce Buckley, Kathryn Kimiecik and Daniel Ward. In 1997, we established a staff folklorist position and folklife program as a collaborative entity among the arts councils, with the guidance of Dan Ward and other regional folklorists and the support of the NYSCA Folk Arts Program. I’ve been fortunate to lead the program from its inception—which really doesn’t seem like 20 years ago!

What goals drive your work? What kinds of impact do you hope to achieve?

Folklorists understand that traditional arts and folklife often operate under the radar of mainstream news and public awareness. At the same time, when people talk about what they value in their community life, it is the very stuff of our discipline that comes out: cherished family traditions; being involved in civic or fraternal groups; weekly meetings of a craft group; the unique culture of their town. We have all been amazed at the skill and artistry of an individual who says, “that’s just what I do.” As a public sector folklorist, some of the best work I can do is that which says to the folk artist, “what you do is valuable,” and to the community, “come see your hidden treasure.”

I work within the structure of rural arts councils with a mostly-White constituency. Within this seemingly homogenous group, however, diverse experiences and juxtapositions emerge: someone who has never been to Canada lives a few blocks away from a SUNY professor who has traveled to more than 25 countries worldwide. An Italian-American grandma who prepares a St. Joseph’s Table every year is unaware of a Mexican migrant family in her town who sets up an ofrenda for Día de los Muertos. A family can choose to raise and grow much of their own food, yet still travel to Rochester or Buffalo in about an hour. These observations are familiar to folklorists, but often are new revelations for the people with whom we work. Interestingly, we have also noticed a perception among some of our constituents that an arts council is a “highbrow” institution, that doesn’t have much relevance for everyday folks (definitely not what we want to project!) We have found that traditional arts and folklife programming can serve as a link among our disparate groups, especially when we highlight themes and experiences that cut across boundaries of ethnicity, education and class. It can create a space for our communities to appreciate an “otherness” that also resonates with them, and perhaps forget about divisive labels for a time.

How does your current work impact the community and region in which you reside? What is, in your mind, the most important professional contribution that you make (or have made) to your community/region?

Promoting traditional arts as integral to the mission and success of our arts councils is, I think, one of the most important contributions I can make. I am also currently working on a joint project with SUNY Geneseo, Jim Kimball, and regional and national partners to establish Kimball’s extensive traditional music collection as a scholarly resource hub at the college. Ethnomusicologist James Kimball is a respected scholar of traditional and popular American music from the colonial era to the mid-20th century and particularly of New York State fiddle and dance traditions. His collected research and fieldwork includes approximately 700-1000 hours of audio and video recordings of individual musicians and bands in performance, informal playing and interview settings; 100+ musical instruments; and musical ephemera from 1820-1950 including sheet music, original manuscript tune books, dance cards, photographs, historical diaries, band posters, newspaper accounts, rare published musical reference books, and decades of research notes and published papers. Most recordings and many items are single copy, unique articles and not duplicated in or accessible through standard research sources. Once made accessible, his work will be a tremendous resource for musicians, students, scholars, community members and researchers worldwide. This project also further connects our non-profit organizations with local and regional educational institutions in a sustainable and relevant endeavor, that will invite additional participation and partners as it develops.

What sorts of issues are most pressing or urgent for the community/ region in which you reside? How do your personal or professional endeavors intersect with these issues?

My community and work region is predominantly rural, with dairy, potatoes, cabbage, onions and orchards comprising the agricultural production. As in other farming regions, the movement has been towards larger and merged farms that requires a workforce increasingly populated by immigrant and refugee laborers. Not surprisingly, these farmworkers can be marginalized by language barriers, geographic isolation, and distrust or fear by the longtime population. This can be especially true with seasonal workers, who may change yearly and are often single men or men without their families. A change over the last 15 or so years, has been an increase in year-round “migrant” farmworkers on dairy farms. In contrast to utilizing 40 workers for a harvest, dairy farms might employ fewer than 10 workers, who may have their families reside with them. Farmers and workers have the chance to get to know one another better, and develop stronger relationships of mutual respect. This has led to more opportunities and support for documentation and programming of immigrant and ethnic traditions in our smaller communities, which is exciting, challenging and gratifying to facilitate. Many of the farmworkers are Hispanic, which is particularly interesting to me, essentially offering a way to continue exploring Mexican musical and arts traditions in “my own backyard.”

How did you come to reside where you now live? What are your favorite aspects of the area or of the local community?

I live a few miles away from where I grew up, with a view out the window of my hometown on the hillside across the Genesee Valley. I have always enjoyed the access to the outdoors, with Letchworth State Park, a greenway trail, the Erie Canal, countless biking routes, and the Finger Lakes all within easy reach. Proximity to Rochester, Buffalo, and several SUNY and other college campuses bring excellent educational and cultural offerings as well. One thing that I have particularly enjoyed about working as a folklorist in my home region, is discovering micro communities that I never considered as I was growing up, or knew existed. One example is an occupational folklore project we conducted about 13 years ago, with workers and families at the Retsof salt mine. I certainly knew about the mine growing up: the huge pile of salt was clearly visible on the hillside, and people would talk about it being a “good year” when the winter was snowy enough to shrink the pile to nothing. But the mine was across the river in the adjacent town, five miles that might as well have been fifty in a child’s experience, and I had no direct connection to the people that worked in or lived next to the mine. As an adult, however, I now live on the “other side” of the river; my children’s school sits next to the original mine site, and my neighbor down the road is one of the mine owners. Interest in documenting the work life of miners and families rose in the early 2000’s as the mine was coming out of some tumultuous times, so we joined in with a folkloric perspective. Quite literally going beneath the surface to explore the mine and its culture, opened my eyes to a world that I really could not have imagined and revealed my ignorance of an entire community. It was a great metaphor for our work, and I carry its lessons with me.

Please briefly describe one or more regional traditions that you’ve studied ethnographically since arriving in the region that you find particularly distinctive or compelling. Tell us how you have presented that work.

An interesting project from 2006-2010, was our documentation and exhibit of the Attica Rodeo. Located in Attica, NY, the rodeo was started by a group of teenage boys and their families in the 1950’s, and has now grown to one of the major events in the eastern circuit. Even with this status, the rodeo remains unknown to many who are not attendees or participants. With the 50th anniversary approaching in 2007, organizers were interested in adding to the festivities and marking their history. Folklorist Claire Aubrey and I worked with the group for two years, interviewing founding families, competitors, clowns, announcers, stock contractors, and fans. We camped out on the grounds for several years during the annual rodeo, gaining a unique behind-the-scenes-look at traditions and arts of the participants, including roping, leatherworking, costuming, gear customization, and the continuing legacy through generations of families. We incorporated arts demonstrations into the anniversary celebration, and then decided that the breadth of the material deserved a full exhibition, which was held in 2010. “A Good Ride: Arts and Traditions of the Attica Rodeo” has since traveled to the Castellani Art Museum and Traditional Arts of Upstate New York, and back to Attica for the 60th anniversary last year. With their catch phrase, “we put the West in western New York,” the fieldwork and exhibit was able to present a tradition with very local roots, that also taps into a national network of cowboy culture.

Given your position on the local committee and your insider knowledge of the area and community, what is the one thing (not related to the AFS Annual Meeting) that folklorists visiting Buffalo can’t afford to miss?

Getting out to see the Erie Canal outside of the city is always a treat, especially in towns like Lockport and Tonawanda. The orchards and fruit stands along Ridge Road (Route 104) are especially beautiful in the fall.

Tell us about your favorite foods unique to Western New York.

Beef on weck sandwiches (thin-sliced roast beef au jus with a salted kimelweck roll and horseradish); the famous Anchor bar wings; sponge candy; chicken barbecue at a different church or social club every week during the summer.

What is the most challenging part of your work?

The most challenging part of my work is getting to all parts of my region, and not engaging with other folklorists in the state as much as I’d like.

From the outside, Buffalo and the surrounding area might seem a lot like the rest of the Rust Belt. What sets it apart?

Central and western New York state has a history of being on the front edge of social and political movements in the early to mid-19th century, when it represented the western edge or frontier of the young nation. The women’s suffrage movement, antislavery and underground railroad networks, and the many religious movements (Mormonism, spiritualism, and others) that were born or active here have left imprints in the mental and physical landscape that we can still see, learn from, and enjoy. A few examples in the region:

National Women’s Rights Museum:

Chautauqua Institution:

Lily Dale:

Susan B Anthony House:

Hill Cumorah Pageant:




Elizabeth Tucker says...
Posted Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Great profile! Thanks very much, Karen, for all you do for arts and folklife in our state.

Career Center
|Open Forums
|Online Store
|Member Search
|Privacy Policy
|Press Room

American Folklore SocietySister Society: SIEF
Classroom-Office Building, Indiana University, 800 East Third Street, Bloomington IN 47405 USA

Headquartered on the campus of Indiana University-Bloomington, AFS appreciates the generous support of the IU College of Arts and Sciences.

Association Management Software Powered by YourMembership  ::  Legal