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AFS Review: Featured Folklorist

Featured Folklorist: Hannah Davis (New York Folklore Society)

Monday, June 4, 2018   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Rosalind V. Rini Larson

Hannah Davis is the Upstate New York Regional Representative for Folk Arts at the New York Folklore Society. She holds a BA in Folklore and Ethnomusicology from Indiana University and an MA in Folklore from Western Kentucky University. Hannah serves on the 2018 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?

I am the New York Folklore Society’s upstate regional representative. My primary responsibility is carrying out the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) Upstate Folklife Survey and Program Development Initiative, a collaborative project intended to invigorate folklife documentation and programming in upstate communities. Right now, I’m working in both Rochester and Binghamton. My day-to-day work generally involves carrying out a survey of traditional artists and organizing public programs. Over the course of a couple days on the road (I don’t live in either city), I might interview a luthier, meet with a group of Karenni refugees to discuss putting on an event, speak to a class at RIT, document a Christkindlmarkt, and meet with an organization interested in applying for funding to carry out their own folklife programming. Of course, like everyone else, administrative tasks often get the better of me. Some days are more fun than others.

Left: A competitor lines up a shot in an annual roque tournament held in Angelica, New York. Roque, a variant of croquet, is only known to be played in a few towns in the United States.


Right: Fran Zielewicz works on an etched kraslice, or Easter egg, at her home in Endicott, New York. Like many others, Fran's parents immigrated to Endicott from what is now the Czech Republic in the '30s to work for the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company.


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’m a folklorist today because my dad, a lifelong woodworker of varying kinds, was included in a survey carried out by Traditional Arts Indiana (TAI). A short explanation for his inclusion in that survey: After learning how to build ukuleles from a well-respected luthier in Hawaii, Dad came home and applied his new knowledge to building ukuleles in the style of a Hoosier luthier named Frank Bremerman, who lived and worked in Indianapolis in the ‘10s and ‘20s. I often tagged along when Dad demonstrated and performed at events, so I eventually met Jon Kay, TAI’s director, and a handful of graduate assistants. During my senior year of high school, Jon and those graduate assistants convinced me to come to Indiana University and try out folklore. So, I began my freshman year as a declared folklore major, and about a month later, I began working as a work-study student at TAI. I helped organize and process fieldwork materials, update the website, improve our social media presence, and design promotional materials. I certainly didn’t know where I was headed then. A stint as an intern for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s “Hungarian Heritage” program under Jim Deutsch in 2013 confirmed that I wanted to pursue a career in the field. By the time I earned my degree, I had been promoted at TAI and was regularly involved in training new student workers and graduate assistants. In 2014, I moved on to Western Kentucky University, where I was the Kentucky Folklife Program’s graduate assistant. During my final semester, luck was on my side. There were lots of jobs opening up at just the right time. This one was by far the one I wanted the most. Conveniently, it was also the only one I interviewed for! I feel so fortunate to have landed in what has really been an ideal learning opportunity. This job has some unique challenges, and my colleagues, especially those upstate who’ve worked in the same communities, have been so supportive.


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?

The creation of this initiative was partially motivated by a need to find new ways to put on and sustain folklife programming, so I work everyday towards providing new opportunities for communities. My job often boils down to just connecting dots: connecting collaborators and smaller organizations to resources that will allow them to do whatever it is that they want to do. I’d like to think that all my “connecting” is an important contribution. Representation is powerful, and providing a platform (sometimes literally) for people to share their experiences and knowledge has, I hope, a direct positive impact on my collaborators and the communities in which they live.


Left: At his home in Rochester, New York, Ru Reh plays a flute he made out of PVC piping. Traditionally, flutes like these would be made with bamboo, but Ru, a refugee from Burma's Kayah State, lacks access to traditional materials. 

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

I have plenty of favorite New York foods now, but I can’t turn down an opportunity to preach the garbage plate gospel. Garbage plates are a hyper-local Rochester tradition. A standard plate includes some combination of the following: fries or home fries, beans, macaroni salad, white (pork-based) or red (beef-based) hots (hot dogs), a hamburger or cheeseburger, a grilled cheese, a fried egg, spiced meat sauce, mustard, and onions. “Garbage” hints at how it’s all assembled. There are tidier versions available, but at Nick Tahou’s, home of the uncontested ur-form, ingredients are slopped on top of each other on a paper plate. It hits the spot after a certain kind of debaucherous night out.

(I’ll take this opportunity to mention that Rochester, less than an hour and a half east of Buffalo via car or train, has lots of great restaurants, breweries, cideries, wineries, markets, etcetera. If you find yourself with some extra time at AFS, it’s worth the trip!)


What is the most challenging part of your work?

We all struggle with this, but the most challenging part of my work is trying to respond to the needs and desires of my many collaborators. Prioritizing whom I document and whom I include in public events can be uncomfortable at best. 


Krystie L. Herndon (Adams) says...
Posted Tuesday, July 3, 2018
Congratulations, Hannah, on being recognized for doing your job well! How proud I am to know you, and to learn more about where our IU undergraduate alums end up using their skills.

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