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AFS Review: Featured Folklorist

Featured Folklorist: Ellen McHale (New York Folklore Society)

Wednesday, October 3, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Evangeline Mee

Ellen McHale is the Executive Director of the New York Folklore Society, a position that she has held since 1999. She serves as the co-chair (with Robert Baron) of the Planning Committee for the 2018 AFS Annual Meeting in Buffalo. She also co-Chaired (with Robert Baron) the Planning Committee and Local Arrangements Committee for the 2002 AFS Annual Meeting in Rochester.


Left: Photo by Kira Born, courtesy of the New York Folklore Society


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

I am currently the Executive Director of the New York Folklore Society (NYFS), a statewide non-profit organization that serves as a clearinghouse for information for folklore in New York State, and which is the primary service provider for technical assistance and professional development for the folklore and folk arts field in New York. The New York Folklore Society publishes Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore and we partner with the Folk Arts Program of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) to administer their specific professional development initiatives: a graduate student internship in public sector folklore; the New York State Folk Arts Roundtable; and the Mentoring and Professional Development Program for Folk and Traditional Arts. New York Folklore also administers and supervises an ongoing fieldwork project initiated by the New York State Council on the Arts––the Upstate Folklore Initiative––that works to document and present folk arts in under-documented areas of the state. In its third year, this NYSCA Folk Arts initiative has provided folk arts fieldwork and expertise to more than twelve New York Counties through the efforts of folklorist Hannah Davis. 

Other job duties that I have relate specifically to my role as the Executive Director of a Society that began as an academic society. NYFS still retains its links to the academic field of folklore. New York Folklore has a membership base and journal subscribers. I serve as the chief fiscal officer for the organization, as well as its development professional. I also provide my own expertise as a folklorist, representing the Society at all levels, from the local to the international.

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? 

My first folklore job was while I was still a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. I was hired by the Folklife Center of the International House of Philadelphia for a short term project and I stayed there, eventually becoming the Assistant Director of the Folklife Center. I am forever indebted to Carole Boughter, Director of the Folklife Center, who taught me about program planning and implementation, grant writing, and all of the other myriad duties one has when one is a public sector folklorist. At about that time, I also began working as a contract fieldworker, with my first contract position to conduct a folklife survey of Wayne County in Western New York State. When I eventually returned to New York State, I worked for several years as a consulting folklorist and that experience in multiple cultural agencies has helped my work at the New York Folklore Society.

New York State has a robust network of folklorists, largely due to the efforts of Robert Baron at the Folk Arts Program of the New York State Council on the Arts. Since I returned to the state in 1985, I have always been able to work in the field, sometimes as a contract fieldworker and occasionally as a staff person. During my early career, I served as the Executive Director of the Shaker Heritage Society (Colonie, NY) and later as the Executive Director of the Schoharie County Historical Society/Old Stone Fort Museum which helped me gain experience in running an organization. As a folklorist, I initiated the folk arts programs at the Rensselaer County Council on the Arts (now the Arts Center of the Capital Region), and the Dutchess County Arts Council (now Arts Mid-Hudson). I also served as the staff folklorist for the Tri-County Arts Council which was the job that I had immediately prior to taking my current position at the New York Folklore Society.

I initially thought I might work in museum settings. Besides the two stints as the Executive Director of museums with historic properties, I have worked on several exhibitions as a consulting folklorist and I have most recently pursued my own exhibitions (Stable Views: Voices and Stories from the Thoroughbred Racetrack; and In Harm’s Way: Community Responses to Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee). Besides my work as a public sector folklorist, I teach World Geography as an adjunct at Utica College while maintaining my position at the New York Folklore Society. That satisfies my personal need to keep a toehold in academia and to remain active as a scholar.

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

The goals that drive my work are fueled by my concerns for cultural equity and social justice. I think that folklore and folklife provide an effective lens to combat the stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings that fuel current nationalistic and jingoistic urges in the United States. If I can ease the way for immigrants and refugees to make a new home in my community, or if I can help to provide an alternative viewpoint that forges greater understanding of diverse cultural heritages, than I am happy.

What is the most challenging part of your work?

The most challenging part of my work is having to explain the dynamics of my field and of my organization to people who have not recognized folklore and folklife in their own lives. It is always a joy to speak to someone who “gets it” because of their own family and community history. There is, however, a constant need for public relations work. 

What sorts of issues are most pressing or urgent for your community? How do your personal or professional endeavors intersect with these issues?

I think that environmental issues and economic inequalities are the most pressing issues for my community in Upstate New York. I live in a region that has extreme generational poverty. I also see firsthand the environmental degradation from poor land and water stewardship and misguided policies. 

The most profound intersection of my personal and professional interests lie in the founding of the environmental and cultural organization, Schoharie River Center, with my husband, John McKeeby.  We have partnered on several programs that merge environmental advocacy and stewardship with cultural stewardship. I think that that collaboration has made a difference in the lives of the students that work with the Schoharie River Center as part of the Environmental Study Team program and our students have become astute fieldworkers and documentarians. I also see that the combination of environment and culture, and the importance of “place,” has resonance with my community. With the Schoharie River Center, I can pursue direct folklore documentation and fieldwork within my own home community.

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

I reside where I now live because I knew I wanted to return to rural New York which is where I spent my entire childhood. I have lived in several areas of New York State but I have always lived in a rural setting. When my husband and I found work in the Capital District, we wanted to reside in a place that would be rural but easily commutable to a job. We purchased our current home in 1989 as a “fixer upper” and have been working on it ever since. I like that I live in a historic house (ca 1834) in an agricultural area. I feel that stewardship of our agricultural landscape is important. 

New York’s Capital District is a geographic area where it is easy to be totally in a natural environment but it is also very easy to access the arts––music, theater, and dance as well as folk and traditional genres. For me, that access to the arts is an important asset of the region.

What kinds of things occupy your personal time? In particular, what sorts of local or regional activities, endeavors, or commitments do you pursue when you’re not on the job?

In 2017, I ran for the elected position of Town Council. I now sit on the Town of Charleston Town Board. I’m hoping that I can help alleviate some of the issues of poverty that I see in my rural town of 1,300 people. I have already written grants for the town––a skill that I honed as a public sector folklorist. In my position as Town Councilperson, I am hoping to pursue advocacy for clean water and clean energy, and to think proactively about changes that will be required by my community to respond to climate change.

My leisure time is often taken up with providing folklore documentation and presentations for the Schoharie River Center. We are in the midst of re-purposing an 1856 Methodist Church building into a performance venue. Developing programming for the hall, and for the Schoharie River Center in general, demands a large time commitment. 

When I can get away, I enjoy sailing. We keep a 23-foot sailboat on Otsego Lake at Cooperstown.  Spending time on the boat is something I enjoy with my family.

Tell us about your favorite foods unique to the region where you live.

Foods unique to the region where I live include maple syrup, which my family has produced as home producers for the last 25 years––first as a backyard operation and now in a real sugarhouse. I have great memories of my children helping to make syrup on a backyard fire. In 2017, the Schoharie River Center built a timber-framed sap house so our evaporator now has a real home and the organization continues to make syrup as an educational activity with teens of the Environmental Study Team.

A food with which I have a personal connection are Spiedies––a specialty from Binghamton, New York. My mother and father (and my husband) are all from the Binghamton area, and I grew up with this summer-time treat of marinated, grilled meat on a skewer. Its origin is traced to the settlement of Italian immigrants to the Binghamton region.

Finally, I am a member of a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and I delight in making weekly visits to my community’s organic farm to retrieve my vegetables, and to pick flowers and herbs from a pick your own. I am fortunate to live in the Schoharie Valley, where small-scale agriculture is an important industry. I try to eat local. I have relationships with local farmers so most of what I eat is grown locally, right off of the farm.

How did you discover folklore? Why did you pursue it?

I discovered folklore as an undergraduate student at Wesleyan University.  I had entered Wesleyan as a music student––studying piano and playing classical saxophone. I was able to pursue a double major in music and American Studies in order to study folklore and folk music. My undergraduate honors thesis under the tutelage of Mark Slobin was based upon fieldwork that I conducted in the Northeast corner of Vermont to document Franco-American music. I pursued folklore because it spoke to my interests in culture, family, and place, and to the cultural immersions that I’d had as a high-school aged foreign exchange student to Sweden. 





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