Cover for WILLIAMS: Staging Tradition: John Lair and Sarah Gertrude Knott. Click for larger image

Staging Tradition

John Lair and Sarah Gertrude Knott

The colorful and detailed story of folk music’s pioneering stage presenters

Based on extensive archival research and oral history, Michael Ann Williams's Staging Tradition traces the parallel careers of the creators of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and the National Folk Festival. Through their devotion to staging of traditional culture, including folk, country, and bluegrass music, John Lair (1894-1985) and Sarah Gertrude Knott (1895-1984) became two of the mid_twentieth century's most notable producers.

Lair and Knott's discovery of new developments in theater and entertainment during the 1920s led them to the producing careers that fed their own needs to be center stage. Inspired by programs such as WLS's Barn Dance and the success of early folk events, Lair began promoting Kentucky musicians and Knott staged her own radically inclusive festival, which included Native and African American traditions, and continues today as the National Folk Festival. Through extensive original research, Williams shows how Lair and Knott fed the public's fascination with the "art of the common man," and were in turn buffeted by cultural forces that developed around and beyond them.

"Public sector, or applied, folklore gets far too little academic treatment, and study of its early years is virtually virgin territory. Thus, it is a great delight to have this well-written, engaging, and illuminating historiography of two of its pioneers. . . . Williams . . . reveals the lessons from their lives that folklorists, academic and public sector alike, should learn from. . . . Highly recommended."--Choice

"Williams draws on her meticulous research of primary source materials, including reams of personal correspondence, to trace the professional paths of two pivotal stagers of traditional culture. . . . This is an important work that should appeal to all US folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and American Studies scholars."--Journal of Folklore Research

"Staging Tradition adds valuable insights into the sometimes contentious relationship between folk music presenters, performers and audiences."--Sing Out!

"An intriguing account of how grassroots culture -- especially Appalachian culture -- has come to be viewed, presented, manipulated, and preserved through public performance."--Goldenseal

"The subjects of this book, John Lair and Sarah Gertrude Knott, both dedicated their careers to presenting traditional music. . . . Their stories tell of great dedication and commitment, the intrigues and conflicts they faced in realizing their ends are laid out in great detail, alongside their many achievements."--Folk Music Journal

"In Staging Tradition, Michael Ann Williams offers a meticulously researched parallel biography of Sarah Gertrude Knott and John Lair, two important but overlooked figures in the movement to popularize American folk music. . . . She calls for an important revision of our understanding of competing definitions and enactments of folk music during the twentieth century."--American Studies

"Williams, with an admirable eye for detail, has made a fine contribution to these long-standing debates."--Journal of Southern History

“Williams does a fine job rescuing Lair and Knott from an unfair obscurity. Those eager to find more details about the origins and internal workings of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and the National Folk Festival will be amply rewarded by Williams’ deep research in both archival and oral history sources.”--Journal of Appalachian Studies

Michael Ann Williams heads the department of folk studies and anthropology at Western Kentucky University. She is the author of Great Smoky Mountains Folklife and other books.

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