I spent much of my time from the mid 1980s through the 2000s traveling through the rural southeast. I began as a freelancer and then staff person with the Rural Advancement Fund and then with other farm advocacy organizations and philanthropic foundations. I call this work the Vanishing Culture of Agriculture. This photograph was made in south central Alabama on a self-generated trip to poultry and cattle farms. You can see more work from this project at: http://robamberg.com/vanishing-culture
I will be participating in a group show titled 2 Squared at the Caldwell County Arts Council in Lenoir, North Carolina, from October 7 to November 18, 2016. The opening reception for the exhibit will be on Friday, October 7 from 5-7 pm and is sponsored by Foothills Performing Arts. The exhibit will also include work from artists Mercedes Jelinek, Jon Sours and Tamie Beldue.
Throughout my career I have mostly focused my work on people and culture. For this exhibition I’ve chosen photographs representative of man’s relationship with the land itself. I will be showing images from my three Madison County projects: Sodom Laurel Album, The New Road, and Little Worlds (a work in progress.)
Please join us if you can. This promises to be an exciting show.
The Liston B. Ramsey Center at Mars Hill University will be hosting a celebration of the 100 year Anniversary of Cecil Sharp’s visit to Madison County in conjunction with the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival on October 1, 2016. Sharp, along with his assistant Maud Karpeles, was a musicologist from Great Britain who collected more ballads in Madison County for his classic volume, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, than anywhere in the United States. While in the Sodom community, he famously said, “I discovered that I could get what I wanted from pretty nearly everyone I met, young and old. In fact I found myself for the first time in my life in a community in which singing was as common and almost as universal as speaking.”
One of Sharp’s informants was Zipporah Chandler Rice who was an aunt of Dellie Norton, the protagonist of my 2002 book Sodom Laurel Album. Aunt Zip, as most everyone called her, was 98 years old when I met and photographed her in 1976 and had sung for Sharp in 1916 when she was about 36. At that point in her life, she didn’t have much memory of the man from across the water although Dellie and her older sister, Berzilla Wallin, certainly remembered him. Aunt Zip had fallen and broken her hip shortly after I met her and I recall thinking she wouldn’t be around much longer. Remarkably, she lived another five years, dying in 1981 at age 103.
The photograph above, along with others of mine, John Cohen's and David Holt's, will be on display with memorabilia documenting the ballad tradition in Madison County at the Weizenblatt Gallery at Mars Hill University. A ballad swap will begin at 3 pm on October 1 with a reception following at 5.
I will be participating in a truly unique exhibit and program organized by the North Carolina Folklore Society titled Traditions of Protest in North Carolina. The exhibit will hang in PB&Java in Greensboro, NC, from September 2 to October 2 with a special program on Saturday, September 10 at 10:30 am. The exhibit and program seeks to illustrate North Carolina's long and storied history of protest and resistance to racism, Jim Crow, and anti-union activity.
In the mid-1980s I served on staff and as a contract photographer for the Rural Advancement Fund, a non-profit, farm advocacy organization based in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a field office in Pittsboro. RAF had many projects under its auspices, one of which was a Justice Project based in Lumberton, NC, which was organized to combat the systematic racism existing throughout Robeson County that resulted in the yet-unsolved murders of community members. My photographs in the exhibit are from two large rallies in Robeson County protesting these murders and the racism that brought them about.
While RAF published one or two of these photographs in their newsletters and brochures, the majority of them have never been published or exhibited. I'm honored to work with the North Carolina Folklore Society and their director, Joy Salyers, to bring these images to light.
In 1984 I had the opportunity to photograph the first reunion between the Eastern and Western Bands of the Cherokee since the Trail of Tears in 1837. I was on assignment for the Durham-based weekly, The Independent, and working with the acclaimed North Carolina author, Bland Simpson. This photograph ran on the cover.
In July of this year, my long-time friend and collaborator, Charlie Thompson, and I took a scouting trip in north Georgia, east Tennessee and western North Carolina with a thought of a modern-day project on the Trail of Tears. After four days of unrelenting heat, we found many signs and remnants - museums, interpretive centers, and historical markers - in places such as New Echota, Blythe Ferry, and Ross's Landing. We saw few Cherokee. Land that had once been the homeland of thousands of Cherokee (considered the first of the "civilized" tribes), illegally stolen, had been transformed into small towns, fast food restaurants, and modern highways.
We drove to Red Clay, which was the last site of the capital of Cherokee Nation before their forced removal. There, unbeknown to us, the Cherokee were celebrating their 32nd Tribal Reunion. Singing, dancing, food, crafts, a wonderful Cherokee storyteller, Fred Bradley, whose wife, Dovie, shared water and peaches with us.
At Blythe Ferry, Tennessee, we found the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park. Here, over 9,000 Cherokee and Creek who had been stockaded for weeks, were forced onto flatboats across the Tennessee River to begin their trek westward to Indian Territory in what is now northeast Oklahoma. Together, Charlie and I were struck by the symbolism of this spot. The native peoples, one foot on their homeland, the other stepping onto these boats, knowing in their hearts they would never touch that land again.
There, we met a young white woman. She was fleeing an abusive partner. Distraught, her arms bruised, she had left with no money or food. She had taken one of the boyfriend's cars, replete with a rebel flag front license plate, and just started driving, seeking water she said, cleansing, and wound up in this holiest of Cherokee sacred places. She had performed a self-baptism in the river and emerged wet and talkative. We gave her our food and our ears, advice from fathers of children her age. She drove off, to a place and a life unknown to her. Perhaps, we thought, this is the present day story of the Trail of Tears.
I know while JD's momma was still at home, after his dad died, I said, 'Momma, what if that road comes through your land?' And she said, 'Aw, woman. It'll never change. It'll never happen. We'll never have a road like that; it'll never be. I'm not worried about it.' It's just unreal. We used to walk over all those hills. We used to go after school and on the weekends, and we'd walk all the way to Big Knob. We'd play, and we'd go up in the fields and pick apples and grapes and all that stuff off the farm. It never even dawned on me that this was going to happen to that place. He won't admit this, but I knew that night they burned the house I could see tears. It hurt him. It really did.
Lela Thomas, Sprinkle Creek
- from The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia
The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia will soon be out of print. This is Book Two of my proposed trilogy of books from Madison County. The book uses photographs, oral histories and narrative writing to tell the detailed story of the largest earth-moving project in North Carolina history. If you have yet to add this book to your collection, now is the time to do so. I will gladly sign and inscribe as you wish. Go to robamberg.com/store for information.
Top Left, Cherokee Storyteller, Fred Bradley, Red Clay, Tennessee.
Top Right, Ballad Singer, Melanie Rice Penland, Sodom, Madison County, NC.
Bottom Left, Aniera Ayanakai Brzinski Sleeping on our couch, PawPaw, Madison County, NC.
Bottom Right, Jazz Keyboardist and Sax Player, Steve Davidowski, Anderson Branch, Madison County, NC.
Throughout my life I have had the good fortune to come in contact with and count as friends an amazing group of individuals. Here are four such people who have recently graced my world. Thank you all. You've made my life richer.
The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia will soon be out of print. This is Book 2 of my proposed trilogy of books from Madison County. The book uses photographs, oral histories and narrative writing to tell the detailed story of the largest earth-moving project in North Carolina history. If you have yet to add this book to your collection, now is the time to do so. I will gladly sign and inscribe as you wish. Go to robamberg.com/store for information.
Beginning October 1, and running throughout the month, Mars Hill University will be hosting a celebration to recognize the 100 year anniversary of Cecil Sharp's arrival in Madison County. Sharp was a British musicologist who came to Madison searching for ballads that had origins in the British Isles. He found more ballads, and singers of ballads, in our county than any other place in the country.
The ballad tradition is alive and thriving in Madison County. The University will be hosting an exhibit in Weizenblatt Gallery that looks at Sharp's legacy in the county. Artifacts, photographs, memorabilia, sound stations will be on display. An opening reception and ballad swap, which is a long-standing tradition at the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival, will take place in the gallery, beginning at 5 p.m. The Ballad Swap will feature singers who are descendants of the people Sharp collected from, some of them are 8th generation singers. Please join us for this remembrance of a very significant piece of Madison County History.
A worker stops, surprised to see me photographing among the just shattered rock. He warns me to watch out for unexploded blasting caps that could still detonate, if I were to step on them.
I've thought often of these two children
In the twenty years since I pictured their graves.
One boxed. One shrouded.
It's how I want to be laid to rest.
But what of these two?
Born, lived, and died
At a time when this place was raw.
Probably the mid 1800s. But who knows?
We don't know their names,
If even they had names.
Much less their ages.
Or cause of death.
They weren't on this earth long,
judging by the size of the holes.
Maybe they died in childbirth.
Many did back then.
We can figure something of their lives,
a close proximation, at least.
From history, and stories, and
The shape of this place.
Birthed in a small cabin made of chestnut logs,
Perhaps with a midwife, but probably not.
Likely, their parents were farmers, subsistence, poor,
growing enough to survive, little more.
Maybe new immigrants, from Scotland or Ireland.
About to be caught up in the Civil War,
Or already lived through it.
The exhuming crew probes and prods and soon
uncovers the graves.
There's little evidence but for the shape of the holes.
A button, a remaining sliver of wood.
No bones or cloth.
They box what they find with
a few shovels of dirt, to be
moved to a new unmarked grave.
Away from the new road that's taking their resting place.
I say to students,
Look beyond the subject to the background.
See that it's not interfering or competing.
But rather, enhancing and completing.
Sometimes you'll be surprised
And pleased by what you find.
And so it was on Sheila Kay's porch.
Me, making portraits.
Her, on the swing.
Quiet, pensive, assured.
Like the background behind,
A reflection of the reality before.
A contemplation of her.
Would be that it could always be like this.
I am so tired of waiting,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind.
- Langston Hughes
My grandmother would have been 118 years old today had she lived. She didn't, dying at the ripe age of 96. We think.
I wasn't her oldest grandchild. That honor goes to my two cousins pictured below, Janice Reed, who passed away earlier this year, and Dolores Oliveri who lives in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
But I was the first grandson, which in Italian families, carries a certain import that I presume includes wearing little dresses and berets. I do think the outfit served to inform and strengthen my feminist side.
I've written about my grandmother before on this blog and here I've chosen to repost the eulogy I presented at her funeral in 1995.
I had the good fortune to spend a few hours this past Sunday with Donna Ray Norton at her childhood home in Sodom. Donna is one of a small group of young people who continue to sing the ancient ballads that Madison County and Sodom are noted for. She is an 8th generation ballad singer and has a voice to die for. You can listen to her on this video that was produced by the Knoxville News Sentinel about seven years ago.
In 1916, Cecil Sharp, the British musicologist, arrived in Madison County with his assistant, Maud Karpeles, where he collected more ballads than anywhere else in his travels through the southern mountains. He famously claimed that people in Madison County were more comfortable singing than speaking. His work resulted in the definitive volume: English Folk Songs from the southern Appalachians, which was published in 1934. This fall Mars Hill University will mount an exhibition to celebrate the Cecil Sharp Centennial as part of their annual Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival, which will run from September 26 to October 21, 2016, with an opening reception on October 1 from 5-6 pm during the Festival.