Louisiana Folklorist and Mississippi Blues Musician Among 2023 National Heritage Fellows Louisiana folklorist Nick Spitzer and Mississippi blues musician R.L. Boyce are two of the distinguished honorees set to receive the prestigious 2023 National Heritage Fellows recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts. This esteemed accolade, celebrated as one of the highest distinctions in the realm of folk and traditional arts, will be bestowed upon them later this month.
At a ceremony scheduled for September 29th, held at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., Spitzer and Boyce will graciously accept the NEA’s Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship. This esteemed award comes with a generous $25,000 prize and is presented to individuals who have made substantial contributions to the preservation and promotion of cultural heritage.
For the past 25 years, Spitzer, an anthropology professor at Tulane University’s School of Liberal Arts, has been the host of the renowned radio program “American Routes.” Recently, the show has been broadcasted from a studio located at Tulane in New Orleans. Over the years, “American Routes” has showcased interviews with a wide array of influential figures in American music and culture, including luminaries such as Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, Fats Domino, and approximately 1,200 others.
Each episode of this two-hour program has the remarkable reach of about three-quarters of a million listeners, spread across 380 public radio stations nationwide.
Spitzer himself expressed the essence of American Routes by stating, American Routes serves as my means of embracing and celebrating the richness of cultural diversity and complexity through the blending of words and music, particularly in these challenging times.
Spitzer’s deep involvement in the root’s music of Louisiana’s Acadiana region has forged a lasting connection to the state. He not only laid the foundation for the Louisiana Folklife Program but also curated the extensive five-LP Louisiana Folklife Recording Series. His imprint on the cultural landscape extended to the creation of the Louisiana Folklife Pavilion at the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans and his pivotal role in launching the Baton Rouge Blues Festival. Additionally, he holds the esteemed position of a senior folklife specialist at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington.
Spitzer expressed genuine surprise upon being informed that he had been chosen as a recipient of the Hawes award. Reflecting on this honor, he shared, I was taken aback by the news. In an interview with The Associated Press, he further commented, It’s a gratifying feeling to be acknowledged in this way. I’m driven by my passion for making a positive impact on the world.
Boyce, hailing from the Mississippi hill country, is a prominent blues musician. His musical approach draws from the rich traditions of northern Mississippi, encompassing time-honored rhythms and the use of handmade cane fifes. However, Boyce’s music is marked by a distinct contemporary flair, as highlighted in his biography on the NEA website.
“When I was growing up in Mississippi, opportunities were scarce. Survival meant seizing any chance that came your way. I’ve dedicated 50 years of my life to playing the Blues, and it’s the only world I’ve ever known,” Boyce stated.
There’s no shortage of talented blues musicians out there, he continued. But I stick to the old ways, and my style is unique to me in today’s world.
For over half a century, Boyce has been a prominent figure in the northern Mississippi blues scene. He’s graced the stage alongside blues legends like John Lee Hooker, a recipient of the 1983 NEA National Heritage Fellowship, and Howling’ Wolf. Additionally, he served as the drummer for Jessie Mae Hemphill and contributed to her recordings.
The 2023 heritage fellows include a diverse group of artists and craftsmen. Among them are Ed Eugene Carriere, a skilled Suquamish basket maker hailing from Indianola, Washington. Michael A. Cummings, an accomplished African American quilter based in New York, is also among the recipients. Joe DeLeon Little Joe Hernandez, a Tejano music performer from Temple, Texas, has been honored for his contributions to the musical heritage.
Roan Hufford, known for her expertise in kapa (bark cloth) making, represents the heritage of Waimea, Hawaii. Elizabeth James-Perry, an artist specializing in wampum and fiber work, is recognized for her contributions from Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Luis Tapia, a talented sculptor and Hispano woodcarver, has received recognition for his work in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Lastly, Wu Man, a renowned pipa player, hails from Carlsbad, California.