Smithsonian Folkways director Daniel Sheehy discusses a life in the folk arts on latest NEA podcast
Smithsonian Folkways director Daniel Sheehy is featured on the latest National Endowment for the Arts Podcast. On the heels of being named by the NEA the 2015 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellow, Sheehy tells host Josephine Reed about the years he spent working with Hawes, and how her philosophy of the folk arts has shaped his years at Smithsonian Folkways.
It was the Ashanti drumming, R&B, and mariachi music Sheehy encountered while studying musical education at UCLA that changed his life course. “I was … in awe of the skill and the beauty and the complexity of these musics and the musicians that performed them. And also I was a little bit indignant: I saw it as a social justice issue that needed to be resolved. Why weren’t these other musics included [in conventional musical education]? The answers were social answers. And I became driven with the desire to do something about that.”
This drive led Sheehy to his years working with Bess Lomax Hawes at the National Endowment for the Arts, where they established the Folk & Traditional Arts program. “Bess,” Sheehy explains, “saw the importance of giving this field the validity of intellectual weight, of aesthetic weight, of social weight, of every kind of weight you might imagine that would go along with artistic traditions.”
Upon becoming director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 2000, Sheehy asked himself how he could best follow in Moses Asch’s footsteps and use the label to make a difference.
“I fell back on the philosophy that Bess had really instilled in me at the National Endowment for the Arts. That was the idea of empowering people to be themselves as best they could. Giving them resources. At the Smithsonian we have recorded sound, mainly music, and so I ultimately developed this philosophy of two guiding pillars: a good listen and a good story.”
Sheehy’s philosophy is apparent in Smithsonian Folkways’ collaborations with musicians such as Iraqi oud master Rahim Alhaj, whose 2006 Smithsonian Folkways album, When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq, pulled people “through the music into the backstory, focusing on the beauty of this creation and the beauty of the person.” Sheehy added, “Through that music we could hopefully pull people into the story, and they could have a greater understanding of Iraq, of the whole story of the war.” (Rahim Alhaj has also been named a NEA National Heritage Fellow this year.)
In Sheehy’s 15 years at Smithsonian Folkways, his “good listen, good story” approach has garnered the label five GRAMMY awards, one Latin GRAMMY, and seventeen GRAMMY nominations. As he prepares to retire as director of Smithsonian Folkways, Sheehy reflects on what it means to receive the Bess Lomax Hawes Award. “This is something to take inspiration from and then move that into whatever next chapters of my personal life and my professional life that I might have left.”
For the full interview with Sheehy (including the story of how his band Mariachi Los Amigos went from playing the Ramada Inn’s all-you-can-eat Mexican buffet to playing the White House) listen here.