Every year since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts, which is funded by Congress, honors 12 American artists who've made a significant contribution to traditional arts. The NEA National Heritage Fellows, who each receive $20,000, typically reflect the wide range of cultures and traditions to be found in the United States. That's true of this year's Heritage Fellows as well:
Singer Albertina Walker has recorded more than 60 albums. She's earned five gold records, ten Grammy nominations, and a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Gospel recording. But she is still humbled to be one of the 2005 NEA National Heritage Fellows.
"I've received a lot of awards, but this seems special," Ms. Walker says, "because there are just so many people they choose to receive this award. And I'm just glad I'm one of them."
Michael Doucet is also one of them. An ambassador for Cajun music for more than a quarter century, Mr. Doucet has also received numerous awards, including a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 1997. But he says the recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts stands apart. "This is sort of from the roots of American soil," he says, "like regular people, which I really like, because I consider myself a regular person, a person who just follows his ideals. I think all of the recipients have done the same thing."
Other recipients this year include a Navajo weaver, a Yiddish poet and songwriter, and a master plasterer from New Orleans who says he is happy for the recognition on behalf of all artisans who usually remain nameless.
Whether they are known globally or only within their own tradition or region, each of the NEA National Heritage Fellows is a master of a traditional art. Barry Bergey, the NEA's director of folk and traditional arts, says each of the arts represented is deeply rooted in a particular community. "It reflects the aesthetics of a particular group of people, [such as] an occupational group or a regional group defined by geography," he says. "Any of the things that draw people together to develop traditions and pass them down is what we are looking for."
Tamburitza music is a tradition that has been passed from one generation to the next in Jerry Grcevich's family. In 2001, he became the youngest musician to be inducted into the Tamburitza Hall of Fame. But he says, the string band music that originated in Croatia, is not well known outside of the ethnic community, where it is played for weddings, banquets and religious holidays. He hopes to change that:
"Recently I started a group to play at a restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh, where people can walk in and hear us play," Mr. Grcevich says. "Ethnic music is something you have to give to people so they hear it. If you don't hear it, it will go by the wayside. Once something is gone it's hard to bring it back again."
In honoring artists like Jerry Grcevich, the National Endowment for the Arts's annual National Heritage Fellowship awards help to ensure that ethnic music and other traditional arts don't disappear from America's cultural landscape.