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Southern Folk Life Exhibit at the Museum

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

In a new exhibit at the Cranbury Museum, Jerry Pevahouse, a Cranbury, N.J. resident and artist is sharing a treasure trove of photographs, rare blues recordings, folk art and historical artifacts. The show’s focus is the U.S. South in the 1970s, when Pevahouse and his wife lived and worked in Memphis, Tenessee.

The centerpiece is a collection of 40 Pevahouse photos. The images document both the poverty and creative spirit of the region’s residents as seen in its art and music.

“In a changing America we lost many things,” says Pevahouse, a Tennessee native and retired computer consultant. The collections represent his attempt to ensure that part of that culture remains.

Among his prized items are rare photographs and field recordings of important blues musicians like Henry Speller and Coy Love. Others portray the daily life of Southerners, black and white, at a time when an epic cultural and economic force was winding down.

That was the “Great Migration” the flight of some six million African Americans from the South to pursue equality, jobs some and better education elsewhere.

Pevahouse documented the lives of some of those who stayed.

“The Southern culture then was a culture of poverty,” he says. But it also was one of vibrant music and art. From 1974 to 1978, working with nonprofits like the National Endowment for the Arts, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, Pevahouse took to the field with a tape recorder and camera.

As a musician who plays guitar, banjo, and dulcimer, Pevahouse found he had a rapport with other artists he met. It was the Jim Crow era in the South and racial mistrust was sometimes an obstacle, but Pevahouse says he persevered, requesting to record and photograph his subjects in their homes. “The musicians could be very accommodating and I tried to respect that I was in their homes as a guest,” he says.

His recordings include Delta-style blues artists like Blind Abraham McNeil and traditional country musician Bradford Lineberry.

Pevahouse also met and photographed musicians whose work came out of the Scotch/Irish banjo and ballads that are the foundation of much American folk music. Pevahouse says he sometimes crossed paths with Alan Lomax, the world renowned collector of folk music.

Many of Pevahouse recordings are now in archives of The Center for Southern Folklore Pevahouse says.

Music is just one facet of the Pevahouse collections. His photographs capture the region’s weather-worn homes, farms and storefronts. The hill country of Tennessee at that time offered few ways to make a living. People had difficult jobs, like logging and sharecropping.

Cash was tight and bartering was common, he adds. That including household items.

Among his favorite items are baskets woven from oak strips by Jack Williams, an African American man who told Pevahouse his Virginian grandfather learned that craft while serving with the Union Army in the Civil War. “I suspect he worked for the Army possibly making baskets and other utilitarian ware needed by the soldiers,” Pevahouse says. The Union hired people for many non-combat jobs, he said. “They had a large support staff.”

In his travels, which also took him to Mississippi, Pevahouse also collected quilts, many with backings made from feed sacks. “Anyway they could save a dollar, they would,” says Pevahouse, “The environment shaped the people.”

The Exhibit is open Sundays at The Cranbury Historical and Preservation Society (4 Park Place East, Cranbury, NJ) , 1 p.m. to 4 p.m, through November 10. Sign up on the Events page to let us know you're planning to come!

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