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Holding On

The Center for Southern Folklore survives hard times to celebrate 25 years of music and heritage.



The show goes on. The Center for Southern Folklore's 25th Annual Memphis Music & Heritage Festival — arguably the best free thing that happens in downtown Memphis all year — will bring more than 70 area bands, artists, cooks, dancers, and storytellers to the Main Street Mall for an all-regional Labor Day weekend concert and gathering. There will be food, demonstrations, crafts for kids, concerts by popular recording artists like Bobby Rush, and performances by emerging talent like the bilingual theater troupe Cazateatro, who've put their own political twist on "Three Little Pigs." This is encouraging news because — in spite of the success of recent festivals — as late as June there were heated discussions about canceling this year's anniversary event or only carrying it forward in an abbreviated form.

"I'm not a negative person," says Judy Peiser, co-founder of and executive producer for the Center for Southern Folklore. "I don't want talk about the negative things," she says, refusing to say anything on the record about a year of staff reductions and board resignations.

In the fall of 2010, Peiser, whose efforts to preserve and celebrate Southern culture were recognized by a joint resolution of the Tennessee legislature, lost her position at the center when the board voted 8-1 to remove her. She was reinstated months later after another series of contentious board meetings.

"We have a good board," Peiser insists. "We have a smaller staff, but we have a stronger staff."

No matter how you spin it, this has been a tough year for the organization, and the adversity has resulted in sluggish planning and last-minute bookings.

In 2010, Peiser was removed from her position as executive producer when members of the board questioned the center's financial health. The cash flow was not what it needed to be in the opinion of some board members, and additional concerns were raised over a maxed-out $25,000 line of credit.

Over time, Peiser's role with the center was redefined. She was charged with raising funds for the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival and assisting with production. A $100,000 fund-raising goal had been set, but, by the last week in June, less than $13,000 in cash and pledges had been secured, leading some board members to conclude that drastic measures needed to be taken. The ensuing debate over austerity and oversight ended with changes in the board and, ultimately, with Peiser's restoration to her role as executive producer.

"People couldn't believe I was gone," Peiser says. "There are musicians who wouldn't walk in [the center] until I came back. Security guards hugged my neck. I was trained early on you talk to kings and paupers the same way." Peiser dismisses the possibility that the center or the festival is in any real danger of fading away.

Peiser won't deny that things have been difficult. "Yes, we had to struggle to figure out how to do a festival," she says, complaining that the center hasn't even been able to thoroughly update its mobile app. "People realize this year has been hard for everybody. It's been hard for the center, because tourism is not what we would like it to be in a tourist-related area. But people realize the importance of what we do, and we are asking for their support. Not for lavish support. We just want more people to come to the table."

This year's festival will feature a more aggressive fund-raising component. Contributions will be collected at each stage, creating a kind of battle of the bands. "One band will be able to say they are the winner, because people gave more money at their set," Peiser explains.

Peiser is now looking to her future and her legacy. "That legacy is bringing all the kinds of people who love what we do around the table together," she says. "And you've got to know the folks who bring you."

Speaking of "the folks who brung you," the 25th Annual Memphis Music & Heritage Festival will pay special tribute to Rufus Thomas with a performance by FreeWorld and Thomas' gifted progeny, Carla and Marvell. Other musicians scheduled to play include Joyce Cobb (blues, jazz), "Smoochy" Smith (rockabilly), Valerie June (folk), John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives (rock), Los Cantadores (rock, tejano, mariachi), Blind Mississippi Morris (blues), Last Chance Jug Band (blues), Dan Montgomery (singer/songwriter), the Orange Mound Jazz Messengers (jazz), and the Anointed Cowan Singers (gospel).

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