Missouri State and Carbon Trace Request NEH Grant for “A Portrait of the Ozarks”

 

After months of hard work by Dr. Andy Cline and help from countless others, we have applied for our largest grant ever.

The National Endowment for the Humanities media program supports the development, production, and distribution of radio, podcast, television, and long-form documentary film projects that engage general audiences with humanities ideas in creative and appealing ways. All projects must be grounded in humanities scholarship and demonstrate an approach that is thoughtful, balanced, and analytical. The approach to the subject matter must go beyond the mere presentation of factual information to explore its larger significance and stimulate reflection.

Missouri State University and its media partner, Carbon Trace Productions, a 501(c)3, are requesting a media development grant from the National Endowment for Humanities to complete pre-production of a feature-length documentary film entitled A Portrait of the Ozarks. The film will examine the role of traditionalism in Ozarks life and how it informs Ozarkers’ responses to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. Our film is intended as a sequel to an NEH- funded 2-part documentary film released in 1981 that explored traditionalism as part of a rapidly dwindling past. The earlier project has been immensely popular, garnering more than 1 million views on YouTube since 2014 and hundreds of comments asking what life is like there today. Our team believes it is time to revisit this project with a new film because we have discovered that traditionalism has not faded away; instead, it has taken new forms and been preserved by a group once thought to be merely outsiders — members of the back-to-the-land movement of the latter 20th century.

Humanities Content

A Portrait of the Ozarks will engage audiences with thoughtful storytelling anchored by robust humanities scholarship as demonstrated by our focus on the role of traditionalism in its many forms. Our academic team covers the fields of Ozarks Studies, Religious Studies, Oral History and Folklore, Music, Film Studies, Planning, Geography, Tourism Studies, and Critical Literacy. Each team member has a keen interest in the Ozarks region that is encouraged and sustained by the priority Missouri State University puts on research and public engagement concerning its home region. The central humanities themes of the film follow from the scholarship of our academic team and the leading scholarship in their various fields.

Defining traditionalism: In the context of this project, we understand traditionalism as the beliefs, stories, and cultural expressions relating to the past that are commonly accepted as defining a particular way of life and navigating changes to that way of life. Traditional culture includes the handing down of skills, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another thus attempting to create cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions.

07/30/2020 — Shannon County, MO –
© 2020 Photo by Jym Wilson, Carbon Trace Productions

● Traditional life preserved by interested outsiders
Conscious preservation of Ozarks traditions today has largely supplanted unconscious or natural preservation through family life and long-standing institutions. What we saw in the 1981 films was an atmosphere in which unconscious preservation still reigned — people still hewed to many of the old ways (e.g. music, plowing/skidding with horses, fox hunting, canning produce) because they were raised that way. As fewer people are raised in those traditions (Woods, 2004), preservation falls increasingly on conscious preservation by interested others, particularly those identified with the back-to-the-land movement beginning in the 1960s (Phillips, 2019). There are still signs of unconscious preservation: deer hunting, traditional religious practices, gardening and canning, cattle farming, and some forms of performing music. But the practitioners are few and far between in 2020, fewer than they were 40 years ago when the original A Portrait of the Ozarks films were released. More common are the back-to-the-landers who have made a conscious effort to preserve traditions.

● Commercialization and commodification of traditionalism
Commercialization and commodification of traditional Ozarks culture has become thoroughly common and, in many respects, makes up a large portion of the economic activity in places such as Shannon County, Missouri. Music, hunting, fishing, crafts, even religious worship, have become experiences for sale to tourists (Ioannides & Timothy, 2010). They were all subsumed long ago by the powers of commodification. The most prominent examples of this include the Ozarks-oriented entertainment offered in the tourist town Branson, Missouri, and the Silver Dollar City amusement park, which commodifies Ozarks heritage and displays of traditional craftsmanship as entertainment for park guests.

● Traditionalism and cultural sustainability
There is little left to a natural or unconscious preservation of traditionalism in the Ozarks. The struggle of rural economies today plays a role in this. It is difficult to maintain a smooth transition of culture generation to generation when issues of economic survival are paramount. This struggle was clearly charted by Eduardo Porter in his 2018 examination entitled “The Hard Truth of Trying to ‘Save’ the Rural Economy” for the New York Times Sunday Review. As families struggle with survival in a declining rural economy, that struggle eats away at traditionalism just as it eats away at the lives of rural people. Note the prevalence of “deaths of despair,” opioid addiction, and meth production as outlined in media reports such as the Times article by Porter. Shannon County, like much of the Ozarks region, has relied on tourism as an economic driver for at least a century. Tourism has tended to commodify traditionalism for the tourist industry even as traditionalism has played a decreasing role in sustaining local culture, crafts, folkways, and jobs. From the local/household sustainability perspective, this is something that has severely dropped off since the days of the original 1981 films. According to Dr. Brooks Blevins, “the generation of Ozarkers who came of age in the Depression/WWII era were the last to universally raise large vegetable gardens and practice traditional crafts as a part of everyday life. In terms of regional economic sustainability, there’s little to draw on in a place like Shannon County. There is a small timber/lumber industry that can support a few families if done in a sustainable way. There’s little in the way of sustainable farming that can support a family. In the post-WWII era — with the timber boom dead since the 1920s — the strategy for economic survival in poor places such as Shannon County was ‘smokestack chasing,’ but the globalization of the marketplace has rendered low-skill, low wage work unsustainable.”

06/18/2020 — Shannon County, MO –
© 2020 Photo by Jym Wilson, Carbon Trace Productions

● Traditionalism and cultural identity

Traditionalism is a “moving target,” says Dr. John Schmalzbauer, but cannot be downplayed in any understanding of the social construction of cultural identity in the Ozarks. In some respects, it does not matter that traditionalism has become a commodity for sale to tourists, it remains important to the construction of an Ozarks identity. There are still markers that tie native Ozarkers to a historical/cultural identity: dialect/accent, religion, hunting, farming/ranching for some, music for a very few, and even local pastimes such as high school basketball. The Ozarks cultural identity has been watered down, however, by both the influx of non-natives into the region over the past 50 years — especially retirees, according to Jared Phillips (2019) — and the powerful effects of popular culture. And the latter is nothing new. Ethnomusicologists assert that so-called traditional “mountain” music has always been in flux — impacted and transformed successively by minstrel songs, Tin Pan Alley, parlor music, phonograph records, radio, television, and the internet. As Dr. Brooks Blevins says, “from observations in my own family and neighborhood, I suggest that good old American commercialism had completely triumphed by the end of the 20th century.”

● Traditionalism and the role of institutions
Events sponsored by schools and churches — two of the last places that still draw large numbers of community members — remain important transmitters of Ozarks traditionalism. Fraternal organizations have been mostly irrelevant since the mid-20th century. The old extension homemakers clubs have largely disappeared, as have quilting groups and fox hunting clubs. There are still “deer camps” where men go hunting and drink, but those are now more a phenomenon of city and town folk. As Dr. Brooks Blevins says, “the little country church I grew up in built an air-conditioned fellowship hall in the early ‘80s and ceased outdoor decoration days such as the one portrayed in the original documentary. But there’s still a lot of the old ways found in these celebrations. I find high school basketball games — especially at the tiny schools that can still be found in the Ozarks — to be a sort of institutional means of cultural transmission. They’re one of the few events that still bring large crowds of locals into the public sphere.”

06/18/2020 — Shannon County, MO — 
© 2020 Photo by Jym Wilson, Carbon Trace Productions

● Traditionalism and the land

The Ozarks is unique because the area remains primarily a rural countryside, and the culture of a bygone way of life still remains within reach even if only as a commodity. The geography of this
region helps explain this phenomenon. The rugged and rocky terrain of the Ozarks did not lend itself to prosperous farms or easy development. As a result, the area has not experienced the economic opportunities that have presented themselves in many other areas of the country. The landscape also led to isolated pockets of community as traversing the hills and rivers was not an easy task. This isolation from other communities and the outside world as a whole led to a culture that is unlike any other. “Shannon County is a prime example of this,” says Dr. Krista Evans, “as was captured in the 1981 film. For example, the documentary captured an accent/dialect that is different from the surrounding areas. The documentary also captured a people that have values and ways of life that have gone by the wayside in most other places.” What remains to be examined, is how much that grasp on the past has changed since 1981. Shannon County is still remote, faces economic hardships, and is known as somewhat of a backwater. For these reasons, tensions among locals who still practice traditional land uses — hunting in particular — often clash with state and federal regulation.

 

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