World of Our Own: Kentucky Folkways

All across Kentucky, from mountains to river bottoms to city streets, traditional ways of living, working, and playing continue to thrive. Whether passed down through generations or shared by the state’s most recent immigrants, the skills and knowledge of a multitude of cultures inform and enrich our customs, beliefs, and arts.

Journey through this rich cultural landscape with the 1998 KET production World of Our Own: Kentucky Folkways.

KET’s camera crews spent six months and logged more than 10,000 miles, back and forth across Kentucky, to examine traditional music, art, games, and occupations, as well as folk art, crafts, and the customs associated with fishing, cooking, distilling, tobacco farming, funerals, and river life. Some of what they found reflects the customs of recent immigrants to the state, while other customs have been here for centuries.

The title of the series was inspired by the enormous body of knowledge represented in each custom or tradition, says producer Guy Mendes. “Sometimes this knowledge is written down, sometimes not. Often it’s contained and passed on within one family.”

Each person profiled in the series gives us a glimpse of a particular world of skills and tradition. We watch Pauline Proffitt create rugs from old blue jeans, and we hear about herbal cures from Crow Dog, a Cherokee healer. From stonemason Robert C. Jackson Sr., we learn that “green rock,” rock fresh from the ground, is easier to work because it’s still full of moisture. We learn about—and hear—the differences between black and white gospel music and the contrasting fiddle-playing styles of the northern and southern parts of the state.

Throughout the eight half-hour programs, interviews with professional folklorists put the customs into context. Michael Ann Williams, who teaches at Western Kentucky University, explains that Kentucky pork barbecue served with corncakes reflects a cross-cultural tradition that began in Virginia nearly 400 years ago with the Jamestown colony. Native Americans gave us cornbread, she notes, but the English brought the pig.

Other folklorists who advised KET on the project include Elizabeth Adler of Lexington, who also wrote the accompanying teacher’s guide; Loyal Jones of Berea; and Lynwood Montell, Erika Brady, and Johnston Akuma Kalu Njoku of Bowling Green. Robert Gates, director of the Kentucky Folklife Program, served as co-director of the project with Nancy Carpenter, KET director of arts and cultural programming.

World of Our Own: Kentucky Folkways was supported by a grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Community Folklife Program, administered by the Fund for Folk Culture and underwritten by the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. Additional funding was provided by the Kentucky Folklife Program of the Kentucky Historical Society and Kentucky Arts Council. The teacher’s guide was funded in part by the Kentucky Humanities Council.