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Voices Spring-Summer 2007:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the In Praise of Women column, “Vaughn Ramsey Ward (1939–2001)” by Eileen Condon.
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Volume 33
Spring-Summer
2007
Voices

Vaughn Ramsey Ward (1939-2001) by Eileen Condon

In Praise of Women Five years after her death, Vaughn Ward’s praises are perpetually at her husband’s lips. George Ward characterizes the energy that Vaughn brought to her life and work as a folklorist, musician, and educator as “sheer force of personality. She was one of those people who could see the potential in individuals that they might or might not see themselves, and see the potential to bring them together with other people. And she was very, very gifted at that.”

Growing up in Oklahoma and New Mexico, Vaughn Ramsey was a whirlwind in her parents’ home and dry goods stores, organizing neighborhood service clubs even as a child. The Wards’ egalitarian and lifelong partnership included studying, doing fieldwork, and eventually teaching together, although not always in the same schools or districts. Vaughn and George shared child care for their sons Pete and Nathaniel, made music together, and cowrote a pioneering New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) grant proposal in the 1970s to do a sabbatical year as folklorists-in-residence at upstate New York public schools. The couple ran folk festivals together for many years, but evolved separate identities in folklore, as well.

Vaughn Ward had the habit of transforming big dreams into immediate action. Her particular brilliance for programming, recruiting, and using folklore in teaching was exemplified in the Niskayuna Festival period of the 1970s. In the weeks before the festival, Vaughn brought the finest folk artists to make music in the hallways of the local high school, where she taught English, to inspire students to volunteer. Six hundred high school students—nearly half the school’s population—plus some twenty faculty members got involved yearly in one of upstate New York’s most memorable folk festivals.

By the 1980s George had branched out of K–12 teaching into arts in education, and Vaughn had progressed into public folklore with the Lower Adirondack Regional Arts Council (LARAC), thanks in part to newly established folk arts program funding at NYSCA. Before leaving LARAC to found the Black Crow Network, an inclusive nonprofit devoted to supporting Adirondack tradition bearers and regional culture, Vaughn started the Adirondack Liars’ Club, a performing and social group of male and female tall tale tellers, most of whom Vaughn had overheard “swapping lies” for their own amusement at a fiddling party in the Adirondacks.

A great coup in her programming career was securing space at the Washington County Fair for a folk festival within a fair in the 1980s. The catch: Vaughn and community-rooted assistants at LARAC, Gail Turi and Kathy Bain, would need to keep twelve hours of daily folk programming running for all six days of the fair. George remembers assisting with stage management and child care during these festivals, while Vaughn and her crew recruited some two hundred regional tradition bearers for the program and public sector folklorists from all over the state to assist. Folk music of all kinds was featured, along with ice-fishing demos, farming stories, panels about life on the Champlain Canal, quilting, recreations of Straw Boys Christmas visits, and much more.

The Wards’ long love affair began in Middlebury, Vermont, at the Bread Loaf Graduate School of English in the summer of 1961. Having recently graduated in English from the University of New Mexico, Vaughn introduced herself in her usual extroverted manner to George, then a law student at Cornell. She subsequently informed her roommate that she had just met the man she would marry. They were wed in 1964. Vaughn finished a master’s in English at Middlebury, and the couple took folklore coursework in the 1970s at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, under Bruce Buckley.

George attributes the egalitarian character of their marriage to several factors. There was Vaughn’s exposure in childhood to the model of parents working together; Vaughn and George determined to work together in the field of folklore. Other factors included strong women in Vaughn’s extended family, George’s happily rebelling against traditional marital roles, and their mutual discovery of some feminist writings of the 1960s and 1970s. Vaughn was also promoting the concept of equal partnerships between folklorists and community scholars as early as the 1960s, according to George. Her tendency to approach regional tradition bearers as teachers, and to encourage artists to interview other artists and collaborate in program planning and interpretation, informed the whole of her dynamic forty-year career in folklore and education.

Between 1990 and 1999 Vaughn collaborated with Greenfield Review Press to edit and annotate regional tale collections, including the Adirondack Liars’ Club’s I Always Tell the Truth (Even if I Have to Lie to Do It); The Witch of Mad Dog Hill and Go Seek the Powwow on the Mountain, stories of Sacandaga Valley by Don Bowman; Tales from the Featherbed: Adirondack Stories and Songs, by Bill Smith; and I Was On the Wrong Bear, by Harvey Carr. In 1998 Vaughn self-published Six Foot Man Eatin’ Chicken, featuring tales by many Adirondack tellers, combined with her recollections of working with them.

Vaughn’s Black Crow Network coworkers and friends Brenda Verardi and Ruby Marcotte have discussed with George the possibility of an upcoming retrospective exhibit based on Vaughn’s life and work. In 2004 the American Folklore Society’s folklore and education section established the Robinson-Roeder-Ward Fellowship in memory of the “vision, scholarship, and activism” of Vaughn and two other folklorist-educators, who inspired a whole generation of folklorists working in K–12 education. Pamela Cooley, who suggested Vaughn Ward for this column, described her as “a welcoming voice and an impassioned advocate” for folklore. “Her love for the field was infectious.”


 









Photo of Eileen Condon Eileen Condon is staff folklorist at the Dutchess County Arts Council and outreach coordinator for the New York Folklore Society. To nominate a colleague for “In Praise of Women,” contact her at
econdon@artsmidhudson.org.


Her tendency to approach regional tradition bearers as teachers, and to encourage artists to interview other artists and collaborate in program planning and interpretation, informed the whole of her dynamic forty-year career in folklore and education.



This column appeared in Voices Vol. 33, Spring-Summer 2007. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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