Neal Hutcheson: Maker of Documentaries on North Carolina Folklife and Language
by Thomas McGowan and Walt Wolfram
Videographer Neal Hutcheson has produced an extensive collection of important documentaries presenting notable North Carolina folk artists, the folk speech of cultural groups in North Carolina, and the family and community contexts of regional folklife. His documentaries on North Carolina’s diverse cultural populations have been featured on national public television and national satellite and cable television (including the Documentary Channel); in museum exhibits; and in educational curricula throughout the state. In the process, he has played an exemplary role in the implementation of innovative public service programs on language diversity that have become an international model for disseminating sociolinguistic information to public audiences. His work has also provided documentation of the lively continuation of traditional music, narrative, and material folk culture in North Carolina and excellent remembrances of notable state tradition-bearers who have died in recent years.
Seven documentaries and a dramatic adaptation of a folk theme have aired on statewide UNC-TV and other regional and national venues. These include Indian by Birth: The Lumbee Dialect, Mountain Talk, Voices of North Carolina, The Queen Family: Appalachian Tradition and Back Porch Music, The Carolina Brogue, The Prince of Dark Corners, The Outlaw Lewis Redmond, and The Last One. Two more documentaries are currently in production, including one on the use of Spanish in the mid-Atlantic South and one on the dying commercial fishing industry on the Outer Banks. While these productions offer excellent insights into the forms of folk speech and dialect, they are especially notable for their presentation of the individual, social, and cultural contexts of folk narrative. Hutcheson develops close rapport with participants, lets them provide telling emic commentary on their folk arts and folk groups, and documents important traditions and performances in his documentaries—and he does so with a thoughtful, critical eye and ear so that he doesn’t sentimentalize or overgeneralize.
His documentary Indian by Birth: The Lumbee Dialect, which originally aired on public TV (UNC-TV, the local PBS affiliate) in 2001, continues to be shown annually as part of a special series of programs celebrating Native American Heritage Month. The response to this documentary from the general public and from the Lumbee community, in particular, indicated heartfelt gratitude for his sensitive portrayal of the role of language in Lumbee life. The documentary has also been featured at special programs sponsored by the Native American Student Association, and vignettes from the documentary also play a prominent role in a permanent exhibit at the Museum of the Native American Resource Center in Pembroke, North Carolina. Indeed, Neal Hutcheson’s reflective depiction of Lumbee language history and development is an emblem of a deep commitment to Native American students, to say nothing of its impact on the general public.
The second documentary shown on UNC-TV was Mountain Talk, a 60-minute presentation on Appalachian English and culture in western North Carolina. The footage for this documentary was collected during a three-year period in which Hutcheson immersed himself in the life of remote mountain communities. At a meeting of the Appalachian Studies Conference in Cherokee, North Carolina, in spring 2004, several local participants featured in Mountain Talk testified to Neal’s responsive, generous spirit which allowed mountain people to speak for themselves. Mountain Talk presents scenes featuring past Brown-Hudson Folklore Award winners Orville Hicks, Gary Carden, and Mary Jane Queen.
From the footage made for Mountain Talk, Hutcheson developed an especially evocative study of the music, narrative, and instrument making traditions of the Queen Family. It centers on the family matriarch, Mary Jane Queen, who received both our Society’s Brown-Hudson Folklore Award and the NEA’s National Heritage Fellowship. Besides offering performances of songs and stories, The Queen Family: Appalachian Tradition and Back Porch Music presents a thoughtful study of family folklife and the dynamics of an especially talented tradition bearer handing on family musical traditions in a rich family context in western North Carolina.
Hutcheson’s portrayal of language in Voices of North Carolina depicts the wide range of language diversity in the Tar Heel State that extends from languages such as Cherokee and Spanish, to regional dialects such as the Outer Banks and Appalachian English, to sociocultural dialects such Lumbee English and African American English. It is a unique linguistic profile of a state that has now been integrated into an eighth-grade Social Studies curriculum, Voices of North Carolina: Language and Life from the Atlantic to the Appalachians. This is complemented by his documentary on Outer Banks speech titled The Carolina Brogue, where he documents the endangered traditional coastal dialect.
Finally, his documentary on the production of untaxed liquor by legendary moonshiner Popcorn Sutton (The Last One), aired on national TV and received a much-coveted regional Emmy Award in the category of cultural documentation.
Neal Hutcheson has through his videos gathered a rich archive of local folk speech, song and music playing traditions, oral narratives and local jokes, and their contexts in North Carolina families and communities. They present state folklife in thoughtful, appreciative ways that deepen our sense of folk groups and the artfulness of performance. He nominated Gary Carden for the Brown-Hudson Folklore Award, and his video presentation on the traditions of the Queen family has given us a particularly insightful resource to remember and review the rich treasury of regional folklife that National Heritage Award recipient and Brown-Hudson Folklore Awardee Mary Jane Queen carried and performed. Neal Hutcheson’s work richly deserves the recognition of our state’s folklore society through its Brown-Hudson Folklore Award.
Walt Wolfram, recipient of the John Tyler Caldwell Award for the Humanities, is the William C. Friday Distinguished University Professor at N.C. State University and the director of the North Carolina Language and Life Project. His extensive publications on regional dialect include Hoi Toide on the Outer Banks: The Story of Okracoke Brogue and Fine in the World: Lumbee Language in Time and Place. Thomas McGowan taught in the English Department at Appalachian State University for thirty-nine years and is past editor of the North Carolina Folklore Journal.
McGowan, Thomas, and Walt Wolfram. “Neal Hutcheson: Maker of Documentaries on North Carolina Folklife and Language.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 58.2 (2011): 9-13.