In an abandoned parking lot off South Vine Street in Somerset, Kentucky, sits the Old Town Spring. Flanked by two crumbling commercial buildings, a giant dumpster, and several mounds of compacted dirt, the spring—once a stalwart symbol of the town’s prosperity—bubbles quietly beneath the surface. A nearby wishing well bears a plaque that reads, “Whoever drinks from the Old Town Spring will have wisdom and will always return to Somerset,” a New Testament nod to a similar, if not more eternal, promise.
Less than ten feet from the spring stands a limestone monument guarded by concrete lions and topped with an aggressively perched eagle. Erected in celebration of the nation’s bicentennial, the town square marker pays homage to its creator, C.K. Cundiff, local businessman and “first breeder of red angus cattle in the United States,” as one brick so lovingly declares. The monument is a mish mash of accomplishments and dedications accompanied by carvings of the Eye of Providence and hands clasped in prayer. “I drank from the Old Town Springs in 1938. Thank you God for my wisdom, and I did return to Somerset.”
And so this is where we begin, with an unassuming spring and a looming Masonic obelisk. To that we’ll add cave goblins, the world’s second largest quartz deposit, and underground atomic fall-out bunkers, all without ever leaving city limits. We’ll call forth Somerset’s famed healing rooms and backwoods houses of worship, gas station Indian food, and bratwurst in the basement of the old public library. We’ll holler to the farmers, and puppet makers, podcasters, and vinyl night record spinners. We’ll meet up on porches, in pews, in factory lines, and on picket lines. Tuckered out and thirsty, we’ll drink from the Old Town Spring and settle in for the night.
This is Somerset, a small pocket of the Commonwealth, but not the whole picture.
That’s why Kentucky Folklife exists.
In carving out its own digital space, Kentucky Folklife is a collection of essays, interviews, and films that actively celebrates, and confronts, what it means to live and work in the Bluegrass State. Akin to the prevailing belief that folklore is synonymous with old-fashioned or quaint, Kentucky, much like the rest of the southern United States, often contends with similar misrepresentations. Instead of relying on tired stereotypes, Kentucky Folklife is dedicated to bringing a fresh perspective to longstanding conversations centered on collaboration, community-building, and cultural conservation. From those born and raised here to the newly transplanted, Kentuckians have stories to be shared and stories to be remembered. What better way to honor these experiences than to write them down, post them up, and pass them along to everyone we know.
It is true, too, that during intense periods of much-needed social upheaval, it becomes our responsibility as folklorists to listen to the stories of those whose voices have been silenced. In echoing the sentiments offered by Arkansas Folk and Traditional Arts, the editorial staff of Kentucky Magazine affirms the belief that “…we are listening. Our partners and colleagues across the world will agree that listening is the folklorist’s first and best tool, and active listening is essential for resolving conflict and effecting change.” We challenge ourselves to unlearn deeply ingrained cultural and racial biases, and we extend that challenge to you, readers, as well.
With that in mind, I have to confess that I find our first issue downright cool, y’all. Contributors and editors alike have worked hard over the course of the last few months to bring you content that is diverse and frank. A community-centric mushroom festival, memories of a once-prominent African American high school, Anabaptist healthcare practices, and a veteran old time musician make up our inaugural publication. The insights offered here are a reminder that Kentucky is complex and chock-full of rich, dynamic folkloric expression. We hope you take comfort in the old and feel spurred to action by the new.
Delainey Bowers, Managing Editor