Summer Issue 2020
"No Commercials, Just You and Me": A Video & Essay on the Work of Folk Artist Randy Wilson
By Alexander Udis
"Hello and welcome to radio from the heart of Appalachia to the young at heart, right here on your listener supported WMMT. You are on Orchard Branch from the Hindman Settlement School at the forks of the Troublesome. Come join us in the journey. No commercials, just you and me."
-Randy Wilson (Kid's Radio Show)
I first met Randy Wilson in 2014 when he brought me on stage to call a square dance at the Seedtime on the Cumberland Festival behind Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky. I’d recently started calling dances, and we were partnered for the first year of the Rural-Urban Exchange, a program developed to bring folks with similar skills together from all over Kentucky. The Rural-Urban Exchange brought cohorts together three or four times a year, each time in a different region of Kentucky, and encouraged us to visit each other throughout the year.
Randy and I were a good match. That first year, we didn’t much know what we were supposed to be doing in the program, so we spent our time goofing off, coming up with get-rich-quick schemes, teaching each other dances, and sharing songs and stories.
I drove out to Hindman a few times that first year, where I learned and documented play party games and songs, trying to figure out a way to bring them to Louisville, to teach in the schools.. “Play parties” were a popular form of recreation in rural areas across the US in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some examples of play party games are “Granny Hobble Gobble,” “Little White House on the Hill,” and “Kitty White.” During one visit, Randy and I traveled way up the mountain to Carcassonne, Kentucky, for what some say is the longest-running square dance in the country.
I learned then that Randy’s involvement in his community is deep. The short documentary accompanying this essay is only a glimpse at the education and entertainment Randy provides. In addition to having been the Folk Arts Director of the Hindman Settlement School and teaching daily in Knott County Public Schools, Randy has a weekly program on the local radio station WMMT; teaches banjo at Cowan Creek Mountain Music School; performs weekly at the Knott County Nursing Home, teaches dulcimer classes at the Appalachian School of Luthiery; teaches at both the Family Folk Week and Dulcimer Homecoming festivals at the Hindman Settlement School; and calls square dances all over the region, including that wonderful dance on the mountain at Carcassonne.
Randy started his immersion in Eastern Kentucky music in 1974 after he read an article in the Courier-Journal about traditional music gatherings at the C.B. Caudill Store in Blackey, Kentucky. He made a pilgrimage there and was introduced to the music that he plays and teaches today. He was also introduced to the square dance in Carcassonne, and he was “hooked from then on.” He’s also learned traditions firsthand from many others who strive to keep these traditions alive, including Lee Sexton, Rich Kirby, and George Gibson.
After some time in seminary and teaching on the West Coast, Randy returned to Eastern Kentucky to teach. He started working in Leslie County as a teaching artist through the Kentucky Arts Council. By 1992, he was teaching in Knott County through the Hindman Settlement School. By 1996, an endowment was created specifically for the position of Folk Arts Director so that Randy’s work teaching music, dance, and storytelling could continue in the Knott County Public Schools.
The short documentary No Commercials, Just You and Me: Folk Music and Dance in Knott County Kentucky explores some of the songs, dances, and play party games Randy has taught for 40 years. In the documentary, Randy encourages children to sing. He brings the students outside their classroom to play a traditional play party game taught to him by renowned folk singer Jean Ritchie. Not only is Randy forever trying to bring back and encourage old-time square dances in the mountains, but he brings that quest into the classrooms in Knott County.
This kind of education provides students with a sense of place and history that is too often scarcely offered in public institutions. In addition, the relationship between the Hindman Settlement School and Knott County Public Schools provides an apt example of the ways in which private non-profit institutions can fill education needs that public schools either overlook or cannot afford.
Randy’s tagline for his radio program, “no commercials, just you and me,” rings true for his work in education as well. His work focuses on old forms of entertainment, ones that don’t require commercialization. Together, he and his audiences become the entertainment, and there are no commercials to interrupt or get in the way. The direct connections Randy makes with his community members ensure that generations-old play party games and songs continue as vibrant, living traditions in their home region.
Alexander Udis is a musician, square dance caller, educator, and amateur filmmaker who lives between Louisville, Kentucky, and Upstate New York. He is a graduate of the Kentucky Arts Council Community Scholars program. He hopes to expand his short documentary, No Commercials, Just You and Me: Folk Music and Dance in Knott County Kentucky, and bring Randy Wilson’s contributions to education to all those who desire to keep old traditions alive. For more information on Udis' work, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.