James R. Morris, co-founder of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, died July 22. I had the opportunity to work with Jim and with him during the bicentennial celebrations in 1976, when I first started at Smithsonian.
Morris had a double life as a singer, actor, conductor, producer and advocate of art and culture. His creativity was indomitable, and his tenure at Smithsonian was aptly shortened by the title of his 2011 memoir, Smithsonian Impressorio. Even now, since Smithsonian is well known for hiring curators, collection managers and conservators, the title of “Impressario” work will raise eyebrows here and in the wider museum world; Just imagine what it was like in the 1960s. Morris was hired by then-Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, who saw the need for a more attractive, dusty museum to become a more attractive, inclusive, people-connected space, amid deeply mixed social upheavals and optimism of the 1960s. Morris did this by establishing a benchmark performing arts program at the institution.
In 1967, Ripley appointed Morris as the founding director of the Smarsonian Performing Arts Department. 1 Carol5 and 16 in Asheville, North Carolina, created the American Folk Festival and the idea to create a folk festival at the Morris National Mall. The Asheville Festival was a theatrical stage show featuring Pete Cigar and Alan Lomax. When Maurice joined the Smithsonian and followed the idea of folk festivals, he accepted Lomax’s recommendation and hired Ralph Rinzler to direct and include more grassroots, community-based musicians. The first festival of American Folklife was a four-day event and the fourth was held on the weekend of July at the Mall and at the Plaza of the Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History). It attracted nearly 400,000 visitors, media attention and praise from members of Congress. Critics questioned the importance of the festival and the use of the mall, but Maurice remained steadfast and the festival became an annual event.
As the American bicentennial emerges, the festival becomes one of its core national elements, symbolizing the opportunities for American grassroots creativity and its connection to cultures around the world. Until 1976, the festival’s budget and staff grew under Maurice’s direction. Program on it African expatriates, The old way in the new world, Working Americans, Native American, And Regional America A diversity of young cultural scholar-workers was created and recruited who went on to make profound contributions to art and humanities, ethnic and regional studies, African American and Native American programs. The 1976 festival lasted three months, had a budget of over 9 million, and involved about 5,000 artists from each region of the United States and 35 other countries. It also had a travel element, through which festival participants would travel to different cities in the United States. Morris and Rinzler have been named Washington of the Year.
For Maurice, the festival helped ensure the idea of a rich and important American culture. It was a modification of the notion of American cultural insecurity, or the feeling that Americans had to imitate European “high” art in order to be cultured.
Maurice’s cultural interests were wider than the festival, and after the 1976 bicentennial, he and Rinzler separated. Until his demise as director of the performing arts department in 1985, Morris hired surprisingly talented and productive colleagues, Jim Weaver, Bernice Johnson Reagan, Dwight Blocker Bowers, and Ken Slovak among them. He started the critically acclaimed Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, Discovery Theater for School Children, and various performance programs in jazz, American dance, and musical theater. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for his commentary American popular song, And really seminal, Grammy-winning Smithsonian collection of classic jazz Was built under his leadership. The musical program in the history of culture at the National Museum of American History is much to his credit.
Jim’s creative energy extends beyond the Smithsonian. He taught music, performed, wrote scripts, made recordings, and even volunteered for a museum from his home in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, when he retired. Morris participated in a Smithsonian Associates program in 2012 after the publication of his book, and appeared on stage at a festival marking his fiftieth anniversary in 2017, providing his perspective on what he achieved.
Jim Morris is survived by a loving family and his four-decade-old wife, Cynthia Hightower Morris, who also worked for the festival.
Richard Curin is a prominent Smithsonian scholar and ambassador. He served as Smithsonian’s under-secretary for more than a decade and as director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage for two decades.