Rackensack Folklore Society, Pulaski County
The Rackensack Folklore Society, Pulaski County (RFSPC) was founded in mid-1963 by noted political cartoonist and avocational folk musician George Fisher and his associates; it is the oldest continuously operating folklore society in Arkansas. Fisher was encouraged by his friend Jimmy Driftwood, who had helped to found the original Rackensack Folklore Society in Mountain View (Stone County) a few months earlier. In a 1988 interview, Fisher said, “About the same rationale was behind the Little Rock-based group as the Stone County group. We wanted to preserve the sound of a people who settled this country, to play valid, traditional music and keep it as pure as possible.” Besides Fisher, other charter members included Frank Johnson, Kenneth Blessing, and Warren Wilhite. The first meeting was held at the Arkansas Arts Center (AAC), now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (AMFA); monthly gatherings continued there for the next fifty-six years.
During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the entire nation was experiencing a revival of old-time music; folk music festivals were being held in many states, and new folk songs were being penned by enthusiastic balladeers. Fisher stated: “It was difficult to get started…all the college kids thought Rackensack was supposed to be a vehicle for protest songs.” He rejected such songs and encouraged playing the ancestral music of past generations that reflected the country’s own history of railroads, cowboys, and cotton fields, as well as blues, gospel, and other genres. He was adamant about the type of music performed and the acoustic instruments played: “If [it] has to be plugged in, it’s not a musical instrument….Listen for banjos, guitars, fiddles, dulcimers, harmonicas, and mandolins.” Fisher’s love of folk music was intensified during his World War II years in England, when he became interested in connecting American folk music with earlier versions found in the British Isles and elsewhere.
The format of the first meetings was explained in a letter on RFSPC letterhead, dated September 17, 1963, about the “regular” meeting at the AAC: “whoever performs…will be called on to discuss and give background on the subject of his or her performance, and afterward, group discussion will be held.” With the rapid increase in players and audience numbers, more emphasis came to be placed on musical performance and less on discussion.
A friendly arrangement was made in which Rackensack could meet regularly at the AAC in exchange for providing musicians, whenever called upon, to play for art exhibition receptions or open-house occasions. Fisher’s meeting announcements often stated, “Musicians Wanted,” urging players to sign up to help “pay the rent.” RFSPC continued growing and began to perform regularly for civic functions and charitable events. By 1972, annual concerts were held in the AAC auditorium, which presented more opportunities to share traditional music with large, supportive audiences.
In the early 1970s, Fisher began to create single-page bulletins with humorous original cartoons as monthly meeting announcements, which also contained news about performance events, as well as listings of new members. The bulletins continued into the early 2000s and, along with the e-newsletter created in 2016, offer a historic record of the continuing involvement of RFSPC as “community players” for festivals, churches, libraries, and charitable and civic functions over many decades. RFSPC played annually at the Arkansas Folk Festival in Mountain View and was invited to perform at the Governor’s Mansion, the Old State House Museum, and various heritage festivals.
After AAC/AMFA closed in mid-2019 for renovations, Curran Hall in the MacArthur Park Historic District of Little Rock became a temporary meeting place, but in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused another interruption. In 2021, monthly gatherings began to be held at the Jess Odom Community Center in Maumelle (Pulaski County). The RFSPC continues in its stated mission to “promote and preserve old-time traditional music, especially Ozark folksongs and tunes” as a long-time contributor to the musical culture of the state and nation.
For additional information:
Camp, Marcia. “Ozark Celebration, the Music of George Fisher.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 19, 2004, p. 7B.
Cox, Dorothy. “Rackensack 25, Rarin’ to Play.” Arkansas Gazette, June 24, 1988, p. 1B.
Danielson, Kay. “Noted Cartoonist Remains Quiet Personality.” Dumas Clarion, April 22, 1987, p. 4C.
Charlotte M. Copeland
Rackensack Folklore Society, Pulaski County
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