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Obituaries
in the Press:


– New York Times

– Nashua, NH, Telegraph

– Raliegh, NC, News & Observer

– Ashboro, NC, Courier Tribune


Nancy Sweezy
October 14, 1921 — February 6, 2010

Nancy Sweezy by Sam Sweezy

Memorial
Cambridge, Mass.

On June 26, 2010 there was a memorial in Cambridge, Mass. to honor Nancy and her work.
If you would like more information about the event,
click here and send an email to Sam (ssweezyph@comcast.net).

 

It is with deep sadness that I report the passing of Nancy Sweezy, which occurred today (February 6, 2010) at around 1:00 PM. She died peacefully at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA, not far from her home in Lexington. She was 88 years old, the same age as Bess Hawes.

Like Bess, Nancy was indefatigable in her devotion to and support of the folk arts. She is perhaps best known for reviving North Carolina's famed Jugtown Pottery in the late 1960s and '70s, but her influence and work extend far beyond. She worked in partnership withRalph Rinzler by Charlie Tompkins Ralph Rinzler before Ralph became the Director of the Festival of American Folklife, and helped manage Club 47, a fabled folk-music venue located off Harvard Square. She and Ralph, along with Norman Kennedy courtesy Smithsonian InstitutionNorman Kennedy and others, formed Country Roads, Inc. in 1966 to support a variety of folk-arts educational projects. The group purchased Jugtown in 1968. Nancy moved to North Carolina to manage the pottery and help lead a renewal of interest and vigor in the state's remarkable heritage of production pottery-making. There were about seven traditional potteries operating in the Jugtown/Seagrove area when I first came to know Nancy in the early 1970s. The number has grown to more than 120, thanks in no small part to her work at Jugtown and to her persistent advocacy efforts and skillful PR abilities. Nancy is also appreciated for her development of non-leaded glazes and for instituting an exemplary apprenticeship program, which provided training for many wonderful potters who've become well established throughout the country.
Raised in Clay
Nancy returned to her native New England in the early 1980s after completing her seminal book for the Smithsonian Press titled Raised in Clay: The Southern Pottery Tradition. It remains in print with the University of North Carolina Press.

In Boston, Nancy organized the Refugee Arts Project, a highly effective effort to encourage recent Southeast Asian and other immigrants and refugees to preserve and perpetuate craft, dance and music traditions from their communities of origin. Always a proponent and innovator of apprenticeship programs, Nancy was much sought out as an advisor and consultant to the NEA Folk Arts Program and to countless state and regional folk-arts programs around the nation.
Armenian Folk Arts, Culture, and Identity
In her later years, Nancy took a passionate interest in the traditional crafts of Armenia, making more than a dozen trips to the country (often accompanied by her son Sam, a gifted photographer) during a period of political unrest and uncertainty. She was intrepid and fearless. She edited and co-wrote an indispensable book on the subject for Indiana Press titled Armenian Folk Arts, Culture, and Identity.
The Potter's Eye: Art and Tradition in North Carolina Pottery
In 2005, I invited Nancy to co-curate with the potter Mark Hewitt, the North Carolina Museum of Art's first major exhibition of traditional pottery called The Potter's Eye: Art and Tradition in North Carolina Pottery. She and Mark also collaborated on a beautiful companion book of the same title, which was published by UNC Press. The exhibition and publication have been much praised and appreciated.

The following year, Nancy received the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship, the most fitting tribute possible for her service to the field.

Over the past year we have lost three titanic champions of the traditional arts (Archie, Bess, and Nancy), each of whom cared as much about the human beings who made these arts speak to us so profoundly, as they cared about the art forms themselves – all key figures among a grand generation of public-spirited folklorists.

I should mention in conclusion that Nancy's life prior to her career in the field of public-sector folk arts is equally remarkable, but that will have to be the subject of a later post.

Nancy Sweezy and Bess Hawes were like family to me, and I'll miss them dearly.

George Holt
Director of Performing Arts & Film Programs
North Carolina Museum of Art
President, Country Roads

What sad news, although I knew Nancy was in fragile health for quite some time. It seems fitting that the last time I saw Nancy publicly was at the 50th anniversary celebration for her beloved Club 47, a seven-hour anniversary "hoot" that brought many of her musical friends to town for a weekend long bash.

Nancy was a mentor to me and a wonderful friend. It was an honor to have her at the Lowell Folk Festival a few years ago when I featured several regional Heritage Fellows in the traditional crafts area as part of the NHF's 25th anniversary. Nancy brought a retrospective display of materials from all aspects of her long and inspiring career, and she was tickled by the outpouring of interest in her work, but being Nancy, she would never admit to such pride.
Split-Oak Basket
Many of Nancy's ideas about traditional arts were born with her exposure to rural and occupational crafts in her native New Hampshire, at a time when the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen was being formed in the 1930s. Later Nancy saw the possibilities of combining music and crafts, and worked quietly behind the scenes with her better-known partners Norman Kennedy and Ralph Rinzler to make Country Roads a reality, essentially keeping Brooms, Hand-Weaving, and Tablethe cultural home fires burning up here in Cambridge while they were on the road for the Newport Folk Festival and other events.

Nancy's work with Country Roads was ground-breaking in the 1960s in terms of introducing New Englanders to southern craft traditions, as well as to tradition-bearers and their lives. But that's only part of the story.

Nancy's work with Country Roads dovetailed with her work as president of the board of Club 47 in the 1960s, the legendary folk revival venue in Harvard Square, to which she was introduced by her children and their peers. Unlike most venues at the time, Club 47 was incorporated as a nonprofit educational foundation, and Nancy headed its board. She brought age, experience, and resources such as a stable household to the group – functioning as the " grown up," as more than one person, and Nancy herself, told me when I began my research on Club 47.

Nancy not only helped to guide a generation of performers, producers, managers, and folk-song enthusiasts – what she has called "the supporting cast" – but her being the "grown up" enabled them to bring tradition-bearers such as Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Tom Ashley, Libba Cotton, Bill Monroe by Charlie Tompkinsand many others to town. Club 47 was located a few blocks from the Country Roads shop, and music – and multiple generations of musicians and their admirers – moved back and forth between the two. Tales of Bill Monroe performing at the Country Roads opening live on in local lore. From jamming at Country Roads, he (and others) would do a gig at the club and then stay at Nancy's house, where aspiring music-makers would sit at their feet, learning the songs and listening to the stories. She also hosted people like Elizabeth Cotton at a time when African-Americans were not always comfortable (or welcome) in Harvard Square – the kind of experience of which Nancy once commented, "You can read endless words about discrimination and not learn as much or as fast." Without realizing it, Nancy was creating and educating a community that functions still-more than five decades later – and luckily many of those folks continued to work with her on later endeavors.

Nancy's contributions to uniting music, craft, and exposing New Englanders in and aroundTrinidad Steel Drum Players Boston and Cambridge to southern culture have been documented in books such as Jim Rooney and Eric von Schmidt's Baby, Let Me Follow You Down (U of Massachusetts Press, 1994) and my own work, but her warmth and spirit was harder to capture. Earlier this decade when Doc Watson returned to town to headline a concert in honor of Club Passim, the successor to Club 47, I was privileged to be his "roadie" and ensured that his old friend Nancy was there throughout, both backstageChildren learning Cambodian dance at Kao-I-Dang refugee camp, Thailand,  1986 by Nancy Sweezy reminiscing and during an interview on Boston public radio station WUMB. The depth of their connection thrilled us all and, for me at least, that experience exemplified the often elusive and unarticulated relationships we make in our work, if we're lucky.

Lastly, besides Nancy's work with Country Roads and Club 47, she was a mentor to many of us "younger" folklorists in the region. Her work with Refuge Arts Group, the Armenian Cultural Project, the Silk Road, and her subsequent crafts exhibition and publications are and were an inspiration to us and she was always incredibly generous with sharing her insights and support. Nancy was a kind of institutional memory-and institution-in our field. And like many women, she usually had a quieter, less visible role, but one that was a major contribution to the whole.

Like her friend Bess Hawes, Nancy was there before we were a formally organized field, and she knew what it was like before we had public folklife programs, funding streams, endowments, apprenticeships, appreciation for immigrant traditions, and the like. Nancy reminded those of us lucky enough to work with her how fragile these institutions are and how important it is for us to be advocates for things like hand-made objects, musical traditions, and other genres of artistic expression.

Yes, I too shall miss Nancy dearly.

Millie Rahn

Nancy Sweezy by Sam SweezyNancy Sweezy was born on October 14, 1921, in Flushing, N.Y. to Gertrude Viola MacDougall and Fellows Van Rensaeler Thompson. Her parents divorced when she was 2 years old and her mother remarried not long after to Charles Wesley Adams, Jr. who later adopted her. She grew up in Concord, NH. When Charles lost his job during the depression and the family moved to Franklin, NH, Nancy stayed on in her school and lived in the home of her best friend, Connie Winant, the daughter of New Hampshire's Republican governor Gil Winant. He became like a surrogate father to Nancy. She was to meet Gil again in London during WWII when he replaced Joe Kennedy as the US ambassador to Great Britain and she was working in the OSS. Nancy credits Gil Winant's support and encouragement with giving her courage and a feeling of confidence that carried her through the rest of her eventful and creative life.

At 16, Nancy attended the Museum School of Fine Arts in combination with the Stuart school in Boston. She remembered the wealthier girls there wearing purple or orange hair while the girls who were financially strapped bound broken sneakers up with rags to walk through the winter snows.

After completing school, she married Bill House and moved with him to Washington DC. When World War II broke out she became a nurse's aid in order to contribute to the war effort. Her husband, an accomplished mountaineer, was soon posted to Greenland to test equipment. Fritz Liebert from Yale University offered Nancy a job in the Research and Analysis Branch (R&A) of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the new national intelligence agency for the United States. The R & A division kept track of Germany's capacity to fight the war. The OSS had used its sweeping powers to pluck the brightest and best scholars from universities and government across the country. They collected information from publicly available sources, newspapers and magazines from many parts of the world, and there were seven sections in the R&A branch. Nancy's job was to facilitate information making its way to the relevant section. She was soon working with Chandler Morse, the director of the R & A branch, to coordinate this flow of information.

In November of 1944, Nancy moved with her branch of the R & A division to London, crossing the Atlantic on a bitterly rough trip in a convoy of blacked-out troop ships shielded by US destroyers that zigzagged continually to prevent destruction by German torpedoes. She arrived when the last of the German's air attacks, the V-2 missiles, were falling on London and was invited by Gil Winant, then the American Ambassador to Great Britain, to stay at the US Embassy until she found an apartment. On a tour of Parliament with Ambassador Winant, Nancy was introduced to Churchill, whose gaze she found startling and penetrating. Nancy discovered that the British revered the Ambassador and his staff because they went out to the street after the air raids to help with rescue efforts, and she was soon participating.

During her time in the OSS in London, Nancy wrote reports on German supplies for Washington and sorted captured German small arms by serial number to assess their production for Enemy Operations Unit (EOU). She then moved onto the Continent with her R & A section as the Allied armies prevailed. She was in Paris on Victory Europe (VE) day, walking the city all through its wild night of celebration. She was still in Paris when FDR died and attended his service in the Notre Dame Cathedral.

After Paris, as the US army moved rapidly across Europe to reach Berlin before the Russians, Nancy moved to Weisbaden in Germany where her job was to examine how the Morgenthau plan to de-industrialize and de-Nazify Germany was being conducted. From Weisbadan, Nancy traveled to Vienna and to Berlin, where she was invited by a diplomat, who wished to court her, to view Hitler's underground bunker. This could only be accomplished by backing down a ladder-like stairway directly into the tiny, squalid two-room apartment where Hitler and his new wife, Eva Braun had recently committed suicide.

It was in Germany that Nancy developed a romantic relationship with Paul Sweezy, the chief writer of the R & A reports. Having divorced House earlier in the war, she married Paul when they returned to the United States and then moved to Wilton, New Hampshire. They worked together in the Wallace presidential campaign and Nancy got involved with the League of New Hampshire Crafts, an organization formed during the New Deal in the 1930's to promote traditional arts among the rural poor, and she herself became a potter. Paul Sweezy, a Harvard economist later known as the dean of American Marxists, was called by Louis Wyman, the New Hampshire State Attorney General, to testify before the local un-American Activities Committee in 1951. Nancy herself was called in by the Attorney General and questioned about her participation in the Wallace campaign. When Paul Sweezy refused either to cite the 5th Amendment or to answer questions put to him by the committee about the political affiliations of others, he was cited for contempt of court and threatened with prison. Nancy and Paul moved with their three children to Cambridge in 1956 while the Sweezy case was appealed and finally overturned in a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1957 that heralded a sea change in the country and helped to hasten the end of the McCarthy era.

Nancy and Paul divorced in 1960 and she went on to teach art at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge. She had to leave her job there due to a slipped disc and back surgery. In the early 1960s, Nancy's children and their peers introduced her to the legendary folk revival venue in Harvard Square, the Club 47. Unlike most venues at the time, Club 47 was incorporated as a nonprofit educational foundation and Nancy became the President of its Board. She brought age, experience, and the resources of a stable household, functioning as the "grown up" for this community. In this role, Nancy not only helped to guide a generation of performers, producers, managers, and folk-song enthusiasts (who she called "the supporting cast"), she enabled Club 47 to bring in traditional artists like Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Libba Cotten, Tom Ashley, and John Hurt as well as many others. Nancy hosted the out-of-town performers at her home, where many aspiring musicians would gather, learning songs, listening to stories and sitting at the feet of mentors.

In 1966, Nancy along with Ralph Rinzler and Norman Kennedy (a renowned weaver, balladeer and story teller from Scotland) opened a shop called Sign advertising Country Roads Store created by Jonathan ShahnCountry Roads to sell American handcrafts in Harvard Square – a few blocks from Club 47. Norman set up a large loom in the front window, and musicians moved back and forth between the two venues along with their admirers. Tales of Bill Monroe performing at the store's opening live on in local lore. Without realizing it, Nancy was creating and educating a community that Baby, Let Me Follow You Downfunctions still, more than five decades later, and many of the same individuals continued to work with her on later endeavors. Her contributions are documented by, among others, Millie Rahn as well as Jim Rooney and Eric von Schmidt's book Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.

In 1968, Ralph Rinzler moved to Washington D.C. to co-found the annual Folklife Festival on the Mall and work as a curator for American art, music, and folk culture at the Smithsonian. As a consequence, the Country Roads store in Cambridge closed.

In 1968, Nancy moved to North Carolina and used the non-profit organization's funds to revive the famed Jugtown Pottery. There she lead the way in developing non-leaded glazes and instituted an exemplary apprenticeship program that trained potters who have become established locally in North Carolina and throughout the United States. Nancy demonstrating throwing clay at Smithsonian Folklife FestivalIn addition she helped to create a renewal of interest in North Carolina's remarkable heritage of production pottery making. While there were approximately seven traditional potteries operating in the Seagrove area (where Jugtown is located) in the early 1970's, there are now about 115. In no small part this is thanks to Nancy's management, advocacy and people skills.

In 1980, after completing her seminal book for the Smithsonian Press Raised in Clay: The Southern Pottery Tradition, Nancy returned to her native New England. In Boston, she organized, with Sarah Magruder, Cecily Cook and Elizabeth Morrish, the Refugee Arts Project (RAG), a highly effective effort to encourage recent Southeast Asians as well as other immigrants and refugees to preserve and perpetuate craft, dance and music traditions from their communities of origin. Opening Kiln at Jugtown by Charlie TompkinsRAG mounted an exhibition at the Peabody Museum in Salem, MA; gave seminars at Leslie College; produced dance recitals at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Public Library, and organized a successful weekend festival at the Children's Museum in Boston with museum Director Aylette Jenness; they also established an artists program in the schools. Always a proponent and innovator of apprenticeship programs, Nancy was sought out as an advisor and consultant to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Folk Arts Program and, with the encouragement and collaboration of her old friend at the NEA, Bess Hawes, she served countless state and regional folk-arts programs around the nation. Nancy mentored many folklorists over the years, reminding young folklorists of the importance of advocating for hand-made objects, musical traditions, and other genres of artistic expression.
Jonah and the Whale neckpiece carved of wood by Ruben Hakhverdian. Photo by Sam Sweezy
In the late 1980's Nancy became interested in the traditional crafts of Armenia and made more than a dozen trips to that country (often accompanied by her son Sam Sweezy, a photographer) in the 1990's. Although it was a period of political unrest and uncertainty in Armenia, Nancy, then in her 70's, was intrepid. She gathered material for, edited, co-wrote and eventually published with the Indiana Press a book titled Armenian Folk Arts, Culture, and Identity.

In 2005, George Holt, Director of Performing Arts & Film Programs at the North Carolina Museum of Art invited Nancy to co-curate, along with potter Mark Hewitt, the Museum's first major exhibition of traditional pottery called The Potter's Eye: Art and Tradition in North Carolina Pottery. Nancy and Mark collaborated on a beautiful, well-received companion book of the same title published by UNC Press. The following year, the National Endowment for the Arts presented Nancy with the most fitting tribute for her life long service to the field, the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship. The Fellowship is the highest award for folk and traditional arts in the United States. In the fall of 2008, Ms. Sweezy returned to Jugtown to be interviewed for the award-winning PBS series Craft in America. Throughout her life Ms. Sweezy was an advocate for human rights and a believer in the magic of music, dance, and handmade objects to preserve the soul of a culture and its community. As an intrepid author, teacher, and mentor she was a force in supporting immigrant traditions before there were public folklife programs, funding streams, and endowed apprenticeships. She would be pleased and proud to be remembered as one of a grand generation of public-spirited folklorists.

She is survived by her three children, Sam Sweezy, Lybess Sweezy, and Martha Sweezy, five grandchildren: Kate Brooks, Molly Sweezy, Lily Miller, Isabel Miller, and Theo Sweezy, and four great-grandchildren: the brothers Will, Jack, Cole, and Carson .

Martha Sweezy

from Barry Bergey, Director of Folk and Traditional Arts
at the National Endowment for the Arts:


George,
We were snowed out when your message about Nancy came in. I'm so sorry to hear about her passing. What a great friend and a wonderful advocate for the field. I was remembering her trips to Washington for the Heritage events and the 25th anniversary celebration. After the 25th anniversary event at the Smithsonian Festival, she sent me the following poem/remembrance:

WOULD YOU LIKE TO DANCE?
Washington, 29 June 2007

I never thought I'd dance again,
more than just around the room with my cane

But I did.

Near the end of the Ralph Rinzler Concert
at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival,
this year honoring of my friend and colleague
Bess Lomax Hawes.

A dozen or so National Heritage Fellows are here
to pay their respects to Bess at the concert.
Bess had created this designation in 1984 to make the country
proud of its heritage
and its outstanding traditional artists.

Bess now lives in Oregon,
and Ralph died thirteen years ago.
I worked with them both over many years.
I love them now as I did then and always will
I have come to reminisce about them.
And that will be easy.

But, first there is music to hear, such delicious music.
Liz Carrol opens the show playing her Irish fiddle
in close synchronization with John Doyle's guitar.
Then Cephas and Wiggins rock us with
their Piedmont Blues.

Now it is time to present the National Heritage Fellows.
Barry calls them to the stage, one at a time
to say a few words about their lives and work.
Then he calls me.

I need help so Dan and Richard hoist me up the stairs.
The audience holds its collective breath
until I am standing up.
Then they cheer.
Someone on the stage yodels,
and Michael Doucet sings, "Bienvenue, cher Fellow."

Nancy,  29 June 2007I concentrate on reaching the chair waiting for me
in front of my fellow Fellows.
I sit down, take a mike from Barry,
and speak to the hundreds of up-turned faces,
about how my work with Ralph led me to
Bess and the NEA programs,
and how she had helped guide me,
(among many others,)
into a rewarding professional career.

My sentiments said, I found a new route off the stage,
a ramp at the back leading to the Green Room.
Much easier. I could have gone up it too,
but it wouldn't have been so dramatic an entrance.

Beausoleil now has the stage. Michael and his group
come on strong with their Cajun tunes.
The platform in front of us is filling
with whirling bodies — couples who dance every week,
a mother holding her young child, a couple of older women,
anyone who responds to the music.

Front row toes are in danger. So chairs are being pushed back
higgilty-piggelty and we sit down again
every which way,
mesmerized by the dancing skills
and the energy of the Cajuns.

A very large man suddenly stands in front of me.
"Would you like to dance?"
"No, no, I can't possibly" But he just stands there.
"Well, maybe, if you'll hold me up."
He holds me tightly and I shuffle my feet to the beat.
He asks again and this time I swing my hips around as well,
Folks in the front rows cheer my efforts
and set their cameras flashing.
Lybess beams in wonder.

I thank my dance partner warmly.
He says, "No, no. I thank you. It's an honor to hold the star
of the show in my arms. You can dance, you know.
You just need to get out and do it."
That sounds just like advice from Bess.

Next day, early and well satisfied, Lybess and I
fly back to Boston.
Wherever that new dance floor is, I hope she's giving it a whirl with all of her friends who have gone before her. —Barry

Nancy with the other National Heritage Fellows , 29 June 2007

Unless otherwise credited, photos by Sam Sweezy and Charlie Tompkins.
Book jackets or covers courtesy respective publishers