Claude Stephenson was having lunch recently in Santa Fe when the conversation turned to which place in San Antonio, N.M., had the best green chile cheeseburger, the Owl Bar & Cafe or the Buckhorn Tavern.
Stephenson argued for the Buckhorn, for its food as well as its ambiance. He noted that owner Bobby Olguin — whose family has operated the tavern for generations — is not just a good cook, but a musician as well.
“I’m the state folklorist,” Stephenson said. “I know where all the colorful characters are.”
Stephenson, a native of Alamogordo, undoubtedly always will know where the colorful characters — and the great food — are. But after the end of the year, he’ll no longer have the title of state folklorist. After 23 years of working at that job, Stephenson, 61, is retiring.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what a “state folklorist” is. Before he got the job and a friend first tipped him off that there was an opening for the position, Stephenson said his first reaction was: “There’s a job like that?”
There is. The state created the position in the 1980s when a woman named Bess Lomax Hawes, director of the Folk and Traditional Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, was trying to get all 50 states to appoint state folklorists. Dawes was the daughter of musicologist John Lomax and the sister of Alan Lomax, both of whom are famous for their field recordings of folk musicians.
The position started out under the Museum of International Folk Art, though by the time Stephenson started in the position in 1991, it was under the state Office of Cultural Affairs, where it remains today.
It seemed like a perfect fit for Stephenson, who is an accomplished musician. Since the 1970s, he has volunteered at KUNM in Albuquerque, hosting folk music shows as well as a long-running program that featured New Mexican musicians performing live in the studio.
“The main goal of the state folklorist is to document, preserve and perpetuate the traditional cultures of the people of New Mexico,” Stephenson said. “You do that in a lot of ways.”
Many associate the word lore with stories, written or oral. But there’s much more to it than that, Stephenson said. “Lore is a body of knowledge. That can be a lot of things. Material arts like weaving, pottery, basket-making, saddle-making, boot-making, guitar. It can be food, cooking and family recipes, cultural recipes.”
One of Stephenson’s proudest accomplishments was organizing the biggest ever matachin dancer gathering in the Southwest, which took place in 2008 at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. Stephenson wrote his dissertation for his Ph.D. on the music of matachines — ritual dance dramas featuring colorful masks and costumes.
The two-day event featured nine dance groups. Most were from New Mexico, though there also was a Yaqui group from southern Arizona and a Raramuri group from the Sierra Madres in Mexico. Some of the groups were reluctant, Stephenson said. Some of them had never before danced outside their own communities.
Stephenson also organized a series of concerts in 2010 that were recorded on a CD called Masters of New Mexico Traditional Folk Music. Folk musicians from the three major ethnic groups in the state performed.
“We wanted to get musicians to play in places that normally don’t get to see them,” he said. “So we brought Northern New Mexico Hispanic musicians to Gallup, traditional Native American musicians to Raton and cowboy musicians — well, there’s not many places where you can’t find cowboy music in this state, so we had the cowboy musicians play right in the middle of the state, Socorro.”
Sometimes his work as state folklorist got him in trouble, Stephenson said. This happened while he was trying trying to preserve Native American basket-weaving techniques. Stephenson was arranging for Jicarilla Apache weavers to teach Mescalero Apache weavers how to make “winnowing” baskets and for the Mescaleros to teach the Jicarillas to make “burden” baskets.
Some Jicarillas complained that he was trying to make them give up tribal secrets, Stephenson said. They complained to the tribal president, who then wrote Stephenson a “nasty letter” telling him he no longer was welcome on the Jicarilla Reservation. That controversy eventually blew over, Stephenson said.
In recent years, with budget cuts and hiring freezes, Stephenson said his job as folklorist has entailed more and more administrative responsibilities, not all of which were related to folklore. For instance, he serves as the Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, manages the state component of the National Endowment for the Arts American Masterpieces program and is in charge of the state Music Commission. He also was a member of the New Mexico Centennial Steering Committee.
All those added duties have meant that Stephenson isn’t out on the road talking to matachin dancers, basket weavers or cowboy singers, or munching green chile cheeseburgers at the Buckhorn as much as he used to, or as much as he’d like.
He said he told his supervisors when he first started working there that “you don’t find folklore sitting at a desk in Santa Fe. You’ve got to go out into the communities, to celebrations and fiestas, to churches, to bars.” Then he joked, “So when you see my car parked in front of a bar, I’m doing field work.”
This article has been amended to reflect the following correction: The name of the director of the Folk and Traditional Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts is Bess Lomax Hawes.