JONESBORO — A pair of experts who have researched and authored publications about legendary singer Johnny Cash and the New Deal era will be the keynote speakers at the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival Symposium, Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 19-21, in Dyess.
Michael Streissguth, a professor of communication and film studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and Bill McDowell, a professor of art and art history at the University of Vermont in Burlington, will be on hand to discuss topics pertaining to the symposium, “Johnny Cash: Arts and Artistry from the New Deal into the 21st Century.”
“Streissguth brings great insights into the impact that Dyess had on Johnny Cash and his music,” Dr. Ruth Hawkins, director of the Arkansas State University Heritage Sites program said. “Additionally, his work on Cash, along with McDowell’s New Deal photographs, will open very personal windows into this important era in our nation’s history.”
Streissguth has written three books on Cash, including Johnny Cash: The Biography. He has written and directed a documentary film on Cash’s Folsom Prison concert, authored numerous articles and teaches a class titled, “American Culture and the Art of Johnny Cash.”
He is currently serving as a consultant to Florentine Films on the documentary now in production, “Country Music,” directed by Ken Burns.
“Cash’s childhood in Dyess informed aspects of his art, which, in turn, became important vehicles for understanding a bygone place and time as well as larger cultural phenomena,” said Streissguth.
“His immersion in gospel music, proximity to people who lived on the fringes of society, reliance on radio for escape, news and music, all found their way into his music, television shows and prose writing which, in turn, became windows through which we could understand American life.”
Streissguth earned his Master of Arts degree in communications in 1990 from Purdue University and his Bachelor of Arts in journalism and history from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1988.
McDowell’s recently published book, Ground: A Reprise of Photographs from the Farm Security Administration (FSA), includes the printed lyrics to “Sunken Land” by Rosanne Cash, a nod to the hardships of life in Dyess.
“Bill McDowell’s work is especially relevant to the festival and symposium because he provides insight into the context in which the region’s heritage was documented during the New Deal era,” stated Dr. Gregory Hansen, professor of folklore and English and chair of the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival Symposium.
Published in 2016, the book includes “killed” negatives from photographers commissioned by the Farm Security Administration from 1934-43 to document the plight of poor farmers in America during the Great Depression. The head of the FSA photography division routinely defaced unselected negatives with a hole punch to prevent them from being printed.
“These photographs are owned, technically, by the American people,” McDowell stated. “I like it that each photograph in Ground is the result of three separate acts of picture making: the original photographer’s deliberate compositional and contextual choices, Roy Stryker’s hole punch, and my recontextualization.
“Since one can’t assign sole authorship to these photographs, it’s possible to view this project as an interactive body of work influenced both by photographic conventions of the 1930s and by those of today.”
McDowell received his Master of Fine Arts degree in photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, in New York, and his Bachelor of Arts degree in human ecology from College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Maine.
A new chapter was announced in May with the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival. The new event that combines educational activities in Dyess, as well as entertainment and special events, continues the legacy of the earlier concert series held in Jonesboro.
Hawkins noted the event would become a true festival by extending to a three-day event that includes both educational and entertainment components.
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Photos attached: Michael Streissguth and Bill McDowell.