Archive for May 18th, 2011

Calvin Black, Folk Artist 1903-1972

There’s another terrific website out there called folkstreams.net which is an archive of films that describes itself in its site’s header as “ A National Preserve of Documentary Films about American Roots Culture.”  It is a treasure chest of great fims about roots music (Cajun, Delta Blues, etc.), lost American crafts and folk or outsider art.   Most relate to things that are fading fast in our culture, a sort of  expressive ephemera.  I could spend a day just browsing this site, which makes all of its films available for viewing online.

One of the first films I came across was Possum Trot, made by documentarians Allie Light and Irving Saraf back in 1977, which shows the work of Calvin Black.  Black and his wife, Ruby,  ran a rock shop in the Mojave Desert and in 1954 he began to create life-size female dolls as an added attraction for his shop as well as an outlet for eslf expression.  He created more than 80 dolls each with distinct features, costumes and personalities.  Some were crudely animated and performed in his Birdcage Theatre there, singing in voices recorded by Black himself.
Black died in 1972 and Ruby maintained the attraction for several years but eventually Possum Trot was abandoned and no longer exists today.  The dolls have been dispersed into the folk art collections of the world, one recently fetching about $80,000 at auction. 
There something kind of haunting in seeing this created world that no longer exists but for photos and a little film, as haunting as the dolls themself.  The full 28 minute film is available to see here on the folkstreams.net site.  Here’s a short trailer that gives a great overhead shot of the place when the film was shot in 1977 and has the voice of Calvin Black singing in falsetto as one of his dolls.  Interesting stuff…

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