Kentucky folk culture is more than tobacco farmers and fiddle players to Bob Gates.
It’s the Puerto Rican barber in Louisville who cuts designs in the hair of young patrons.
It’s the skilled group of Rolley-Hole marble players in Monroe County who’ve won numerous national tournaments in the offbeat sport.
It’s also the demolition derby driver in Bellepoint who rises early on warm summer mornings to prepare his clunker for the Franklin County Fair’s annual battle royal.
Bob Gates, director of the state’s folklife program, sees folk culture as the fabric that makes up our everyday lives and, collectively, Kentucky’s heritage.
“Our job here has been to show folk culture is everybody, new people and old people,” said Bob, a 61-year-old Cincinnati native.
He’s been to every corner of the state, documenting the people and history that make up Kentucky’s diverse heritage.
But it’s not the career he envisioned for himself when first entering the workforce. Bob studied psychology as an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati and experimental psychology during a short stay in Villanova’s graduate program.
“I never thought I’d do folklore,” Bob said. “I didn’t know what folklore was until Lynwood Montell told me what it was.”
He met Lynwood, a well-known folklife guru who taught at Western Kentucky University and wrote numerous books on Kentucky folklore, while handling a black history project in Cincinnati’s west end for a cultural center there. He moonlighted as a police dispatcher and also taught photography at the center.
Bob was paid through a government grant to photograph old pictures in the historically black neighborhood, oftentimes lugging a tripod and large format camera into strangers’ homes.
He took pictures of old photographs, mounting them on refrigerators with magnets for consistency.
Bob still has a print in his office of a group standing outside a Cincinnati employment office sometime around 1910. He remembers documenting pictures of black musicians who came into town looking for a gig during the 1930s and 1940s, and the cultural center used those for an exhibit on the Cotton Club, a staple for young black musicians looking for a gig in Cincinnati.
“In our exhibit, we had this fence there with blowups of some of the guys there standing around. Then we got a house band, and it was really good,” Bob said.
“So I kind got a reputation for doing that kind of thing, which is really reenacting peoples’ folk culture or getting people to appreciate their traditions that are handed down by word of mouth. That’s what folklore is.”
Lynwood held a workshop at the center and stayed with Bob during his time in Cincinnati. The two stayed up, trading ghost stories to pass the night.
Bob also told him about his project in the Queen City’s west end, and Lynwood urged him to pursue his newfound interest further.
“He said, ‘You know what you’re doing is folk studies, and you ought to get a degree in it.’ So he got me to go to WKU, and I got my masters in folk studies.”
Bob graduated from Western Kentucky University with degree in folk studies and found work in upstate New York and Tennessee before landing in Louisiana as the state’s folklorist, a premiere job considering Bob’s predecessor, Nick Spitzer, left for a job with the Smithsonian.
He learned a lot about Cajun heritage during his three years in Louisiana, especially appreciating the unique people and food in bayou country.
After his third year in Louisiana, Berea College received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and planned to set up the state’s first folklife program.
Bob was hired as Kentucky’s first folklorist and worked three and a half years in Madison County before the program became a joint operation of the Kentucky Historical Society and Kentucky Arts Council in 1992, which led to his position today.
As director of the state’s folklife program, Bob oversees the vast documentation of different areas’ and peoples’ cultural contributions to Kentucky.
That’s led him down some interesting roads.
A few years ago in Shelbyville, for instance, Bob took his family to a Good Friday service to document a traditional Hispanic Way of the Cross ceremony. The procession, including a man depicting Jesus Christ, blocked half the street.
Some in the congregation saw Bob taking pictures and led him to the church’s chapel, where a Guatemalan alfombra – basically a carpet made from dyed sawdust – covered the aisle.
“It surprised me because I didn’t even know it was going on until somebody showed it to me,” Bob said. “That’s the neat thing about fieldwork. You start on it and don’t know what you’re going to find.”
Bob started working with Jose Neil Donis, the man responsible for the alfombra and now editor at the Louisville Spanish newspaper El Dia, on documenting the Guatemalan practice. Jose put together an example currently on display at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History as part of the folklife program’s exhibit on master folk artists in the state.
“He was kind of an artist in his own country, and down in Guatemala they do it throughout whole streets,” Bob said. “They say that, and this is what they told me, when the Pope came to Guatemala, his feet never touched the ground because he was always walking on this sawdust.”
Bob’s work has also led him to Monroe County, where he met dedicated legions of marble players who specialized in Rolley-Hole, a game with rules similar to golf and croquet.
Players team up and play on a dirt surface similar in size to a tennis court. Three holes barely larger than the marbles are evenly spaced on the yard, and players alternate shots, aiming to make it in the cup and knock away the opposing team’s marbles.
Shots can sometimes soar up to 20 feet in the air, and players have essentially mastered the game. Rolley-Hole players there play in the Monroe County Marble Club Super Dome and have won national championships at Standing Stone National Park in Livingston, Tenn., dating back to 1999.
The Monroe County players even traveled to England to play in a tournament under traditional marble rules and won because of their skill in shooting.
The marble game is a staple of the Monroe County Watermelon Festival and county fair, and Bob asked the men to show off their talents at folklife demonstrations around the state.
“It’s funny because we used to show this around the state at demonstrations, and people’d say, ‘Oh, we did that when we were kids.’ So it was a game that was all over the state, but it’s really kind of only played in Monroe County now and Scott County, Tenn.”
Bob looks for the art in everyday life to put on display, and sometimes inspiration comes nearby.
“I live in Bellepoint and one morning I woke up on Saturday at like 8 o’clock in the morning, this guy was hammering on his car, and he’s getting his car ready for a demolition derby,” Bob said.
“… So I said, ‘This is a folk group too, I think,’ and I started taking pictures of what he was doing and followed him up to the county fair and watched them that day when they were doing it, and it’s like a whole community of people.”
Bob’s focus isn’t on the offbeat or strange, but rather what gives Kentucky its cultural identity.
Sometimes, it may be as simple as showing an audience how to make transparent pie, a sweet, creamy dessert from the Maysville area. Other times, Bob may choose to show how other cultures have brought and adapted native customs to Kentucky, such as the Guatemalan alfombra in Shelbyville.
“Some of the things they do don’t fit in here and some of the things fit really fine, and they have to adapt to it. This is one of the ways they adapted to it, by working with the priest and letting them at least, they can’t do it in the streets but they can do it in a church.
“And it brings them all together and makes them feel good about being here.”
It also opens his eyes to new experiences, like when he discovered how much he enjoyed floating down a river while working on a project about riverboats.
A towboat pushed a few barges down the Green River around midnight, and Bob sat at the very front of the convoy.
“And so I’m up in the very front taking a few pictures, but it was dark and you couldn’t hear the engines behind you,” he said.
“It’s like you’re floating down the river really fast on a surfboard.”
Bob also learned some things about his own heritage through this job. He recently interviewed his father about life as a police officer in Cincinnati as well as his time in the military during World War II. His parents have also shown audiences at folklife festivals how to make goetta, a breakfast sausage popular in Cincinnati.
Learning about other cultures gives him a better understanding of his own, but Bob still enjoys sitting down and listening to others tell their stories.
“It always feels like you’re doing something good, in a way, even when you’re just writing grant applications,” Bob said. “That’s a lot of what I do is administrative work.
“But I think the most fun I get out of it is doing the interview with somebody, getting to know somebody, sitting down with them and them sharing something with me they don’t even tell their own family oftentimes, because we’ve creating the feeling that they can share their stories to me and getting the relationship started with them.”