Showcasing the Arts

Folk Heritage Award

Sue Massek

Washington County

Sue Massek grew up in Kansas where she began performing with her mother singing old time gospel music and songs handed down by generations of family musicians. For more than 50 years, she has called Kentucky home. During that time, Massek toured throughout the United States, Canada, Italy, Guatemala and Nicaragua as a solo artist and as banjo player for The Reel World String Band. For 40 years Reel World performed from the coal fields of Appalachia to the Lincoln Center in New York City. The group was honored with the Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice 2011 Lauren K. Weinberg Humanitarian Award. Reel World recorded seven albums. Massek is one of the Kentucky Arts Council’s first Community Scholars and a mentor for the arts council’s Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Grant program. She has been a teaching artist in Kentucky schools for more than 25 years. Massek was mentored by legendary Kentucky artists Lily May Ledford, Clyde Davenport and Blanche Coldiron. She has three albums: “Precious Memories: The Songs of Sarah Ogan Gunning,” “Brave is the Heart of a Singing Bird” and “Searching for Shady Grove.” In 2015, “Precious Memories” was No. 2 on the International Folk DJ list and Massek was the No. 2 artist. Her song “Brennen’s Ballad” inspired Silas House’s book, “Recruiters.” Beginning in 2012 Massek toured in a one woman play by Si Kahn, about the life of Kentucky native Sarah Ogan Gunning and the coal field wars of Kentucky. “Precious Memories” highlights the music and work of Sarah and her siblings Aunt Molly Jackson and Jim Garland, whose songs became part of the repertoire of folk musicians Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger during the early folk music movement. Massek feels deeply devoted to Appalachia, its cultural heritage and the people who live there.

What does this distinction mean to you?

This award is a validation of the path I chose to follow. When I moved to Kentucky in 1976 it was my dream to become a folklorist and an old time musician. Through the Kentucky Arts Council’s Teaching Art Together grants, I was able to find a way to share my passion for Kentucky’s rich culture and heritage with thousands of Kentucky students. With Reel World we reached beyond anything I imagined as we followed the path of Sarah Ogan Gunning, Pete Seeger and Lily May Ledford. This award lets me know I have served my adopted state of Kentucky well.

You have been an apprentice and a mentor artist in the Kentucky Arts Council Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. Do you think that mentor/apprentice relationship is important, and why?

I believe that the mentor/apprentice program has changed many lives including my own. As an apprentice to Blanche Coldiron I was able to greatly improve my skill on the banjo. What I gleaned from Blanche went beyond that. It was her stories that I treasure, the glimpse of Kentucky from her experience and perspective. As a mentor artist I hope I do the same for my apprentices. I am one of the last artists who actually knew some of Kentucky’s legendary old time musicians. It is my responsibility to pass down the tunes, skills and stories that I learned as well as those I have gathered and written along my journey. I believe that the mentor/apprentice program helps keep Kentucky’s heritage thriving.

How do you promote the relevance of the arts in your own musical practice and performance?

All one needs to do is look at the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s to understand the power of art to bring about progressive social change. A song written by Florence Reece in the midst of the coal field wars of the 1920s is still used when people make a stand for justice and equality. Music makes the medicine go down when the message is difficult for some to accept. Music draws people together as an audience, or more importantly as participants. There is a profound sense of unity when voices are raised together. The arts give voice to those who feel no one is listening.