A Reinvigorating Interdisciplinary Community

by Claire Beiter, 21C American Studies

In the beginning stages of completing my honors thesis, I envisioned a project that relied upon interviews and relationship building to get to know the artists and administrators behind the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Music Maker is a non-profit that seeks to preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices will not be silenced by poverty and time. In early 2020, I pictured myself interning with the non-profit in person, spending time at its office in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and sitting down with dozens of their partner musicians. When I began my undergraduate humanities honors fellowship at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, the COVID-19 pandemic had completely shifted the trajectory of my project and most of my research and fieldwork had become virtual. My time as a fellow not only aided me in developing a new path for my honors thesis, but it also provided a vibrant scholarly community that I learned from and grew alongside as I completed my project.

One of the most impactful parts of my time at the Fox Center was the feedback and conversation from fellows and faculty members that shaped my project. After sharing my research in the undergraduate honors fellows’ third meeting, Dr. Melion asked the very poignant question: “What is relief? What are artists being relieved from?” This question and the continued refining of my research that it provoked allowed me to more deeply explore the causes of many traditional southern musicians’ limited exposure today and the continued work that fights to eliminate those conditions. Many of the Music Maker Relief Foundation’s partner artists are over the age of 60 and living in poverty. Music Maker attempts to provide relief to these artists by holistically supporting not only the creation of their art, but also the individuals creating the art. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented challenges on many partner artists. In addition to their increased risk from the COVID-19 virus itself, older musicians, many of whom have been unable to perform online or in-person, are isolated from their artistic and personal communities. In the pandemic era, Music Maker has had to expand their definition of relief to include their normal support and address the increased needs of partner artists.

My fellowship at the Fox Center became a sort of relief from the isolation of online school. Virtual learning, while it has increased my technological capabilities and zoom skills, has been a rather lonely experience. One of my favorite parts of attending Emory has been getting to know faculty and engaging with my peers in intellectual conversation. When we shifted from classrooms to zoom rooms, it became difficult to mirror the stimulating and personal setting of in-person learning and discussion. Being a Fox Center fellow was one of the most influential experiences I have had in my undergraduate education, because it reinvigorated my passion for academic exchange and meaningful scholarly connection. Fox Center fellows study a vast range of topics but are brought together by a love of learning. As my project came to fruition over the past few months, I also took immense joy in learning about topics completely unrelated to my own. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful community of fellows and for Dr. Melion, Keith, and Colette for their support. From my interactions with postdoctoral fellows studying in my prospective field to my conversations with fellow undergraduates with very different passions, my semester at the Fox Center has made me a better scholar and a better person. The project I completed this semester and the knowledge I gained from listening to my peers will stay with me after graduation this May and guide me as I begin graduate school in the fall.

Claire Beiter is a senior majoring in American Studies and minoring in French. Her honors thesis explores the work of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a non-profit and record label headquartered in Hillsborough, North Carolina that partners with traditional musicians in the southeastern United States to ensure that their voices are not silenced by poverty and time. Claire’s thesis considers the historically exploitative relationship between collectors and musicians in the American South and the work of other contemporary organizations who seek to preserve southern traditions. Her project includes an organizational history of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an analysis of their COVID-19 response, and an exploration of their network of Atlanta-based artists.

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