Jon Kay
Folklore Rescuer

by Rachel Perry

Jon Kay is a product of Nashville Elementary and Brown County High Schools. Although actually born in nearby Bloomington, Jon was ten years old when his family relocated to Nashville to be near his father’s Columbus grocery business. Raised in the middle of three sisters, Jon’s high school memories are surprisingly pleasant. “I loved my years at Brown County,” he said. “I really loved high school and didn’t want to leave. I loved the social aspect of it.” Involved in school plays, music and singing in the a cappella (unaccompanied) choir at Pikes Peak Church of Christ, he unknowingly laid the groundwork for his future.

While still in high school, Jon started hanging around the Daily Grind coffee shop where John Carlisle and other folk singing guitar players provided regular entertainment. “They’d sometimes let me get up and do a song I’d written, encouraging me to play folk music,” Jon explained. Faced with career choices after graduating in 1985, he considered various alternatives. “I thought about doing work with children. My interest in theater did not seem to be a good way to make a living. I was also interested in music but didn’t play piano (a pre-requisite for advanced education in music).” He compromised and enrolled at Indiana University with a major in Elementary Education.

Jon Kay completely changed his focus when, by chance, he took a Folklore course with Warren Roberts. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do!’ I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a state folklorist (actually there wasn’t one in Indiana at the time). I didn’t know what the options were, other than being a professor.” Jon immediately changed his major from Elementary Education to Folklore.

But the road to an academic profession was to be a long and winding one. After transferring to a Christian school in Florida for a few years, Jon returned to Nashville to work in a shop, Mountain Made Music, and pursue his passion for playing guitar and dulcimer. “I was really kind of floundering, not knowing what I wanted to do. Then in 1989 my grandfather died. I was close to him. He was the person I’d go hunt ginseng with, and the person who made walking sticks and hickory ax handles,” Jon said. “It really got me thinking about disappearing traditions.”

But music kept Jon busy as he established a name and played in ever-widening circles. Beginning with regular shows at the Story Inn and providing music for weddings, he then began to travel, providing the opening act for big names throughout the Midwest. In 1992-93 he performed all over the United States, ultimately winning the Midwest Dulcimer Championship.

Jon Kay’s singer/song writer shows gradually changed into performances using stories about locals in the area. He used early photo-journalist Frank Hohenberger’s photos, artist T.C. Steele’s history, and readings from Kin Hubbard’s writing and Meredith Nicholson’s Hoosiers to put together a local media program. He also started doing oral history interviews and expanding his interest to all of southern Indiana.

Returning to college, Jon finally earned his Bachelor’s degree at Indiana University. He then pursued his Master’s degree in folklore at Kentucky State University in Bowling Green, accompanied by his wife, Mandy. Trying to get as much experience as possible, he worked as an intern in the state park system, was a consultant with the Kentucky Folklife Program, took a Research Assistant position with the Kentucky Museum, and went on a tour of duty as an Artist in Residence.

“I did a residency at a school where I documented local culture with grade school kids,” Jon remembered. “I really like linking generations together. One of the best things that happened was I found some women who grew up doing “play party” songs. A lot of folks who were religious thought dancing was wrong, but they did walking games that they would sing to. Since no instrumental music was being played, it wasn’t technically dancing. I found two ladies from the community and brought them into the classroom where they taught their great-grandchildren how to do these games. The last time I checked they were still doing it. They all kind of grabbed onto their local heritage that was almost gone.”

A job working at the State Folk Culture Center, lured Jon to Florida, where he trained people, including AmeriCorps volunteers, in traditional arts. After 9/11, when funding dried up for the annual folk festival, he stepped in and grew it into an event that featured more than 200 acts each day, attracting 30,000 people to the small town of White Springs in north Florida. “Each year I tried to improve it a little bit more,” he said. “This last year, on Memorial Day weekend, we had Arlo Guthrie, among others.”

In February of 2004, Jon Kay was offered the job of director of Traditional Arts Indiana with the Indiana Arts Commission. He returned to Brown County with Mandy and their four-year-old son to re-discover his home state’s traditions. Coming full circle, Jon has landed in his dream job, living where his roots are deep. “I’m singing in the choir at the Pikes Peak Church of Christ again,” he laughed.

“In Kentucky they wove an air of mystique, an Appalachian tradition that they emphasized,” Jon said. “But it’s here in Indiana. We’ve got great Gospel traditions and craftsmen, and Indiana’s known for its fiddling.” Jon’s job is to document, and perhaps revive those traditions. “I’m a facilitator,” he declared. “That’s what I’m good at—helping other people tell their stories.”