ORONO, Maine — One of the best memories Nick Spitzer has of the Bangor area came in 2003 during the second summer of the National Folk Festival.
A group of Louisiana musicians called La Bande Feufollet took the stage, and one of the band members took the microphone to ask whether anyone in the audience spoke French.
“About 30 percent of the audience stood up,” said Louisiana resident Spitzer, the host of National Public Radio’s “American Routes” show and a member of the group that helped Bangor win a three-year stint as host of the folk festival. “I could tell those people were like, ‘Look at us!’ The French population remains distinct in a positive sense, but then suddenly culture was being shared. And I think there were a lot of those moments of outside-insider sync-ups.”
Spitzer was back in the area last week to attempt again to strengthen the area’s folklife connections. He gave the keynote address Friday on the UMaine campus for the Hartgen Award dinner, during which it was announced that Spitzer will serve as honorary chairman for the Maine Folklife Center’s yearlong fundraising drive.
Folklife Center Director Pauleena MacDougall announced the fundraising effort, which will aim to bring in $900,000 to add to approximately $100,000 already in an endowment fund in honor of Edward “Sandy” Ives, the longtime UMaine anthropology and folklife professor who died Aug. 1, 2009.
Ives, who founded the Maine Folklife Center, received the Hartgen Award posthumously.
MacDougall said she approached Spitzer about helping with the fundraising effort for a number of reasons, including his connections to Maine; his acquaintance with Ives, whom Spitzer hosted in Louisiana in the mid-1990s; and Spitzer’s national profile.
“American Routes” reaches nearly a million listeners each week on over 225 stations and XM Satellite Radio, according to the show’s website.
The show is based in New Orleans, where Spitzer is a professor of anthropology and American studies at Tulane University.
“It just seemed like a natural,” MacDougall said. “We needed someone with national recognition to speak for us, because sometimes I think we’re not as well-known as we should be, and I don’t think people really know how much of an impact we’ve had on the field of folklore nationally and internationally. Nick can help us get the word out.”
The center’s budget is now $82,000, and MacDougall is its only staff member. Interest earned from the endowment would be put toward hiring more staff.
Nearly 200 UMaine students take one of three folklore courses offered at the school, MacDougall said.
In addition to Spitzer’s involvement with the National Folk Festival — he is a member of the board of the National Council of the Traditional Arts, which helped produce the folk festival — he also has visited Maine to speak at conferences, as a tourist, and to visit his sister, who lives in the Portland area.
Ives’ work was known throughout the U.S. and Canada, and the Maine Folklife Center has a similar reputation, Spitzer said. His efforts with the center will go toward putting the center “on the map of the University of Maine.”
“I think this program needs to be able to articulate almost a wider, ethnographic understanding of Maine and build a public discourse that brings in students and helps the legislators and academic administrators understand the potential there,” Spitzer said. “It is a tough task when you only have one [staff member] left there, but I think the ideas and the aesthetics of all this stuff are really powerful. It’s a matter of articulating them.”
For information about the Maine Folklife Center, go to www.umaine.edu/folklife/.