Catching up with Maggie Holtzberg, the Bay State’s on-the-go ‘folklorist’

Maggie Holtzberg, manager of the Folk Arts & Heritage Program for state agency Mass Cultural Council, began playing traditional fiddle styles in her teens. "I do think that being a musician yourself can be helpful in evaluating and assessing musicians in other traditions. You feel you’re with family, because you have something in common."

Boston-area resident Maggie Holtzberg’s job involves looking after one of Massachusetts’s most prized attributes: its folk traditions.

As manager of the Folk Arts & Heritage Program for the state’s Mass Cultural Council agency, Holtzberg researches and documents the array of ethnic and cultural artistic activities within the Bay State, from Irish dance and Cape Breton fiddle to Wampanoag regalia and Chinese seal carving. And she plays an important role in ensuring these traditions are passed along, notably through helping oversee the agency’s Artist Fellowships in the Traditional Arts and Traditional Arts Apprenticeships. 

She also nominates traditional artists for National Endowment of the Arts National Heritage Fellowship awards – among those earning NEA honors were renowned fiddler Seamus Connolly, former director of Irish music programs at Boston College,in 2014, and the late Boston-area accordionist Joe Derrane in 2012.

An equally vital task for Holtzberg is bringing Massachusetts folk arts to the attention of the greater public through special events and exhibitions, driving home the point that these pursuits are neither archaic nor irrelevant but a vital expression of the communities in which they originated.

In 2008, for example, Holtzberg curated a major exhibition, “Keepers of Traditions: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts,” a collaboration between the Mass Cultural Council and the National Heritage Museum in Lexington (the Boston Phoenix praised “Keepers of Traditions” for “the news it brings of magic that’s close at hand but under the radar”). The exhibition, featuring 100 works by more than 70 Massachusetts traditional artists, has been preserved in book form. She has also organized innumerable concerts featuring traditional musicians and dancers.

While her work entails considerable organizational and administrative skills, Holtzberg – typically referred to as the “state folklorist” – also is well suited to the task by virtue of being a practitioner of folk arts herself. She has been playing traditional Irish and Scottish fiddle since her teens, and in the late 1970s/early ’80s was part of How to Change a Flat Tire, an American band with an innovative approach to Celtic music. 

In any case, Holtzberg is clearly good at her job, which hasn’t been limited to Massachusetts; she did similar work in Georgia and Alabama before joining the Mass Cultural Council in 1999. While in Alabama, she served as co-director and producer of the documentary “Gandy Dancers” – “gandy” being a slang term used for early railroad workers in the United States – which aired on PBS. She has also authored the book “The Lost World of the Craft Printer” and produced the recording “Georgia Folk: A Sampler of Traditional Sound.” In 2018, she was presented with the American Folklore Society’s Benjamin A. Botkin Prize in recognition of her lifetime achievement in public folklore. 

“I do think that being a musician yourself can be helpful in evaluating and assessing musicians in other traditions,” says Holtzberg, a New York state native whose acumen for folklore goes back to elementary school. “You feel you’re with family, because you have something in common. They appreciate your interest in and sensitivity to their particular tradition, whether it’s from Ireland, South India, Africa, or any other place.

“The challenge for me is acquiring cultural competence in such a huge variety of traditions and arts, and working to help ensure that all the ethnic communities are represented in the state. The idea is to have just enough knowledge to ask intelligent questions, so that you can learn more.”

Recently, Holtzberg experienced one of the more satisfying aspects of her job: announcing the recipients of the MCC’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants. This year’s cohort includes Boston-area Irish dance performer and teacher Kieran Jordan, who will work with Rebecca McGowan, a co-founder of local Irish dance ensemble Rising Step; Jordan was awarded an apprenticeship grant in 2011 to teach fiddler/dancer Emerald Rae. Other apprenticeships supported include Khmer ornaments and forms, wooden shipbuilding and restoration, and North Indian tabla. 

Given the economic impact of COVID-19 on state and individual finances alike, Holtzberg had reason to wonder whether the MCC programs would get any reasonable amount of funding; in fact, they were level-funded, which in this day and age was something of a triumph.

 “Our staff people worked really hard to survey the field and get information on these artists, which they shared with legislators,” she says. “It was very heartening to see the support for arts and culture.”

The Massachusetts Irish music and dance community has been well-represented in the agency’s Arts Fellowship and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants over the years. Past winners have included fiddler Laurel Martin and apprentice Natalya Kay; flute/whistle player Jimmy Noonan; sean-nos singer Bridget Fitzgerald and apprentice Michael O’Leary; uilleann piper Joey Abarta and apprentice Caroline O’Shea; flute/whistle player Shannon Heaton, creator of the “Irish Music Stories” podcast; and the Boston Celtic Music Fest.  

Holtzberg’s interest in folklore and folk music began quite early. She still has a journal of traditional songs she compiled from talking with groundskeepers in the Blue Ridge mountains during a sojourn, at age 10, with the Trailside Country School, an experiential learning program that used the natural environment, national parks, local farmers, and cultural experts as classrooms and teachers.

“We traveled around the country and slept in flimsy green canvas tents,” recalls Holtzberg, who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in ethnomusicology and a graduate degree in folklore. “We’d meet with tradition-bearers, who would tell us about their music or crafts. I learned how to interview people, which of course is a vital part of being a folklorist.”

Although she started out playing classical violin in third grade – she once got to meet the creator and namesake of the famed Suzuki method – and attended the Julliard Pre-College Program, Holtzberg found herself increasingly drawn to folk and traditional fiddle styles. When she was 14, she became part of a square dance band, playing with distinguished New England folk musicians Bob McQuillen and Dudley Laufman, and started competing in fiddle contests. While attending college in the New York City area, she would head off to local Irish music sessions. Then, in 1976, she went on a trip to the Shetland Islands, where she studied with fiddler Tom Anderson, a master of the Shetland tradition. 

Transferring to Wesleyan College in 1977, she met up with Jim Cowdery, a member of the Celtic quintet How to Change a Flat Tire, and thus began what she regards as her definitive band experience. “HTCAFT” had just released its first album, “A Point of Departure,” which had caught the attention of many Irish/Celtic music listeners because of the group’s distinctive sound: heavy on fretted-string instruments (mandolins, banjo and guitar) combined with flute, tin whistle, concertina and bodhran, as well as recorder – the latter not exactly commonplace in Irish tradition. HTCAFT’s arrangements also were striking for that time, often incorporating harmonies and intricate countermelodies.

The band had recently seen two of its members leave, and Holtzberg accepted the invitation to join, bringing not only a dominant melody instrument into the mix but also her interest in Scottish/Shetland music. During her four-year stint with HTCAFT, the group recorded “Traditional Music of Ireland and Shetland” in 1978 and a third album released on cassette. 

“That was really the pinnacle in some ways for me,” says Holtzberg, who recently created an HTCAFT channel on YouTube [search for “How to Change a Flat Tire – Celtic Band”] to make available some of its recordings, including the band’s third album. “They were good friends, fun to play with, and Jim Cowdery had some interesting musical ideas.”

Holtzberg has had other enjoyable collaborations since then: recording four albums of British and American folk music with Bill Crofut and Benjamin Luxon; touring Northern Ireland with southern Appalachian musicians The Georgia Firecrackers; and performing with The Flexible Flyers String Band and Boston Spelemannslag (a Norwegian hardanger fiddle group). More recently, she participated in the 2017 Boston Celtic Music Fest’s Nightcap finale concert.

Her life as a folklorist and folk musician has broadened Holtzberg’s perspective on the nature of traditional music. “In general, traditional music is, and has long been, a kind of participatory sport: The idea is to make the music – sing the song, play the tune – a means of socializing, getting others to join in the activity with you.

“But if you take that music and you put it on a stage, you change the nature of it. Now it’s become performative. So if you’re the musician or singer, you need to do more to engage the audience. Some people can manage to do both things very well, but not everyone can. Yet they’re each in their own way important expressions of traditional music.”

All of which underscores the point, says Holtzberg, that folk musicians – like other kinds of folk artists – are not otherworldly or esoteric, but human beings like anyone else, with their own individual sets of strengths, weaknesses, preferences .and, yes, quirks. It’s a useful perspective in evaluating candidates for the apprenticeship grants, she says.

“We rely on panels that include academics, folklorists, ethnologists, and tradition-bearers to make the awards, using review criteria. There are a number of considerations: the artistic quality of the candidate’s work; his or her teaching ability; the apprentice’s skills, and his or her commitment to continue the tradition; the feasibility of the work plan; and the potential impact on the vitality of the tradition. There also have to be letters of recommendation for both the teacher and apprentice.”

While the terms “master” and “apprentice” may have generational connotations, the ages of either are not necessarily relevant, notes Holtzberg: “If a 29 year old has mastered a particular folk art or tradition, and has a clear ability to teach it, there’s no reason he or she cannot work with an apprentice – even if that person may be older.”

Holtzberg says the impact of COVID-19 on MCC programming and operations has been considerable: For example, public events and exhibitions have had to be retooled for virtual format, which is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. And there is the larger, ongoing question of existing socioeconomic disparities among communities that limit support for folk arts-related activities.

“There are some issues which go beyond our purview,” says Holtzberg, “but we’re very conscious of our mission as a state agency funded by taxpayers. And we are thrilled to have these avenues to support traditional arts and music in Massachusetts.”

For information about Mass Cultural Council – including the Artist Fellowships and Traditional Arts Apprenticeships programs – go to