Folklorist McHale wins grant to study life on backstretch
While most sports fans are anxiously awaiting The Belmont Stakes and I’ll Have Another’s bid for the Triple Crown on Saturday, Ellen McHale will be looking into another, far-less-glamorous side of horse racing.
Executive director at the New York Folklore Society based in Schenectady, McHale is one of five Archie Green Fellowship winners selected by the Library of Congress late last month. As an Archie Green Fellow, McHale will document the culture and traditions of backstretch workers — trainers, grooms, exercise riders, boot and silk makers, saddlers and hot walkers — who work at America’s racetracks and horse farms.
Named after Green, a folklorist who specialized in American folk music related to working-class people, the fellowship is limited to a period of one year for McHale and comes with a cash prize of $21,000. Credited with winning congressional support for passage of the American Folklife Preservation Act of 1976, Green died in 2009 at the age of 91.
Chance to dig deeper
“I’ve been looking into the track and backstretch at Saratoga for several years now, and this fellowship is a great way to help me finish my work,” said McHale, a 1977 Whitehall High School graduate who got her Ph.D. in folklore and folklife from the University of Pennsylvania. “I started out working with the Horse Racing Museum interviewing folks in the backstretch, and it was usually right in the middle of the meet. This grant will give me the opportunity to interview workers when they’re not in the middle of the meet, when they have more leisure time to talk to me, and I’m also going to be able to document their activities for an entire year.”
While McHale will spend much of this summer at Saratoga during the thoroughbred racing season, she will also travel to Florida, Kentucky and Belmont Park in Elmont, Nassau County.
“It really is a unique community of people,” said McHale, a resident of Esperance and a graduate of Wesleyan College in Connecticut. “They have a tradition that is family-based, based on ethnic affiliation, and they have their own vocabulary and their own way of speaking. It’s a part of the horse-racing world that is perfect for a folklorist.”
While the horse owners, trainers and jockeys may make millions of dollars during a successful career, that obviously isn’t the case for the backstretch worker.
“It’s a hard, transient life, and it includes long hours of very difficult work,” said McHale. “There is also some danger. There is a fair amount of risk in this work.”
McHale says she is not a horse racing fan in the typical sense.
“I have a great deal of respect for the people who work with racehorses, but I don’t follow the sport at all,” she said. “I’m into the people part of the sport, and I’m not interested in the front side of the track but the back side.”
The other four recipients of the Archie Green Fellowship selected by the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress were Hannah Harvester of Traditional Arts of Upstate New York in Canton, Deborah Fant of Northwest Folklife in Washington, Murl Reidel of the Kansas Humanities Council and independent scholar Candacy Taylor of San Francisco.
The New York Folklore Society has been at 129 Jay St. in Schenectady since McHale became executive director in 1999.
Founded in 1944 as a branch of the New York State Historical Association, it is a nonprofit organization whose mission includes assisting community folk cultural organizations with programming and administrative skills, as well as helping cultural specialists hone the skills relevant to folk arts documentation and presentation.
For additional information about the New York Folklore Society, visit it online at www.nyfolklore.org.