He's an oddity here in National Airport, moseying along in his cowboy hat with a lanky, unhurried stride as hordes of pale, stressed-out businessmen in gray suits hurry past him, jackets and ties flapping. But Thomas Edison (Brownie) Ford, 83, isn't in a hurry. He's a Louisiana swamp cowboy, and a good ol' cowboy like him knows how to enjoy life.
He's part Comanche, part Anglo, a former rodeo rider, horse trainer, rodeo clown, construction worker, timber hauler and guitar-playing musician. He toured in a Wild West show at age 12. He once found himself riding a cross-eyed mule between the towns of Henderson and Lufkin, Tex., no small hike. He drove railroad spikes with otherwise all-black work crews in the '30s, watched legendary cowboy Bill Pickett wrestle cattle to the ground with his teeth, "and hell, he was an old man when I seen him do it."
Ford, a cowboy singer and storyteller from Hebert, La., is one of 14 recipients of this year's National Heritage Fellowship awards, one-time grants of $5,000 given by the National Endowment for the Arts to exemplary, master folk artists and artisans. He and his fellow recipients will be featured artists at a concert and carnival held at Lisner Auditorium tonight and hosted by actress and writer Ruby Dee. (Admission is free. Tickets are available from Ticketplace at 12th and F streets and at the Lisner box office on a limited basis.)
"It's gonna be a hell of a show," says Joe Wilson, director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, which is staging the gala.
There will be performances and exhibitions by Allison (Totie) Montana, a Mardi Gras chief and costume maker from Louisiana; Louis Bashell, a Slovenian accordionist and polka master from Wisconsin; Genoveva Castellanoz, a Mexican American corona (flower crown) maker from Oregon; Juan Alindato, a carnival mask maker from Ponce, Puerto Rico; Kansuma Fujima, a Japanese American Kabuki dancer from California; Claude Joseph Johnson, an Afro-American religious singer and orator from Georgia; Raymond (Kaleoalohapoinaoleohelemanu) Kane, a Hawaiian slack-key guitarist and singer; Sylvester McIntosh, a Crucian singer and band leader from the Virgin Islands; Wade Mainer, an Appalachian banjo picker and singer from Michigan; Alex Moore Sr., a blues pianist from Texas; husband and wife Emilio and Senaida Romero, Hispanic American crafts workers in tin and embroidery from New Mexico; and Newton Washburn, a split-ash basketmaker from New Hampshire.
Recipients of the National Heritage Fellowships are selected annually by a peer panel of the NEA's Folk Arts Program. The nomination criteria are "excellence, authenticity and significance within a particular artistic tradition." They are regarded as keepers of the flame in areas of American art and culture often ignored or overlooked.
Ford, who sings old western songs, frontier ballads and sentimental ditties such as "Streets of Laredo," is one of those. Born in Gum Springs in the Oklahoma Territory in 1904, son of a Comanche mother and Anglo father, he has the brown, wrinkled, weathered complexion of a Native American who has lived life out-of-doors. An uncle gave him the nickname "Brownie," although he notes, chortling, "There's some others who call me some names you couldn't repeat in polite society."
"I've never seen anything outstanding in what I do," says the old cowhand, who broke horses for the Army during World War I and is considered one of the pioneers of rodeo clowning, "but it's nice that people understand some of the things I've done. I joke an awful lot for a fellow my age. Like Hank Williams said, 'Ain't no use takin' life too serious, because you won't get out of it alive no way.' "
Not that he hasn't had a few close scrapes. Back in his rodeo days, many moons and a few broken bones ago, Ford got himself in a tiff with a rodeo honcho near Henderson, Tex. "We had a fallin' out. I had a job at Lufkin. I told him what he could do with his car and trailer. He said, 'You can't get to Lufkin without me.'
"I said, 'You watch.'
"I hopped on that mule and went down the road."
He got about eight miles before the mule tuckered out. Luckily, a friend happened past in a dump truck. They managed to load the mule onto the back and Ford arrived in Lufkin in time for his next gig. "I ran out of transportation," he says, "but I didn't run out of friends."
Never one to worry, he kept the mule for years and gave it a name, Panhandle. The mule moved well. It fit Ford's motto about life: "Slow down, enjoy it. If it gets to be too swift for you, park awhile.