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Norman Kennedy

Aug. 28, 1933

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Weaver, singer and storyteller Norman Kennedy has passed along the lessons in tradition and self-sufficiency he learned as a boy in Scotland. “The old ways were easier because people had to find the least complicated ways to do things out of necessity,” he says. 2003, National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Arlington, Virginia, photograph by Jim Saah, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Jacket in old style Scottish tweed made by Norman Kennedy, set at 18 threads per inch. Handspun weft from Barra, Scotland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Jacket in old style Scottish tweed made by Norman Kennedy, set at 18 threads per inch. Handspun weft from Barra, Scotland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Jacket in old style Scottish tweed made by Norman Kennedy, set at 18 threads per inch. Handspun weft from Barra, Scotland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Man's shirt made by Norman Kennedy, linen warp and weft, set at 30 threads per inch, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Man's shirt made by Norman Kennedy (detail), linen warp and weft, set 30 threads per inch, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Man's shirt made by Norman Kennedy (detail), linen warp and weft, set at 30 threads per inch, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Norman Kennedy, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Overshot coverlet by Norman Kennedy, Governor's Garden pattern, cotton warp set at 30 threads per inch, handspun wool weft, hand-dyed with indigo, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Overshot coverlet by Norman Kennedy, Governor's Garden pattern, cotton warp set at 30 threads per inch, handspun wool weft, hand-dyed with indigo, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Overshot coverlet by Norman Kennedy, Governor's Garden pattern, cotton warp set at 30 threads per inch, handspun wool weft, hand-dyed with indigo, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Bench carpet by Norman Kennedy (detail), woven with tapestry technique in Balkan Style, Hand-dyed, partially handspun wool weft, Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Bench carpet by Norman Kennedy (detail), woven with tapestry technique in Balkan Style, hand-dyed, partially handspun wool weft, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Bench carpet by Norman Kennedy, woven with tapestry technique in Balkan Style, hand-dyed, partially handspun wool weft, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Rio Grande blanket by Norman Kennedy (detail), all handspun wool, yarn set at 6 threads per inch, woven 24 threads per inch, hand-dyed with indigo, cochineal and logwood, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Rio Grande blanket by Norman Kennedy (detail), all handspun wool, yarn set at 6 threads per inch, woven 24 threads per inch, hand-dyed with indigo, cochineal and logwood, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Rio Grande blanket by Norman Kennedy (detail), all handspun wool, yarn set at 6 threads per inch, woven 24 threads per inch, hand-dyed with indigo, cochineal and logwood, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Norman Kennedy wearing one of his hand-woven blankets, Arlington, Virginia, 2003, photograph by Alan Govenar

Norman Kennedy is a native of Aberdeen, Scotland. His family had lived for centuries in the area, where his people had been seafarers. During World War II, he was sent to live with family in Methlick, Aberdeenshire, where his relatives were living a traditional, largely self-sufficient life. He learned to harvest food and make cheese and wine. He left school at 16 and began weaving. “The hard times forced people to fall back on their skills,” he said. “The thing is, the lucky ones were the ones who had something to fall back on. The ones who had forgotten them literally went under.”

During the 1950s, Kennedy spent several weeks each year on the isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, becoming familiar with local customs and the Gaelic language. In 1965, he was invited to perform at the Newport Folk festival in a program on the origins of the American ballad tradition. The next year he returned to the United States, at the invitation of Ralph Rinzler, to collect textiles and other folk crafts for the Country Roads Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Kennedy ran the spinning and weaving shed at Colonial Williamsburg for four years. “The old ways were easier because people had to find the least complicated ways to do things out of necessity,” he told an interviewer.

He moved to the U.S. in 1965 and traveled extensively, performing, teaching and conducting workshops in Canada and Great Britain. He also began singing with a group of country dancers and spent a great deal of time with Jeannie Robertson and other neighbors who were singers and storytellers.

In the early 1970s, Kennedy became active in a local Gaelic club, and in 1974, he started the Marshfield School of Weaving in Vermont. “You can tell stories, you can recite them, you can sing them," he said. "These songs are my roots; they're older and more important than I am.

“This style of weaving is from generations past when people were much closer to the truths about what life's about. Too many people weaving nowadays are totally late twentieth century. Folks get really excited about computerized looms and things like that, but I think those who are fascinated by machinery are giving their responsibility to the machine. I'm interested in seeing what people are doing, but much of the new stuff has no taste; it's like bread without salt. The old stuff is salty and tasty.”

Bibliography
Calta, Marialisa. “Warp, Woof and Waulk: Shrinking the Tweeds in Vermont.” The New York Times (March 1989).
_____. “Vermonter: Norman Kennedy; Echoes of Scotland in the Green Mountains.” Vermont Life Profile (Autumn, 1988).
Slater, Deborah. “Norman Kennedy-Weaver at Williamsburg.” Handweaver & Craftsman, vol. 23.
Wallace-Brodeur. “Norman Kennedy: Singing Weaver of Marshfield.” The Sunday Rutland Herald and The Sunday Times Argus (November 1980).

Discography
Kennedy, Norman. Ballads & Songs of Scotland. Folk-Legacy, 2010.
____________. Live in Scotland. Scottish Living Tradition LTCD2002.
____________. From Wood to Waulking: Spinning Wool and Creating Cloth. Interweave DVD.
____________. More Stories and Songs of the Old People. Golden Fleece audio cassette, 1992.

Watch

Norman Kennedy interviewed by Nicholas R. Spitzer, 2003 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Arlington, Virginia, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Excerpt from Waulking with Norman Kennedy by Jack Baxter and David Hanna, 1990, courtesy El Gato Productions


Norman Kennedy, 2003 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Listen

Norman Kennedy answers the question 'Did your parents support your decision to weave?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar

Norman Kennedy answers the question 'What was your experience like when you came to America?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar

Norman Kennedy performs the traditional ballad 'Jacque-o Hazeldean,' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar

Norman Kennedy performs a traditional Gaelic poem, Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar

Norman Kennedy answers the question 'When did you get your first loom?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar

Norman Kennedy answers the question 'What is your view on legacy?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar

Norman Kennedy answers the question 'What did you learn from your elders?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar

Norman Kennedy answers the question 'When did you come to America?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar