Falling in Love with the Folk School: Sparrow’s Music & Dance Mentorship Experience

As a musician, maker, and mountain gal, the John C. Campbell Folk School has tugged at my heart for most of my memory. My Grandma Judy attended classes for weaving in the early 1980s, and she told me about the magic of the Folk School. I’ve heard that sentiment echoed many times over my last 15 years of living in Asheville, but life is busy and expensive, and I’ve never managed to make it happen till this topsy turvy year stopped time as we knew it. The Traditional Music and Dance Mentorship Program was the stuff of my wildest dreams, and I will carry and share the lessons I learned for the rest of my days.

What an enormous privilege and pleasure, to learn and study and play and walk and listen and eat, for an entire month! Thinking back on this time gives me chills and laughter and tears, all at once. I am a mother and partner, and just having space away from housework and cooking and the daily work of life, allowed me to dive so deep into the well of knowledge the teachers offered.

Music Mentees: Amy Alvey, Sarah Adams, and Sparrow Pants on the Log Cabin Porch.

My fellow music and dance mentees, Sarah Adams and Amy Alvey, are incredible musicians, and I’m honored to count them as friends. Together, we learned from four teachers over four weeks, walked the wooded paths, had so many conversations, and asked so many questions. Performing and teaching traditional crafts involves a level of responsibility, to learn our history, so we can share this art in as authentic and respectful way possible. Plus, the past is full of great stories!

Our teachers were Annie Fain Barralon, Kathy Bullock, Riley Baugus, and Aubrey Atwater. Here is an overview of what we learned with each of them.
Week 1: Annie Fain Barralon

In my first encounter with Annie Fain, I felt like I’d met someone who I wanted to count as a new lifelong friend. She grew up around the Folk School, sleeping under the piano while her parents played old time tunes into the evening, running round these hills with her younger siblings, dancing with friends at the weekly dances and festivals and teams. Annie Fain played with the classic all-women old-time band the Blue Eyed Girl, danced with the famous Green Grass Cloggers, currently leads a Morris dance team, and she was the Music & Dance Coordinator at the Folk School for years. She’s also an amazing visual artist. To say that she’s accomplished is an understatement, and on top of living the life, she received a degree in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University in Boone.

Annie Fain ended up traveling around France, spending time with the old-time community, and met her husband there. His family is very involved in traditional music and dance in France, and there are many parallels with the paths and passions of both their families. They have a tour called Le Bal Itinérant, where they walk from town to town, set up a stage and a pizza oven on wheels, and put on dances with traditional music. Of course, this sounds absolutely amazing to me, with my background in Vaudeville and my love of Euro Folk! They now have two kids and live in Brasstown.

We talked about the place of folk music and dance in various cultures, and how important it is for bringing people together.

We learned about Olive Dame, Cecil Sharp, Francis Child, John Jacob Niles, and other early song catchers. These musicologists found a direct link between Scottish and English folk ballads and the Appalachian ballad singing tradition, with songs brought over mostly by Scots-Irish immigrants and preserved in the isolated coves and hollers of Appalachia. I did some further reading on the subject in the book Wayfaring Stranger, written by Fiona Ritchie and Douglas Orr, which was extremely informative, especially about the pre-immigration history of the Scots-Irish.The work done by these early songcatchers did so much to preserve and document an incredibly rich musical tradition, and it’s fascinating how many ancient songs were passed down by oral tradition.

We also talked about how many of these folks only found what they were looking for, without seeing beyond their preconceived notions of tradition. This often meant overlooking or intentionally leaving out the important contributions and traditions of African Americans and Native Americans in these mountains. Cecil Sharp seemed to miss the rich, strong, instrumental music tradition here, perhaps because he didn’t ask, or people weren’t forthcoming, perhaps shy to share the instruments that sometimes weren’t approved by their churches. Throughout the mentorship, we discussed how Cecil Sharp’s anglocentric and, frankly, racist opinions and priorities in collecting have affected the public view of what folk music is.

Annie Fain shared about the history timeline of the “Folk School” concept, from Denmark to Appalachia, and from the 19th century to the present. We also learned about the greater history of the Western North Carolina region, homeland of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. The Unicoi Turnpike went right by the Folk School grounds, and the area was full of indigenous farms, villages, and gathering places before Europeans came to the areas. Folks lived side by side for generations before the Indian Removal Act cruelly forced over 20,000 Native Americans to leave their beloved ancestral homes and march West to Oklahoma. About a quarter of them died along the way. As I walked the land every day, marveling in its beauty, I often also ruminated on the intense weight of that loss, which is just unthinkably tragic.

We did a lot of dancing this first week, learning the basics and of flat footing and clogging. We added some fun steps throughout the week and strung them together into a little pattern/choreography. Annie Fain is a great dancer and fun teacher, sharing stories of her time dancing with the Green Grass Cloggers as well as the importance of dance at the Folk School. Between clogging and Morris dance teams, weekly contra dances, and the Fall Festival event, there’s lots of moving and shaking on the grounds!

Learning tunes was also a daily part of our routine, adding a song or two per day and practicing what we had learned on previous days. The first day, we learned two French traditional tunes, one waltz and one mazurca, and the dances that go with them, to illustrate the sometimes subtle differences in musical forms that you can feel more by knowing the dances. The music informs the dance and vice versa, so it’s great to know both. The rest of the week was dedicated to banjo tunes, which was nice to get our feet wet before our banjo intensive week with Riley Baugus!

I felt like the first week was a great introduction to the mentorship program, helping us get grounded in the Folk School, and introducing us to the subjects that we expounded upon throughout the month. I wrote a new song toward the end of the week called “Where You Abide,” that is about the deep sense of place that I felt at the school, walking around every day, thinkin about the certainty of change, but also about what stays the same.

Weaving Mentee, Allie, Tends the Wood-fired Oven

Wandering the Wooded Paths of the Folk School.

Sarah in the Herb Garden Timber Framed Pavilion
Week 2: Kathy Bullock

Kathy is one of those marvelous people who just radiates joy. When you walk into a room that she is in, you can’t help but be caught up in the singing, dancing, freedom loving moment. At home in front of a piano, Kathy is as likely to sing what she means as she is to speak it. Born and raised in Washington DC, the daughter of a Baptist preacher, Kathy Bullock grew up steeped in the gorgeous and profoundly influential tradition of African American gospel music, singing and playing piano in the church. She earned her doctorate in Music Theory, and went on to share her love of the art, teaching at Berea College for 30 years. She retired this spring and had lots of teaching around the country and the world planned before COVID-19 derailed everyone’s year.

This week was an especially profound learning experience for all of us. Amy and I both realized that we’ve never had an African American teacher before (though we’ve read lots of articles and books written by people of color), which I’m sure has had an effect on the way we view the world. It is so important to have diverse voices in our intake. Singing with Kathy is transcendent. She got us to open up and be loose in our bodies while singing, holding harmonies while moving and swaying. You can’t take yourself too seriously while doing silly (yet effective) singing warm ups, buzzing and whooping and stretching our bodies and vocal ranges.

We talked about the importance of spirituals, from the time of enslavement, through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement, and still today. We learned a lot about the damaging stereotypes of the Minstrel show, where white actors would put on Blackface and grotesquely imitate African American culture, while taking and popularizing the African American music. Watching the documentary Racial Notions together in the evening was deeply uncomfortable but extremely educational about how these horrendous tropes contributed to discrimination and racism in popular culture. Together, we explored and learned about Black folks in Appalachia. We looked up statistics about the racial percentages of population throughout the south over the 1800s to get a better understanding of how slavery was distributed. While there were certainly many enslaved people in Appalachia, the numbers weren’t nearly as high as in the lowland plantations. We wondered if this might have caused more cultural mixing of sorts. When the population is small and remote, perhaps enslaved folks might have played more music with the white folks around? This hypothesis definitely doesn’t assume that racism was any less up in the mountains, just possibly a bit different. We do know that there were many many Black fiddle and banjo players all over the south, many playing music for dances and entertainment. The broad genre of “Old Time” has a lot of African American influence along with the British, Scottish, and Irish fiddle tunes imported by settlers, and Native American melodies and rhythms that mixed in as well.

Once recording started, the marketing of the record companies made the styles very segregated. “Hillbilly music”, was more of the string band, old time country style stuff, and was marketed to whites, and mostly white, male, bands were recorded, even though there were many black bands (and women) playing this style of music. Many record companies had also had a “Race Record” label, which was mostly focused on recording jug band, ragtime, blues, and a little later, jazz. Again, at first the record companies only recorded male artists, but the Blues Queens like Ma Rainey and then Bessie Smith sold lots of records and broke some of those barriers down. On the Hillbilly side of things, the Carter Family were some of the first female leads to be recorded and have success.

We sang so many songs with Kathy that I didn’t even manage to write them all down! She had us try our hands at writing a blues tune too, which was fun. Kathy has a lovely way of teaching a tune, she plays it on the piano, getting everyone to sing the melody. Once that’s solid, she’ll sing a harmony part and teach it to each of us while the others keep going with the melody, adding in the layers one at a time. In our mentorship group, Amy was singing soprano, I was mostly on melody, and Sarah took the alto part. If any of us struggled with a part, she’d just sing it with us. Occasionally, with challenging sections, we’d stop the whole thing and really break it down, till we each felt totally comfortable with our part. When we really got going, she’d sometimes add in another part, doing sweet bass runs or swirling around above, weaving through with improvised texture. What a delight!

Sparrow & Sarah Playing Tunes Around the Campfire

Sparrow at the Forge (Elizabeth Belz taught the mentees an intro to Blacksmithing workshop one evening.)

Pie in the Dining Hall
Week 3: Riley Baugus

Class with Riley Baugus is a hoot. An accomplished musician, patient teacher, and hilarious character, Riley instilled a deeper understanding and new level of love of the banjo. Riley grew up close to Surrey County, where legendary fiddlers and banjo players Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham lived. Starting fiddle when he was 10, he spent years playing tunes with Tommy as often as he could make it up- often several times a week, soaking in the source. He played music on weekends while working full time as a blacksmith and welder for nearly twenty years before getting a call from Dirk Powell, who asked him about making some civil war era fretless banjos for the movie Cold Mountain. Riley’s involvement with the making of that soundtrack opened many doors for him, made a career as a full time musician more accessible, and led to many exciting tours and collaborations (like playing on Willie Nelson’s Country Music album and tour!!!!).

The theme of the week seemed to be exploring different tunings. Because of clawhammer banjo’s unique playing technique, different songs work best with specific tunings. I was familiar with three tunings before going into this class: open, modal/sawmill, and double C (or capoed to double D), but over the course of one week, I learned around 7 or 8 different ways to tune the banjo! This concept really opened a lot up for me creatively. I wrote two new songs almost right away, and figured out new ways to play songs that my partner Keith had written, as well as learning all the tunes Riley presented us with.

I was especially excited about banjo week with Riley because my goal for the year (made even before Covid-19 changed everything) was to feel comfortable and confident at an old time jam with my banjo. I know enough of the simple chestnuts to be able to hang at most beginner jams, but banjo has primarily been a songwriting instrument for me, so the more intermediate jams have been pretty intimidating. Also, to be honest, I’ve been so busy playing gigs every night for the last 7 years that I haven’t had time to just go sit down and try! I have been wanting to dive deeper into the traditions of the instrument, and get more fluent in the language of Appalachian old time. I’m delighted to continue lessons with Riley. I finally found my banjo teacher that I’ve been looking for, to step up my chops and learn lots of tunes, grounded in tradition but with a playful and current attitude that keeps the music fresh and fun.
Week 4: Aubrey Atwater

Aubrey’s enthusiasm and curiosity are contagious, and her boundless energy put us gals to shame. An accomplished dancer, musician, teacher, and folklorist, Aubrey has been teaching at the Folk School for decades. She had a tough week to fill, the last of four, when our minds were tired and pretty full, but we were also wanting to soak up every last drop of information we possibly could. Aubrey is an incredibly prepared teacher, with handouts and lots of workshop topics-, from ballads to banjo to dulcimer to flatfoot clogging.  We danced every day, learned a lot about Jean Richie, and explored modes and methods on the Appliachian dulcimer. We also talked quite a bit about career options, getting creative with income streams, and the skill of teaching.

Bringing Grandma Judy’s Mountain Dulcimer to Meet Its Maker

Playing Dulcimer in Aubrey’s Class

Class with Aubrey Atwater

One of my loveliest moments of the mentorship was taking a field trip with Aubrey to the Kelischek Music Shop, about a mile up the road from the school, on the penultimate day of the mentorship. I walked with these now beloved friends, carrying the dulcimer that my Grandmother had bought from the music shop in the early 80s, still in its original box. After a very quiet year, with the folk school closed, George was extremely happy to have musicians in his shop. When he saw the dulcimer, he was so excited to see this instrument he had made 40 years ago, that he asked to buy it back from me, and promptly tuned it up and played us a song. When I explained that it was sentimental for me as well, and I didn’t want to part with it, he just handed it back and played us a tune on one of his homemade hurdy gurdys. What a character, and what a shop! Hardanger fiddles, a viola de gamba, some black sea kemenches, bowed psalteries, and of course, the famous Susato whistles and recorders. The shop is a treasure trove of historic and unusual instruments, and we were like kids in a candy shop.

Session 1 Mentee Group
The last week of the mentorship was bittersweet. So many memories were made during the month, strong friendships formed, connections created. There were nine of us students on campus, plus the resident Elizabeth, all craftswomen, and we bonded deeply. We had fires each Friday night, and the very last one was extra special, with a big silly dance party, baskets woven, and songs shared. Saturday morning, I took my time packing up, and went on one last big long walk all around campus, through the forest, and down along the stream. I’ll be counting the days till I can make it back again. 

“Victory Garden” in the Folk School Garden
Written by Sparrow; performed by Sparrow & Keith a.k.a The Resonant Rogues

I wrote this tune during early quarantine, when lots of folks were starting gardens.
It made me think of the victory gardens during WWll, and all of the women who throughout history have worked so hard to feed their kids.
Special love, support, and appreciation to all of the single parents out there.

About the 2020 Mentorship Program
The 2020 Traditional Craft Mentorship Program was a grant-funded opportunity for early-to-mid-career artists to spend a month at the Folk School, learning from master artisans. The unique situation of the Folk School closure due to COVID-19 allowed us to offer 6, 1-month-long programs, with 3 students per program, and 2-4 mentors working collaboratively and independently in studios. Subjects included: Basketry, Music & Dance, Weaving, Blacksmithing, Chairmaking, and Fiber Arts.

We’ll be announcing 2022 Mentorship opportunities in July 2021. Sign up for our eNewsletter to learn about upcoming opportunities.

The post Falling in Love with the Folk School:
Sparrow’s Music & Dance Mentorship Experience appeared first on John C. Campbell Folk School Blog.
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