Sunday, September 20, 2009

Jean Ritchie and Frostburg Appalachian Festival

We got an early start yesterday morning and arrived in Frostburg with plenty of time to find the storytelling venue. We also connected with one of my long-ago friends.

One of the best things about blogging is the people you meet, and in this case the person was someone I'd attended elementary school with and had not seen in over 40 years. Debbie and her husband drove up from northern Virginia to meet us and hear the storytelling. What a pure pleasure to link up again after so long! Debbie had found my blog and has been a reader for about a year, and we've renewed our long-ago friendship. Her husband was a lot of fun too, and a great companion for the day. Debbie brought along a photo of our 3rd and 4th grade classes from the small Catholic school we'd attended. It was surprising how many of the people we could recall.

Debbie, me and Ellouise Schoettler

Storytellers for the concert were Katie Ross, me and Ellouise Schoettler. Katie's husband Otto provided banjo music between sets and for the occasional sing-along. We had a small but steady audience and the afternoon went well. Once again ballads proved to be a popular part of my performance, and I was glad for another opportunity to introduce people to these old songs that so many are unfamiliar with.

Singing Railroad Boy. Like many ballads, this one has an unhappy ending, but the melody is haunting and memorable. Ballads were sung unaccompanied in the beginning, but now there is often an instrumental accompaniment. I sing in the traditional unaccompanied style.

We spent some time wandering the festival grounds, listening to music and looking at the crafts available. I was happy to find some fresh-ground buckwheat flour for pancakes. Then it was off to dinner at Guiseppe's, an Italian restaurant in Frostburg. Conversation was lively, as you can imagine. We said goodbye to Debbie and her husband and headed off to the Jean Ritchie concert.

One of the spontaneous jam sessions that sprinkled the grounds. The young man in the center wearing the tan hat was a great singer and performer.

When Jean Ritchie arrived at the Palace Theatre in downtown Frostburg, a hush immediately fell over the long line of people waiting to enter the theatre. To their credit, no one rushed up to her and tried to talk to her...but cameras, including mine were certainly flashing! I felt almost guilty, like a paparazzi, as I snapped a few photos of Jean and her two sons making their way inside.

The opening act was obviously raw and perhaps new the performance stage. They enlightened the audience about their aunt, Ola Belle Reed of North Carolina, a songwriter whose most famous song is the bluegrass tune "High on a Mountain." I like that song and was interested to hear about its creator. I have to say I've heard better bands, but then I can't play a note so who am I to judge?

Then Jean Ritchie took the stage.

What can I say about Jean Ritchie? Her long history as a folk music pioneer, bringing her family's ballad-singing tradition to the world in the 60's, her contribution to the appreciation of the mountain dulcimer, her original songs against strip-mining and even now her writings in opposition to mountaintop removal, her voice that has gained character and resonance with the years, her grace and dignity onstage and her comfortable, front-porch style of performance that made us all feel like we were the only one she was talking to? Or what about the songs and the background on them that she shared? Her two sons performed with her. Their care of their mother and their gentleness was a tribute to this family's love and their awareness that she is indeed a national treasure.

Jean sang a ballad she called "The Walking Song" because people where she grew up often sang it as they walked along the branch (creek) in Kentucky where she grew up; she sang Shady Grove, Skin and Bones, Nottamum (Nottingham) Town, her anti-stripmining anthem "Black Water." (You can hear a version of her singing it when she was younger on YouTube.) Cool of the Day was my favorite, a reminder to us all to care for this earth we have been gifted. There were others, too. I did not write them down because I was mesmerized by her voice and presence on the stage as she talked simply about her music, her family and her love for her homeplace in Kentucky.

Jean and her sons onstage.

It was an evening I will long remember. If you do not know Jean Ritchie's music, do try to find some and listen. Hers is the voice of the mountains, distilled into words and music. Being there to hear her in person was worth every minute of lost sleep and long travel.

I heard through a friend that Jean will be performing during the first week of October in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, for another Appalachian Festival. I checked their schedule, and Jean is scheduled for Saturday, October 3rd. Click here to read about this festival and information on performers.


Nance said...

Sounds like a fun, interesting time. I was glad to learn of Jean Ritchie and I followed the links to youtube. My dad made dulcimers, one for each of his nine children and then sold many more, and I enjoyed Jean Ritchie's Shady Grove. Thank you.

Cathy said...

I am betting you guys did a great job! It has to be wonderful to see old friends from grade school.
I saw Jean Richie years ago (not going to show my age here) and fell in love with her. I asked my mother for a dulcimer later that year while we were at Cedar Lakes and she bought it for me. I love playing it but I never was very good at it. She's just an awesome artist and one of our country's jewels.

Granny Sue said...

Nance, I hope you find more of her music. She has some powerful songs and her ballads are really wonderful. I learned tonight that she was born in 1922! She's 87 and still performing? Amazing.

I hope we did, Cathy. It was fun and we were in this little room they used as a chapel so acoustics were good. I was glad not to be outside in a tent. So difficult to compete with all the other noise and music. We didn't need mics at all.

Susan at Stony River said...

It sounds like a wonderful time!

I sympathise with your 'paparazzi' moment. So often I want to snap someone, then hesitate because it feels rude, then get home and think damn I should've taken that photo.


Granny Sue said...

Eaxctly, Susan. It happens all the time. I see this old couple every morning on their porch. They're drinking coffee and between them is this bright red table. It's such a picture, but I feel like I'm intruding if I were to take a photo of them. I have an old neighbor I'd very much like to photograph--he's like a throwback to the English peasant days, an incredible face and eyes. But I don't want to exploit him for my purposes either.

Nance said...

I did find more of Jean's music. Sat up WAY too long last night. I am just a natural born, native W. Virginian at heart.

I have a dulcimer that my dad made but can't begin to play it. So sent a link of Jean's music to my nieces that can.

Granny Sue said...

How neat, Nance. I have a dulcimer too that I play for my ears only. which is okay too-music doesn't always have to be for performance. sometimes it's just for our own enjoyment.

Nance said...

oh, and that is the way I sing. I don't share with anyone but a grandchild. But I do love to sing . . . tho I can't carry a tune in a bucket.

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