Southern Roots festival offers concert, workshops
PUTNEY -- A celebration of Southern Roots music will take place in Putney on Friday and Saturday, when Elkins, W.V., folklorists and singers Michael and Carrie Kline join Brattleboro’s Scott Ainslie, to showcase their deep musical ties to the Allegheny Mountains.
Friday’s 8 p.m. concert at Next Stage, 15 Kimball Hill, will include blues, songs, stories, banjo and fiddle tunes in a tribute to the Hammons Family of West Virginia. The musical legacy of the Hammonses still reverberates throughout the southern mountains, and remains an influence in the wider geography of the contemporary old-time music scene.
In addition to Friday’s concert, there will be workshops on Saturday for musicians interested in claw-hammer banjo (9 a.m.); Southern Old-Time style fiddling (10 a.m.); and for singers and the general public (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.) at Putney Cares, 54 Kimball Hill Road.
Produced by Barb Ackemann and Ainslie, Southern Roots, is a complementary counterpoint to Brattleboro’s popular Northern Roots weekend that is presented annually in late January by Ainslie’s neighbors, Keith Murphy and Becky Tracy.
"The Northern Roots thing is great, but something happened when this music went south," said Ainslie, explaining his reasons for putting on this festival. "Because some of the old-time songs are coming north, I’d like to see some of the southern playing style come with them."
Ainslie first met the Hammonses in 1971, as a college student and folk guitarist, traveling with his geology professor, Odell McGuire, who was learning to play claw-hammer banjo. Together, they visited many senior old-time musicians in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.
Their West Virginia pilgrimages took them to Marlinton in Pocahontas County and the Hammonses -- a family with a lineage of singers, banjo players and fiddlers with a history that stretched back into the 1770s. The impact of these senior musicians was seminal, both personally and in terms of the wider revival, documentation, and development of the music of West Virginia and Southern old-time music throughout the later third of the 20th century.
As the audience will find, the old stories and music quickly catapult listeners back into the times and experiences of the Hammons’ pioneering grandparents who settled on the Williams River in the deep forests of the high country back when it was just a blank spot on the map in Pocahontas County -- 13 miles of wilderness from the nearest settlement.
"No other family has left such an iconic musical mark on the culture and history of West Virginia," Michael Kline says.
This first family of West Virginia music was recorded as early as 1947, with more than 50 fiddle tunes of Edden Hammons being documented by the Library of Congress.
In the 1970s, Edden’s descendants -- Maggie Hammons Parker (1899-1987), Sherman Hammons (1903-1988) and Burl Hammons (1908-1993) -- were once again recorded for a double album set of fiddle tunes, banjo tunes, stories and songs by the Library of Congress, released as "The Hammons Family: A Study of a West Virginia Family’s Traditions."
In addition to these siblings, there was the elder Lee Hammons (1886-1980), a neighbor and custodian of a remarkable claw-hammer banjo style that was untouched by modern recorded music. The elder Hammons had stopped playing fiddle and banjo in 1923 and didn’t take it up again until 1969.
Ainslie says, "Old Man Lee’s banjo playing remains unmatched by any other recorded traditional musician. We have just a few tunes recorded. But no one else touches the banjo the way he did (except those of us who learned from him). He was like a time machine.
"Lee’s right hand technique can be seen in youtube.com videos of Ghanaian akonting player, Daniel Jatta" -- a discovery that boggles the mind.
"Meeting Michael Kline," Ainslie says, "was like meeting a lost member of the family for the first time: we knew and loved the same music, learned from the same elders. ... It’s like we grew up in the same soil. With Carrie, we almost immediately started scheming on how to spend more time and more music together."
In the late 1970s, when Michael Kline moved to the Elkins area, he frequently "neighbored" with Currence and Minty Hammonds who "took him to raise" -- teaching old-time songs and stories. Eventually Kline met much of the extended family and documented their music and stories.
Michael and Carrie Kline have been singing and teaching the old ballads, hunting songs, camp meeting spirituals and ditties together for more than 20 years. They currently introduce the songs to middle school students in that region as part of their social history in an effort to keep this matchless repertoire alive.
This delight in the music, and the personal and social history of the tradition is something all three of these performers have taken to heart.
"It’s been a long time since I took the stage as a fiddler," Ainslie says, "most people don’t know that I played old-time music. ... It’s an old vice, but every now and again I fall off the wagon. ... Quite joyfully, I might add."
Singing, playing fiddle and banjo, Ainslie recorded with the prize-winning Fly By Night String Band out of New York City in 1980. The group disbanded after one recording, and following an eight-month run in the Broadway district in New York with "Cotton Patch Gospel," Ainslie moved South in the early 1980s and gradually turned his attention back to his first love: solo, acoustic blues.
The new friendship and old musical kinship of these three musicians will be on display in the Southern Roots concert and workshops in Putney.
Reservations are recommended for both events. The Southern Roots concert will be $15 in advance, $20 at the door. The workshops will take place between 9 a.m. a.m. and p.m. just up the hill at Putney Cares. Seating for the concert and workshops is limited.
Advance tickets for the Friday concert and Saturday workshops are available until the day of the performance at cattailmusic.com.
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