Festival provides a lesson in musical culture

October 02, 2005|By RICHARD F. BELISLE


The popular ballad "Red River Valley," generally known as a cowboy song, really has its origins in Appalachian mountain music.

That little-known fact was brought out Saturday during a workshop at Shepherd University's McMurran Hall featuring Elizabeth LaPrelle. Her specialty is traditional American music handed down through generations.

LaPrelle, 18, was among the performers in the Appalachian Heritage Festival, which was held Friday night and Saturday. It featured blues, old-time music, storytelling, clogging and bluegrass in pickup jam sessions and free workshops.

The event was topped off Saturday night at the Festival Showcase Concert at Shepherd's Frank Arts Center Theater.

Held for the 10th year, the festival is part of the Performing Arts Series at Shepherd, said Rachael Meads, director of student development at the school. Meads also teaches a course on Appalachian culture.


"The focus of the festival is cultural diversity," Meads said.

Past festivals have included different types of music from classical to Hip-Hop to jazz, and traditional to Gospel.

Jean Ritchie, Mike Seeger and Hazel Dickens were among past performers. Last year, a group of Tibetan monks did a weeklong program on mystical arts.

"Culture is important," Meads said. "You can embrace its roots even if you aren't born to them. It gives a sense of community."

Meads said old-time music such as LaPrelle performs is "passed on ear to ear. It's an oral tradition, learned by listening and playing together. The only way it survives is if young people learn it and carry it on."

The Saturday jam sessions and workshops included a community sing led by The Missing Person Soup Kitchen Gospel Quartet; a master fiddlers' workshop with Bobby Taylor; a children's storytelling workshop with Bil Lepp; LaPrelle's "Ballads from My Family," the songs of Hank Williams with John Lilly and a blues workshop led by Ernie Hawkins and Nat Reese.

The events were at McMurran Hall, Reynolds Hall and O'Hurley's General Store.

Reese, 81, lives in Princeton, W.Va. His music runs the gamut from blues to country, and jazz to Gospel.

His roots go back to an old radio in his home and the Grand Ole Opry.

"There was Uncle Dave Macon on banjo, String Bean, Arthur Smith and Deford Bailey," he said.

Bailey played harmonica on the Opry, Reese said. "It was in the days of segregation and everybody thought he was white," he said.

Reese said he learned to play in the "chitlin' houses" in the West Virginia coal mining camps. Poor mining families would open their homes on Saturday nights to serve food, homebrew and moonshine. It was entertainment for the men after a long week in the mines, he said.

"It was in the late 1920s," Reese said. "Musicians would come in from as far away as Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee to play in the houses for $3 to $5 a night. That's where I learned."

A photo silk-screen printer by trade, Reese said he has performed in Europe and around the United States.

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