Arts organizer brings 'back porch music' to area

Joanie Blanton

Joanie Blanton

April 29, 2007|by DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - It's been held all around Shepherdstown through the years.

Three or four churches hosted it, it was at the Shepherdstown Men's Club, the Entler Hotel, Shepherd University's Reynolds Hall, O'Hurley's General Store and even "several living rooms," said Joanie Blanton.

Each September, traditional music fans eagerly await the Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest, which offers a weekend of workshops and performances to celebrate the folk instrument and related music, said Blanton, who started the festival in 1988.

Blanton said she got the idea for the festival when she was working at a Washington, D.C., shop that sold traditional musical instruments.


Blanton often would take the instruments to a festival in New York to sell them.

After going to the festival, Blanton said she thought about how a traditional music festival would blend well with the pastoral setting of West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle.

The first Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest attracted 44 students and as many as 165 people have come to the workshop over the years, Blanton said.

The festival also features performances. To keep the event fresh and lively, Blanton often arranges for a local traditional group or musical artist to perform, then brings in an act from as far away as Hungary.

Until last year, the Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest was held in Shepherdstown. But with Shepherdstown being "loved to death" and parking availability dwindling, the decision was made to move the festival to the Hilltop House Hotel in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Blanton said.

With rooms where musicians and students can stay and a restaurant where they can eat, the hotel is filled with the spirit of music during the event.

"We're all over the place. If it was The Greenbrier, they wouldn't let us do it," said the 52-year-old Blanton, referring to the posh resort in the southern part of the state. "But it's the Hilltop House. It's sort of down-home and folksy."

Now Blanton is expanding the musical offerings through five musical weekends spread over the course of a year. The Upper Potomac Music Weekends - all held at the Hilltop House Hotel - cover areas such as fiddle playing, bagpipes and Celtic music. Each one attracts 60 to 100 people to workshops.

Blanton said she does not play music, although she can show people scales on instruments. Her husband, Nick, however, is an accomplished dulcimer player and Joanie said she is content knowing the music is enjoyed.

Blanton said the Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest has been successful because traditional music fans who live in nearby cities such as Baltimore and Washington can get here easily. Then there's the natural chemistry that evolves between the music and the countryside, Blanton said.

"It works for a lot of reasons," Blanton said in an interview from her home off W.Va. 45 between Shepherdstown and Martinsburg.

Blanton said she loves traditional music because it is not pretentious and is instead "back porch music" that grabs your heart.


Name: Joanie Blanton

Hometown: Martinsburg, W.Va.

Occupation: Arts organizer

What was your proudest moment?: She said it's hard to say, because she's had "lots of them," as a parent, a person, an arts adminstrator or a dancer.

"I am always very proud when I bring in an artist that is little known but brilliant, and the audience not only materializes but really is moved by the music."

Whom do you most admire, and why?: Yo-Yo Ma for bringing the Silk Road Festival to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival several years ago. "It was a magnificent vision, and was extremely well carried out. It managed to bring to the U.S. artists from all over the Middle East and Orient (so called 'axis of evil') right after Sept. 11, 2001, and served as a real education to the beauty of their cultural differences when we most needed it."

What is the best piece of advice you ever received and who gave it to you?: Live each moment fully, experience the wonder and beauty of the natural and cultural world, and make the world a better place in some small, but meaningful way.

What is the next goal you would like to achieve?: "I would like to bring the World Dulcimer Congress to Shepherdstown in the next decade. This brings some of the most respected players of the instrument from all over the world together for a week of performances, music sharing, teaching and friendship."

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