Appalachian Traditional Music Festival
Phelps-Stokes Auditorium
Berea College
Berea, Kentucky

As you walk into the turn of the century auditorium with and the old creaking floor that is common to so many buildings of this era you look up and notice a wrap around balcony, as your eyes travel upward thirty feet, you notice one of the most beautiful ceilings around, a giant grid-work with deep inlaid wood. There is a sense that great moments for Berea College have happened here. Once you are seated a weathered mountain-man from West Virginia well into his seventies carrying an old Fender acoustic guitar begins a slow painstaking ascent up the stairs to the four-foot high stage, behind him comes the MC caring the old man’s oxygen tank. Once seated the MC quickly adjusts the mics into place for the aged musician, there is a hush over the audience. The MC then introduces the man as Carl Rutherford, one of Appalachia’s greatest pickers using the rare tuning of open E. Carl then cracks a huge smile and says

Hello I’m Carl and I am hooked up to this stupid oxygen tank….Don’t smoke.”

Then he starts laughing. For the next hour he regales you with jokes (like “you might recognize a few note here because I stole them, heck I steal everything.), incredible picking on a guitar that sounds amazing, and a great singing voice, stopping for a few seconds after each song to catch his breath. During certain songs he intentionally screws up and makes a huge ordeal about correcting the mistake sending the crowd into a comfortable laughter. He finishes with a standing ovation and then makes the slow painstaking decent down the stairs. The evening is not yet over, next up, is Art Stamper the premier and legendary fiddler of Appalachia. Again, picture an old weathered mountain-man, but this time insert just a touch of southern gentlemen. Art steps up to the mic and in a very rough and soft voice says

“I wish I could sing to you, but I have this throat condition and can’t sing very well so you will just have to listen to me fiddle.”

He then proceeds to set ablaze the fiddle with his music. He even plays the original version of “Man of Constant Sorrow”.

The next morning you have the extreme pleasure of hearing these two extraordinary musicians again. Later in the afternoon after lunch old black blues singer steps up to the mic with his wife who happens to be white and kind of looks like a prim and proper Baptist. However, when she starts playing the harmonica and harmonizing with her husband you realize that this is what blues and gospel were meant to sound like. You can just sit back and soak in the guitar licks and wailing harmonica. After they finish there set up steps a man with a fiddle, banjo, and guitar. His talent runs deep and keeps you on the edge of your seat, as he plays the fiddle in a very clean and crisp way, none of the scratching you tend to here in bluegrass but definitely of the bluegrass tradition. To finish the program off Ginny Hawker a Primitive Baptist sings the haunting hymns of her tradition.

These are just a couple of highlights from an incredible weekend of music.

It is weekends like this that remind me why I love my job. I get to see and hear talent that the average person doesn’t. If you are interested in events like this let me know, and I will try to keep you informed. Well I am going to sign off while I listen to the final notes from the sweet voice of Ginny.

On a unrelated note I found it very amusing when this college kid pointed out an older faculty member to me and said, he is a real interesting guy, he shows up to work everyday in a jacket and tie, there are lucky to get me in my pajamas on most days.