The Melody Lingers On

The Melody Lingers On

The crates are all packed and shipped from the final Museum on Main Street (MoMS) site, the Don Gibson Theatre in Shelby. The interactive kiosks of New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music have moved on to be refitted for another state’s tour. For the six rural communities who in 2010 hosted our state’s first MoMS Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition and for the 30,000 North Carolinians who visited the exhibit throughout the tour, the excitement has come and gone. But the melody lingers on.

From the outset, MoMS participants established a strong camaraderie. Site hosts from the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, Warren County Memorial Library, the Museum of the Albemarle, the Arts Council of Wayne County, Mars Hill College, and Destination Cleveland County gathered for a programming meeting in Greensboro in May 2009. They gathered again just days before the grand opening in Mount Airy in March 2010 to learn how to install the exhibit with assembly assistance from Smithsonian and Council staff.

"They call it that good ol ' mountain dew, and them that refuse it are few..."

~Bascom Lamar Lunsford

Did New Harmonies help make the value of the humanities real in the eyes and ears of visitors, young and old? Did New Harmonies host sites fare well in presenting humanities-based programs exploring North Carolina’s roots music heritage? These are hard questions to answer because music is such an intimate expression of cultural and artistic identity. The nation’s roots music story can be conveyed quite well in exhibitions such as New Harmonies, but the challenge for host sites in North Carolina was to bring to life the regional parallel through complementary programming in the public humanities. New Harmonies participants accomplished this and more. 

The humanities are embedded locally in the people – those who construct the instruments, write the lyrics, perform the songs. It is rooted also in those who research music history, who teach others to use musical instruments, and in the hearts of those who appreciate and document music. New Harmonies provided a way to underscore the humanities – the human element and the relationships created by music. Such an exhibition can demonstrate how one becomes interested in the banjo, gospel, dulcimer, or ballads. But ultimately the success of the experience depends on the depth of exploration, the execution of the project, the connection of the exhibition to community. The site hosts of New Harmonies can be proud that they contributed in a substantive way to the documentation and exploration of their region’s roots music heritage.

MoMS audiences and visitors experienced the rich diversity of North Carolina’s roots music heritage through innovative programming that complemented the exhibition such as Shelby’s Rhythm and Roots Run; scholarly presentations such as that on Round Peak-style fiddler Tommy Jarrell and jazz drummer Max Roach; and performances by wonderfully talented regional musicians and vocalists like Stax Music R&B artist/jazz vocalist Melva Houston and Mandolin Orange. Other programs included Mount Airy’s Susan King, who told the story of her brother Ralph Epperson’s founding of WPAQ 740 AM. Since 1948 the “Voice of the Blue Ridge” has offered listeners old time music, bluegrass, and traditional gospel and continues to air the country’s third oldest live program of its type, the “Merry Go Round.”

"I'm the happiest girl in the whole USA"

~written and recorded by Donna Fargo

Programming in Warrenton helped shed light on the almost lost story behind the significance of another legendary radio station, WVSP – “Voices Serving People” – co-founded by Valeria Lynch Lee, with Jereann King as a visionary program director between 1977 and 1985. Folklorist Mike Taylor shared with Warrenton some of his audio recordings of the area’s music makers and discussed with audiences the region’s roots music heritage, which includes gospel groups the Warrenton Echoes and the Royal Jubilee Singers. Warrenton’s musical showcase at the renovated Armory included those two groups and Haliwa-Saponi traditional songs, local bluegrass, blues, country and gospel music.

In connection with its exhibition, Elizabeth City displayed roots music artifacts from the collection of the Museum of the Albemarle. Elizabeth City State University’s Douglas Jackson led audiences in a close look at the jazz drumming innovations of Max Roach. Goldsboro’s art center exhibited the blues and gospel paintings of Spencer Lawrence and invited local blues and R&B performers to relate their lives in music through performance and storytelling.

Mars Hill presented and documented its master fiddlers Paul Crouch, Arvil Freeman, Bobby Hicks, and Roger Howell and connected the MoMS exhibition to its annual Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival. The exhibition also featured documentary music-related photos of Sodom Laurel residents by Rob Amberg, an extensive display on the music heritage of Madison County, and opening and festival concerts that showcased the region’s traditional music heritage.

For its grand opening, Shelby invited William Ferris of the Center for the Study of the American South to present “Memory and Sense of Place in Southern Music” and featured blues vocalist Shemekia Copeland in concert. Shelby also hosted Tom Hanchett of the Levine Museum of the New South for a lecture on “The Mills and the Music,” displayed an exhibit on major music writer Don Gibson, and presented Earl Scruggs and family.

"I can't stop loving you. I've made up my mind."

~written by Don Gibson and covered by Ray Charles and others  

Ultimately, close to 4,000 students in Mars Hill and Shelby paid a visit to the exhibition and participated in MoMS programs. Emily Epley, New Harmonies project director and executive director of Destination Cleveland County, says, “The opportunity to share this exhibit with school kids was of great value in many ways. The existing relationship we have with school leadership, combined with the positive experiences for 2010 school kids and their teachers, helps set a standard that they can look to us in the future for local opportunities to enrich their students learning experiences without having to leave the county.” As the statewide scholar of New Harmonies, Beverly Patterson puts it, “An experience with music can open new worlds” – new worlds in one’s own neighborhood.

The host sites received a total of approximately $16,000 in mini-grant funding. This funding supported scholars’ stipends, printing, performer/presenters, travel, publicity, and supplies. The host sites matched the Council’s financial support with over $130,000 in cash and in-kind cost share. An anonymous donation of $5,000 contributed to the transportation of the exhibit across the state.

Established Council programs were also connected to the New Harmonies exhibition tour in a seamless and successful expansion of humanities-based resources. The Humanities Council’s Teachers Institute, with support from the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History and Mars Hill College staff, presented two MoMS-related weekend seminars for public school teachers.

Road Scholar regulars Willie Nelms (“America’s Music Down to Its Roots”), Billy Stephens (“From Pulpit to Pop Star”), Betty Smith (Jane Hicks Gentry: A Singer Among Singers”), and Kenny Dalsheimer (“Shine On: Richard Trice and the Bull City Blues”) were featured at sites. New scholars Benjamin Filene (“Oh Brother, What Next?: Understanding the Folk Fad”) and Larry Thomas (“North Carolina Jazz Connection”) presented at host sites as well. Several of these lectures took place as prelude to and outreach for the exhibition programming.

The exhibition tour and associated programming were represented in the print and broadcast media in ways that served both the sites and the public humanities well. The Smithsonian Institution poster and flyers provided the initial print materials for marketing. These were sent statewide to libraries, academic music departments, and Congressional and state legislative leaders. The Humanities Council designed and distributed its own statewide poster that was creatively used by other sites as a template for their promotional material.

Monthly Our State magazine, as the exhibition’s statewide media sponsor, featured New Harmonies ads, calendar listings, and roots music-related articles to spread the word about the state’s traditional music heritage. Southern Cultures journal posted MoMS announcements in its pages and released a roots music special issue and CD. Carolina Country, Southern Cultures, LEARN NC, the North Carolina Department of Travel and Tourism, the North Carolina Arts Council, and North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources all promoted MoMS in print and online. The websites of the Humanities Council and host sites were continuously updated to present the latest schedule of events.

Regional arts councils, libraries, businesses, community associations, schools, colleges, travel and visitor bureaus, historical societies, historic sites, chambers of commerce, and museums joined together with the host sites to achieve multiple programming goals. Political, institutional, and community leaders played a part in the openings and in program support. Congressional representatives, state legislators, mayors, city and county council members, artists, and historians attended site openings, as did Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources Linda Carlisle, Representatives Virginia Foxx and G.K. Butterfield. Senator Richard Burr was at both the opening of the exhibition in Mount Airy in March and the closing ceremony in Shelby in late December.

As an outcome of New Harmonies, host sites now have an enhanced capacity to support programs in the public humanities. In Goldsboro a large grant has been awarded for a collaboration between the Wayne County Arts Council and the Wayne County Public Library to present a program examining the culture and peoples of Afghanistan through the photographs of airmen stationed there and other humanities-based presentations. The Warren County Memorial Library received an outstanding program award from North Carolina Library Directors Association for New Harmonies programming. Two exciting outcomes that benefit the Humanities Council include the addition of Elizabeth City State University’s Douglas Jackson as a new Road Scholar and Laura Boosinger of the Madison County Arts Council serving as scholar on a recently funded large grant in Burnsville examining the life of African American traditional mountain musician Lesley Riddle, who taught guitar and gospel to the Carter family and Mike Seeger. 

New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music 2010, a collaboration between rural communities statewide, the North Carolina Humanities Council, and the Smithsonian Institution, has indeed been a success to celebrate – a success in increasing awareness of the public humanities on the Main Streets of  North Carolina; a success in underscoring the value and diversity of our state’s musical traditions; a success in partnership-building; a success in integrating meaningful regional programming around a theme common to all – North Carolina’s heritage and traditions of American roots music.    

"I wish I knew how it would feel to be free."

~written by Dr. Billy Taylor and popularized by Nina Simone        

*This article, published in North Carolina Conversations Winter-Spring 2011, incorporates corrections by writer Darrell Stover.