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Recalling the Sounds of Traditional Music

The Berea College String Band resurrected the emotional sincerity of diminishing traditional music favorites in Presser Hall on Friday, October 30.

The Berea College string band plays to a packed Presser Hall

As a college student and amateur musician assigned to cover the 30th annual Celebration of Traditional Music, I didn't really know what to expect. Strolling into a packed Presser Hall, I was initially struck with the crowd's enthusiasm for traditional Appalachian music. I didnít recognize the majority of the audience, correctly identifying that most had come from other places to capture a little of the rich history of traditional music still alive at Berea College. As a musician for the college Jazz band and a follower of more contemporary music, I am admittedly not a fan of bluegrass. My reluctance nevertheless enhanced my surprise at the emotion conveyed in the music which, although a product of my own culture, has been subtly forgotten by much of my generation.

The String Band's performance was only one part of the weekend long festivities at the Celebration of Traditional Music. Many participants came for workshops, dances, symposiums, gospel celebrations, and concerts from other Appalachian musicians, the college string band proved to be a highlight. I had not seen the string band (formally known as the Bluegrass Ensemble) perform in more than two years, although I know a couple of the members well. Straight off their summer tour to Ireland, the band's director Al White noted that they have significantly increased their repertoire and musical precision. Iím sure that playing to a crowd of traditional music enthusiasts established difficult expectations, but the band played effortlessly regardless.

Demonstrating their confidence and stage presence, the performers fashioned solos with moments of tension and release that created an almost intangible feeling of satisfaction. As a musician, I can appreciate the difficulty of communicating emotion by breaking through the rigidity and repetition of musical boundaries. Banjo solos from Ryan Blevins were particularly solid, and seemed to impress the audience most overall. Jake Krack and Amber Fields kept steady rhythms in the more difficult pieces and performed some crowd pleasing solos as well. Lead singer and mandolin player Megan Vaught resurrected the soothing sounds from early Appalachian spirituals, giving particular pieces a sense of gravity and sincerity. Bassist and singer Jonas Friddle, and group organizer and guitarist Al White rounded out the group with impressive performances also.

Many of the pieces reconnected with a tradition that is rapidly diminishing even across much of the Southern Appalachians. They invoked images of the struggling settlers who found solace in the fog draped mountains. Songs like "Blue Ridge Mountain Home" reminded me of the plight of my ancestors that remains only a specter drowned out by the pace of modernity. "Wayfaring Stranger" subtly revealed to me the unique and enduring faith imbedded in the culture, while maintaining the salience of death, life, and our journey to complete it with dignity. Themes of bittersweet separation and the subsequent solace in return were consistent and moving, reminding me of a day when uncertainty seemed more pervasive and distances much more divisive.

For a self-titled product of modernity, the bandís real accomplishment was the communication of a message bound inside the music; one wrapped in the emotion of a lost culture, and reclaimed only through the medium that bore it.

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