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Ruchala Finds Old-time Music Fresh

James Ruchala, a doctoral candidate from Pinnacle, N.C., is the first 2007 Appalachian Music Fellowship recipient to take up residence in Berea and begin his research this year.

Ruchala listens to an archived recording

Coordinated by Hutchins Library's Department of Special Collections and Archives, the program is available through a grant from the Anne Ray Charitable Trust. The fellowships support graduate students, faculty, public school teachers and/or performers in one-to-three month residencies for the purpose of conducting research in Berea’s collections of non-commercial traditional music and to promote the preservation of and access to that music.

Ruchala was born and raised in New York and had little exposure to Appalachian music until hearing the compact disc release of the famed “Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music” in the 1990s. The music was originally recorded about 80 years ago on 78 RPM albums and later on 33 rpms in the 1950s, influencing songwriters of that generation such as Bob Dylan.

Prior to hearing those recordings, Ruchala played a little guitar and violin, performing in a rock band while in college studying English literature. After listening to banjo players and singers Clarence Ashley and Bascomb Lamar Lunsford on the compact discs, he bought a banjo and began learning. “They were just incredible and I’d never heard songs like those before …. There was just something about the way they put everything together that was extremely attractive to me and I didn’t think I’d be happy until I learned how to do it or something like it.”

Ruchala found that the style he most enjoys, round peak music, wasn’t something that could just be learned out of a book. “I’d been playing for years, but I’d never had to pick things up by ear or by the fly, which you have to do with old-time music.” In the late 90s he was a member of an Appalachian-style band. It was during that time, when his job as a Web site editor disappeared in the dotcom bust, that he found himself looking for a new career direction. “I took that forced break and decided what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

The talented scholar chose to study music and hopes to teach it at the collegiate level someday. He majored in music theory and music history at Hunter College in New York City for his masters, and he is now working on his doctorate in ethnomusicology at Brown University, Providence, R.I. According to Ruchala, ethnomusicology is “the study of music from other cultures or folk music from the western world.” It also includes pop and rock music and explores the social aspects of the music and the people who play, sing and dance to it.

Arriving in Berea Jan. 3, the fellowship recipient has rented a house near campus and spends much of his time in the Special Collects and Archives section of Hutchins Library. He is attempting to find a connection between the round peak style of music heard in North Carolina and in eastern Kentucky. “I guess I wonder what some of the common elements are and how it attributes to the similarity that I hear …. The specific (style of music) I was interested in was very central and very well known within the national community of old-time musicians, but was not really written about by scholars. I thought it was a gap that could be filled.” He hopes to have his dissertation completed by spring 2009.

While in Berea he has been jamming with local musicians at the city visitor center and hopes to schedule a live performance before his time is up at the end of February. He is very grateful for the chance to study the music he loves. “There were few opportunities to study this music and to get money to do that. It’s really quite a wonderful program for people who are doing this.”

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