Making Music at Cowan Creek
Old and young musicians keep Appalachian folk music alive at the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School in Whitesburg
When Rossi Clark was 4 years old, she asked for a fiddle for Christmas. She had seen the Dixie Chicks perform and wanted to be like the “fiddler chick.” Now 11, Rossi has become an accomplished fiddler who prefers old-time music.
Meanwhile, John Harrod had been making field recordings of old-time musicians in Kentucky. An accomplished fiddler himself, Harrod’s musical mentors were Darley Fulks, Bill Livers, George Lee Hawkins, Asa Martin, and Lily May Ledford. He now performs with Kentucky Wild Horse and the Kentucky Clodhoppers, and was honored with a Governor’s Award in the Arts—Folk Heritage in February for his own fiddling and for preserving the work of so many other old-time fiddlers.
Then in 2000, aspiring fiddler Beverly May spent the summer in Ireland where she attended the Joe Mooney Summer School in County Leitrim—the county’s way of teaching traditional music and preserving their musical heritage. While taking an intermediate fiddle class there, May had an idea: why not start a similar school in eastern Kentucky to help preserve the traditional music of Appalachia?
In 2002, Clark, Harrod, May, and 72 others found themselves in Whitesburg during the third week of June at what has become an annual tradition—the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School.
For hundreds of years, the traditional music of Appalachia thrived as each generation passed on their musical skills and love of music to the next. For the past three years, the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School has sought to not only continue that tradition but to introduce old-time music to people throughout the entire state and even outside Kentucky.
“The way you learn traditional music is not by yourself,” says May. “You learn it in the context of community. In that community, you have the musical grandfathers and then the folks in my generation, who are trying to learn what the tradition-bearers do. They pass it on to the young folks. At Cowan Creek, you see Rossi Clark learning from Art Stamper, who is revered in old-time and bluegrass music. The elders are teaching the young people. The music doesn’t have to skip two or three generations. It is incredible to watch that happen and see these oldest Kentucky traditions passed on to the very youngest Kentucky musicians. It is a beautiful thing.”
The mix of children and adults learning, playing, and having fun side by side is one of the things that make Cowan Creek Mountain Music School so unusual, according to May.
“The school is really an intergenerational thing,” she says. “The kids benefit from being in class alongside adults. They are all learning the same music and all on the same playing field. As a child, it is possible to be in class with your school’s principal as you both struggle to learn your first chords on a banjo. It doesn’t matter if you are 11 or 75, with music you start at the same place. Last year, we had a family where the grandfather was in the advanced banjo class, the mom was taking guitar, and the grandchild was in beginning fiddle. That’s not unusual. There is a little something for everybody. Families are beginning to plan their summers around it.”
On warm summer days, Nell Fields has been known to stand out among the 100-year-old fir trees that surround the Cowan Creek Community Center and just listen to the cacophony of sound.
“Music is coming from all directions,” says Fields, who now serves as the school’s coordinator. “This is the ideal way to learn music, especially traditional mountain music. It is being passed on from one generation to the next.”
The fourth annual Cowan Creek Mountain Music School, which will be held June 20-24, will bring together some of the finest old-time musicians with students of all levels. The school will offer courses in banjo (three levels), fiddle (four levels), guitar (two levels), beginning mandolin, old-time string band, singing, square dancing, storytelling, and for the first time, dulcimer making.
After an intense morning of classes, students can take part in jam sessions during the afternoon. Then each evening, the faculty and students will gather for square dancing, jam sessions, and fellowship. The faculty members perform at Appalshop on Thursday night, and the week wraps up on Friday night with a student recital, community potluck, and square dance.
“In the jam sessions, beginners are sitting knee to knee with master musicians,” says May. “It’s so much fun to hear. Sometimes the beginners will get together and have a controlled jam where they play Shortnin’ Bread really slow a dozen times, while in another session everyone is breaking loose. Everyone just floats around and finds a spot where they feel comfortable.”
The music sessions were so much fun that the faculty decided to cut a CD. The first, a compilation of the 2002 faculty recital, was so successful that the faculty recorded another CD that will be issued this month on June Appal Recordings. Art Stamper, John Harrod, and Jamie Wells are among the featured musicians.
“This is primarily a CD for square-dance callers who don’t have a dance band available,” says May, “but it is also just good listening. It shows off our faculty doing what they do best.”
Rossi Clark’s favorite part of the week is “getting to play with older people. The older people sort of figured out if younger people didn’t start playing, the music would be forgotten and I didn’t want that to happen,” says the sixth-grader. “Last year, I got to play with Art Stamper. He is one of my favorite fiddlers, and I had so much fun playing with him.”
Clark prefers old-time music to classical because the songs are faster, and it is fun to watch others square dance to the music she is playing. Her favorite tune is Red Haired Boy because it is fast, fun, and requires a lot of different skills.
This will be her fourth year at Cowan Creek Mountain Music School.
It will also be Harrod’s fourth year as an instructor. Harrod says he wishes he had such a school when he was learning to fiddle.
“Cowan Creek is bringing younger people to this music as players,” Harrod says. “It is a way to accomplish in a short period what it used to take people years to learn in their communities. Kids are getting started when it’s so much easier to learn. They will get better if they keep at it.”
Harrod, who has been fiddling for 35 years, says Cowan Creek Mountain Music School is unique because it is focused on the region.
“All the instructors come from the region and more than one-half of the participants are from the region,” he notes. “It is strongly rooted in the local culture, so people who come to it are not experiencing a smorgasbord of styles; they are getting to experience a unique local culture that is still in place.”
And if the founders and faculty of the school have their way, that culture will thrive for generations to come. Someday, 11-year-old Rossi Clark will tell an aspiring fiddler about the good ole days when Cowan Creek Mountain Music School was just beginning and she got to play with Art Stamper.
WANT TO ATTEND COWAN CREEK MOUNTAIN MUSIC SCHOOL?
The school is open to anyone age 11 and older. (Special dispensation is available for younger children who are already taking music lessons.) Tuition is $125 for Kentucky residents and $150 for out-of-state residents. A limited number of youth scholarships are available for Kentucky students. Since each class is limited to 10 students, early registration is encouraged.
For a brochure, e-mail Cowan Creek Mountain Music School coordinator Nell Fields at firstname.lastname@example.org, call (606) 633-3187, or write to Cowan Community Center, 81 Sturgill Branch, Whitesburg, KY 41858.