Banjos, Storytelling, and Nostalgia: A Student’s Reflection on 2020’s Celebration of Traditional Music

The Loyal Jones Appalachian Center hosted its first ever Celebration of Traditional Music back in 1974 as a way of honoring old time music and the ritual of passing it on from generation to generation in Appalachia, and has continued to do so each fall ever since.  Every October Berea Campus is filled with dance, jam sessions, and musical performances by highly acclaimed musicians from around the world.   This year the CTM looked quite a bit different this year due to the pandemic. Everything went virtual.

Despite the unusual circumstances, CTM Director Liza DiSavino, put together a stellar line up for 2020’s Celebration of Traditional music, and even though we weren’t able to come together face to face, there was a unique intimacy about year’s celebration that was absent in previous years. We got to watch musicians perform in their own homes or destinations of their choice. From the sunlit living room of Bob Lucas, to the back porch performance by Big Possum String Band at dusk, these artists allowed us a peek into their own personal lives. Today Berea College Junior, and member of the Folk Roots Ensemble, Hannah From, shares her personal reflections on this year’s CTM and how it impacted her.

As a musician herself, Hannah was able to pick up on several nuances regarding instruments and techniques particularly with the banjo. As she watched the banjo player from the Big Possum String Band perform she noticed he was playing a mixture of bluegrass and old-time banjo. She said, “There is some plucking but also some backwards strumming. I thought that was interesting to see.” During Kevin Howard’s performance she even got her banjo out and started playing along with him. She said, “It was easy to play along with him because he talked about the tunings.”

Hannah also noted how each performer had their own style and way of addressing the audience through the screen. Guy Davis used humor to engage the audience using a deadpan voice making it hard to tell sometimes whether he was joking or not. Hannah laughed out loud when he joked about using his sister’s retainer to hold his harmonica. With Bob Lewis she enjoyed the organic feeling of his performance. She said, “It felt like I was in the room with him.” Kevin Howard’s performance felt more individualized. “Unlike the others before it, it seemed like he was talking to only one person instead of an audience.” The Big Possum Band made her feel the most nostalgic of all. “It was like I was sitting outside on a fall night. One the things I miss the most from pre-COVID-19 times is going to live music performances.” When they performed Durang’s Hornpipe, one of her favorite fiddle and banjo tunes she  was so excited to hear it that she actually got up and danced around her room.

One of things Hannah appreciated the most about this year’s CTM was the abundance of storytelling from each performer. She said, “I come from a family of storytellers. It’s a special part of Appalachia and it is sometimes forgotten when people think about the Mountains.” She was particularly excited to hear Sheila Arnold’s performance and loved both of her stories. She even recognized both of them. The first, from a book her Ma used to read to her and the second, a fable that you can find almost all over the world.

“What I like about CTM is the fact that there are so many music types that get shared. From claw hammer banjo to ballads to blues. The people who ran this really did a good job of mixing up things and getting old and new voices.” Says Hannah. She watched seasoned performers like Alice Gerrard (who influenced Hannah’s own style in ballad singing), alongside young performers like the Big Possum String Band. “There is an issue with young folks not taking up the traditional music because it’s seen as outdated.” Says Hannah. She herself, is challenging the stereotypes and carrying on the old traditions as she performs Old Time music through the Berea Folk Roots Ensemble. She performed virtually among her peers on Sunday afternoon, along with the Bluegrass, Mariachi, and Black Music Ensemble. She said it was weird seeing herself perform and that it made her miss her classmates all the more.

We are grateful to Liza DiSavino, the artists, and the enormous amount of work it took to pull off this year’s CTM. What an amazing privilege it is to be able to enjoy these performances from the comfort of our homes, and the hours of filming and editing taken to make it possible have not gone unnoticed. If you have not yet had the opportunity to enjoy these fabulous performances we encourage you can watch them here! You will not be disappointed.

Article Written by Heather Dent