Ten years ago old-time music was dying in the Kentucky mountains where it was born. “Fiddlers were hard to find around here,” says Knott County banjo player Randy Wilson. “I could count the ones I knew of on one hand.”
The Cowan Creek Mountain Music School was founded with the hope of reversing that trend. For seven years, the best old-time musicians in Kentucky have come to the school, in Letcher County near Whitesburg, to spend the last week of June teaching old-time tunes to mixed classes of children and adults. The school defines “old time” as the indigenous music that was in the mountains before the advent of radio and recordings.
The results of this cultural rescue mission are already evident, says Wilson, who has taught at Cowan Creek since the school began. “I know 20 or so fiddlers now, and fiddle is a hard instrument to learn. It takes time and encouragement. And the Cowan Creek School gives people that.”
Last October the school’s success in preserving the region’s cultural heritage was honored when its sponsoring organization, the Cowan Community Action Group, received the Kentucky Governor’s Folk Heritage Award.
That honor was hard-earned, says school founder Beverly May, a local fiddler and nurse practitioner. “We do fund-raisers all through the year so that every Kentucky kid can come to the school regardless of ability to pay. The kids sell CDs of the school performances like Girl Scout cookies. And so far we’ve squeaked through. The reason it’s worked is because the parents and kids realize that they have been brought into a welcoming community, and kids’ lives have been changed.”
The summer school has also led to a year-round program, “Pick and Bow,” in which students meet for music classes after school and perform at area festivals and community functions.