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.
May says, “The kids are learning the music of their own culture, and that makes them proud of their community. East Kentucky is a very poor area, and it gets the short end of the stick in a lot of ways. There are terrible problems of environmental devastation and economic devastation from the strip-mining of coal. The kids see all this, and they know where they stand in the American scene. They’re hillbillies. The Cowan Creek School counters that. It says you have a heritage that is honored all over the world and is one of the main sources of all American popular music. Saving this music is a part of saving this regional community.”
In the mountains, the landscape, the community, and the culture are inextricably linked. And according to many of those involved in the school, all three are endangered today.
May is fighting a strip mine that’s coming in on her holler. “I came to the Cowan School this summer expecting to put all that aside and just enjoy the music, but it seemed like mountaintop removal was all people were talking and singing about. That told me that the people who love this music know that mountaintop removal coal mining is a threat not just to the land but to the community and its culture.”
Wilson notes that mountaintop removal also touches a divisive nerve in the local community. “We got some flak last summer because so many of our music school teachers publicly voiced opposition to strip-mining and mountaintop removal. Some people said we needed to be aware that many of the local people at our events also work for a coal company. It is a shame that we have to pit jobs against honoring our heritage, but that is how it is here in Appalachia.”
THERE ARE OTHER old-time festivals and workshops in the region, but they tend to be situated on college campuses. What makes the Cowan Creek school unique is its setting—it’s nestled in the mountain community and housed in the Cowan Creek Community Center. The school is also unusual for its intergenerational classes. Students are grouped by ability level, not age, which helps younger and older people learn respect for each other.
But for many the school’s real attraction is the old-time community atmosphere. As Stacy Dollarhide, mother of a Cowan student, says, “It’s like stepping back in time to the way things ought to be. The kids are running loose and intermingling with all these adults who are like surrogate aunts and uncles. It’s a taste of that carefree childhood we used to have. The kids are up late at the square dances, and no one cares. It’s summer vacation.”
The school began in the summer of 2002 with 75 students and has grown steadily each year. Last June there were 128 students, equally divided between adults and children. All but 20 of the students were from Kentucky.
The idea for the school was hatched when May went to Ireland in the summer of 2000 to study fiddling. “The traditional Irish music had almost gone extinct in the 1950s,” she says, “and ‘summer schools’ were started to counter that. The summer school is a week long, and the best musicians in the county are the teachers. The students are mostly local kids, but some adults from other places, too. I found myself in a class with 30 students, two-thirds of whom were kids.
“When I came home,” May continues, “I had a part-time temporary job with Appalshop [an Appalachian arts and culture center in Whitesburg] to expand the audience for old-time music in Kentucky. The grant was built around a residency with Dirk Powell, who is an amazing old-time fiddler. We got him for a week, and I got some other musicians interested, and we had a summer school modeled on the ones in Ireland.”
“The miracle in all this,” May says, “was the connection with the Cowan Creek Community Center. They had been doing work with at-risk youth for several years, bringing them into the community, making them feel that it’s a place where they belong, showing them that adults are not the enemy.”
In that first year, one-third of the students were local youngsters. Tuition was $75, a figure chosen because it was the cost of a week at 4-H camp.
“The kids really latched on to the music and the square dancing,” May says. “We have beginner classes for somebody who has never played before. You just show up with your instrument, and we teach you how to play something on it. And every afternoon the beginner classes from the different instruments learn to play a few simple tunes together. So by the performance on Friday night they are actually able to play something. We had a big potluck supper with the performance. And there was so much pride from the parents at what their kids had done.”
But the story could have ended there. When May called all the parents to a meeting and told them there was no money for the next year, they said, “Raise the tuition. We’ll pay it.” May says, “We told them there was no one to coordinate the school for the next year, and Nell Fields of the Cowan Creek Community Center stood up and said, ‘I could do it.’ So right then the ownership passed from Appalshop to the Cowan Creek Community Center, and that’s how it has stayed.”
That community spirit has become a hallmark of the music school, and the music, in turn, has come to permeate the life of the community center.
Jesse Wells teaches fiddle at the school every summer and plays in the Clack Mountain String Band. He observes that the community center has “gatherings for the community—square dances and other things that used to happen in the community—weddings, even. And the kids who’ve learned this music through the school get a chance to play. It also has provided employment for some people in the community as the center has grown around the music.”
Another Cowan instructor, John Harrod, a central Kentucky musician in the band Kentucky Wild Horse, notes that “music holds a community together and makes the community work. It’s a human essential.” That was illustrated at Cowan Creek recently when young Michael Mazeola’s father was called up from the Army Reserve to serve two years in Afghanistan. Michael’s friends in the Pick and Bow program came together and recorded—what else?—a CD of old-time music to help Sgt. Mazeola feel connected to home.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. Two of his children have attended Cowan Creek Mountain Music School.