“History in Action” was on display at the Surry Old Time Fiddlers Convention last weekend, as the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History's local chapter of the Tarheel Junior Historian Association (THJHA), the Jesse Franklin Pioneers, were hard at work conducting interviews with young musicians taking part in the competitions.
The junior historians were working on the community service project component for their History in Action project, which involved studying the musical heritage of the region.
The History in Action award is handed out each year at the THJHA's annual convention, held at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, and the junior historians were focused on completing the interviews to incorporate into their project for the History in Action category at the competition. Junior historians conducted traditional pen and paper interviews, as well as video documentation, and photographs of the young musicians holding their instruments.
Director of the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History Matt Edwards said the idea for the project came from a book he came across that was written years ago called “Strings of Life” that contained biographies on well-known and lesser-known old-time musicians from this area. Several of the musicians are now celebrated throughout the nation and the world, such as Chester McMillian, who recently received the Brown-Hudson Folklore Award from the North Carolina Folklore Society.
Edwards said the author of the book worked extensively to research and share the stories of the musicians, which led to the idea that young musicians in this region could one day become well-known, and people in the future may turn to the interviews conducted by the junior historians to find out where it all started.
“We thought was a great way to tie in everything together that they've been working on this year. Instead of initially doing interviews with older musicians, we felt it worked well to conduct the interviews early in the lives of some of the youth musicians. We wanted to reach out to the kids — find out how they got into the music, what family and historic connections they have, how often they play, the types of instruments they play, how long they practice — with the expectation that maybe next the next generation of old-time musicians will come from these kids.”
Edwards said the museum has an interest in collecting for the future — not just preserving the past — by identifying stories and themes that will have a long-lasting impact in the community for years to come, and the interviews with young musicians is a part of these efforts.
Edwards and his wife Glenda, who leads the chapter, worked with the members to craft a list of questions. The junior historians spent about six hours at the Surry Old Time Fiddlers Convention at Surry Community College on Saturday, next to the sign-in station for competitions, passing out information about the interviews. In the end, according to Glenda, they interviewed 19 people, ranging in ages from age seven to 26-year-old musician Chris Testerman and his wife.
She also noted that one of the young musicians, Presley Barker, who plays guitar, is “very determined in his goal to become a professional musicians,” and added that Barker gave a great interview. Another notable interview was Ruth Shumway from the Charlotte area, who began playing violin/fiddle at age three and plays in a family band with her parents.
The junior historians took charge and conducted the interviews themselves, with only a little help from adults on hand. Those they interviewed came from as far away as the Asheville area, and also included a lot of local young musicians. Glenda Edwards said one of the trends they noticed was how many of the young musicians were involved in the Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program in one way or another, or a similar local program, such as Surry Arts Council's free youth guitar and fiddle lessons with Jimmy Vipperman.
Edwards added that there was a large group of young musicians from the Alleghany County area, as well as another group from Goldston in Chatham County.
In between interviews, Edwards said the junior historians wanted to listen to the competition in between interviews. “In fact, one of the boys, Max Oakley, was having so much fun that in-between and after the interviews, he stayed and listened with his dad.” Oakley even recorded some of the competition using his iPad.
“This whole year has been about exposure to local heritage they may not learn about in other places. The musical heritage and tradition is here, but you have to seek it out, because, for the most part, this is not taught in schools and not brought into schools on a regular basis.”
Edwards said the junior historians have enjoyed the experience, and in the end, have more appreciation for the music than when they started, since they have spent almost the entire year immersed in the old-time music. Other projects included learning the Virginia Reel dance, visiting Olde Mill Music to learn about the instruments, experimenting with the instruments at Old Mill Music, learning about the difference between old-time music and the Round Peak style from Chester McMillian, learning the evolution of the “Cup Song” from the Carter family to the modern version, and learning about shape note singing.
Starting next week, the junior historians will begin building their own cigar box guitars.
THJHA is sponsored by the North Carolina Museum of History, part of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. The association is a network of free clubs across the state, with members in grades 4–12. The THJHA empowers young people to discover local and state history in a hands-on way and encourages the junior historians to share what they learn.
Reach Jessica Johnson at 719-1933 and on Twitter @MoutnAiryJess.