An Appalachian adventure requiring . . . an autoharp?
BRASSTOWN, N.C. - We needed a name. There were eight of us in the band, and we were staring down a recital in five days, when we would play an instrument we barely knew how to hold, let alone coax pretty sounds from.
We were a sight, all right. The lone New Englander, I was also the only male among six Southern women - most of them in their 60s, in varying shades of gray and L'Oreal - with a kooky Alaskan woman thrown in for good measure. I turned 31 that week.
It was April, and we were tucked away at the John C. Campbell Folk School in this pastoral blip on the map about two hours from Asheville, Knoxville, Tenn., and Atlanta. We were here for a beginning autoharp class, and at the end of the week, we would be onstage facing an audience of 100 as part of a student exhibition. The pressure was on. Was "Amazing Grace" beyond our grasp? Definitely. But first, a name for this ragtag group.
I called it early on: James and the Golden Girls, a charming reference that played well to our aging demographic and reflected that most of these nurturing women reminded me of my late Grandma Hazel. (Besides, I figured Jimmy and the Hellcat Grannies would never fly.)
The notion of attending an Appalachian folk school, especially for city slickers, conjures plenty of punch lines: campfire sing-alongs, toothless locals, patchouli-scented hippies, and senior discounts. My friends, of course, gave me all sorts of grief for the class I chose. "Autoharp?" someone said, eyebrows arched. "Oh, yeah. Like they play in the movie 'A Mighty Wind,' right?"
OK, when you're at a camp to learn to play a stringed instrument you hold close to your cheek to relish its vibrations, that's a fair ribbing. But I was wildly attracted to the idea of acquiring a skill that the rest of society probably would not appreciate, or value. Sure, I could have enrolled in a computer class or something beneficial to my job skills (not a bad idea for someone who works at a newspaper), but the more plugged-in our culture becomes, the more I feel myself pulling away from it lately. I'll gladly take analog over digital these days. I savored the thought of lifting my hands from a keyboard and putting them on 36 strings that, when strummed, sounded like the opening notes of a fantasy sequence you see in the movies.
So I headed for the hills. Steeped in the Blue Ridge Mountains, on 300 rolling acres, the John C. Campbell is approaching 85 years of teaching students traditional folk arts ranging from blacksmithing and basketry to quilting, storytelling, Southern cooking, and various music courses (up next: building my own fretless banjo). Geared toward adults and offered year-round, most classes last six days, with intensive weekend courses and day trips also available.
Even though it was built to educate the local mountain community, the school has an indelible link to Massachusetts. Olive Dame Campbell, who cofounded the school in 1925 and christened it after her late husband, grew up in West Medford and met her spouse while he was studying theology and education in New England.
Everyone at camp wanted to know why I chose the autoharp, and I never gave a good answer. I grew up around bluegrass musicians in southern Illinois, but I never heard the instrument until I stumbled on some YouTube clips of Mother Maybelle Carter, of the fabled Carter Family, playing old-time standards like "Wildwood Flower." I fell in love with the sound, but also with the prospect of playing an instrument most of my peers can't even visualize.
Everyone else wants to know the same thing about my Folk School experience: Was it all old people? (I certainly anticipated that would be the case when I called to enroll and the receptionist asked, for lodging purposes, if I could make it up stairs.) My particular class was indeed mostly retired folks who had the time and money to be there for a week to master the arts of wood turning, painting floor cloths, enameling, and kaleidoscope-making. Many of them were repeat customers, too, telling me stories of how they had taken dozens of other classes over the years. They kept calling it a learning vacation, and they were right.
You really get to know your fellow students, starting with the optional nature walk at 7:15 a.m., followed by MorningSong, the daily storytelling segment full of music and history lessons. Breakfast, on the nose at 8:15 to the sound of a ringing bell, is one of three square meals served family-style in a dining room where you are encouraged to meet people. Before you eat, though, there's a sing-along with homespun messages like "Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other gold." (Like in "A Mighty Wind," right?)
Dinner conversations often included overheard gems like this: "The great thrill of my life was getting to meet Bob Hope!" But I also befriended some people my own age and met some real characters. Like the instructor who heard my birthday was approaching, disappeared for a minute, and returned with a glass of homemade moonshine. "Tastes like grappa!" I enthused, letting my Cambridge years show a bit too much.
Jan Davidson, the Folk School's director, might be the most interesting character of all. A quintessential Southern gentleman with a doctorate in folklore, history, and museum studies from Boston University, he's a scholar on Appalachian history and plays a pretty mean banjo. Davidson says the school's attendance, battered by the economy, is down 10 percent this year and most students are older. He realizes the school has to attract a younger audience, and it has in recent years, sometimes at the expense of lingering stereotypes.
"We get every kind of misconception," Davidson says, from the locals thinking the school is a hippie retreat to visitors suspecting it's practically a retirement community. "Some people think we're historical and we dress up, and it's like going to Williamsburg. The one thing that's almost always true is that, unless somebody has been here, they'll get it wrong. They won't quite get it because it's not easily understood."
I admit even I was guilty of that. I didn't expect my class to be so noncompetitive and incredibly enlightening. To my surprise, I took to the autoharp with relish and spent most of my nights practicing, sometimes strapping on my instrument and heading into the nearby woods to perfect my pinch-and-strum pattern.
By 9 a.m., I was in class and tuning up alongside my fellow 'harpies (as I called them, never to their faces), ready to learn from our instructor, John Hollandsworth, a superb player with the patience of a saint and a soothing Virginia accent. With a few breaks, we'd go until noon, break for lunch, then return for three more hours of instruction.
Come sundown, there wasn't a lot to do on campus, aside from strolling the walking paths illuminated by moonglow and floodlights. Cellphone reception was patchy, and the Wi-Fi access was useful only if you had brought your laptop. There was no computer room. Restless and emboldened by a GPS in my rental car, I took off for late-night drives on winding roads that made me queasy. (Beware the townies who zip along these country roads at 50 miles per hour; they could take Beantown cabbies for a ride.)
By the end of the week, if I may crow, my class and I had made remarkable progress. With autoharps perched at just the right angles, we had about six songs in our repertoire, two of which we aced at the closing exhibition. After our big performance, we all dispersed, exchanging hugs and e-mail addresses and floating the prospect of a reunion(!) at someone's summer beach house.
My camp days didn't end that night, though. Back in my Cambridge apartment, I wake up early these days - not for a morning stroll through the woods, but to practice my autoharp, without fingerpicks so as not to disturb my neighbors. On my fridge is a photo of me and my classmates, all of us clutching our instruments and smiling as if we're the next hot young things in the autoharp world. I secretly hope that they're practicing, too, because I have a little fantasy. Maybe someday James and the Golden Girls will take their act out of Appalachia and on the road.
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.