Music and arts festival comes to city

Common Ground on the Hill is branching out from its roots in Westminster and launching a concert series in Baltimore.

The 18-year-old music and arts organization, founded at McDaniel College in Carroll County when the school was still called Western Maryland College, will be "Breaking Up Christmas" on Friday with music that has echoed through the hills of Appalachia for generations.


The evening's festivities at Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church on North Charles Street will hark back to an era when people in mountain villages celebrated the season with house parties. They filled their holiday nights with dancing to the fiddle, mandolin and dulcimer, and joined their voices in lyrics from Ireland, Scotland, England and Africa.

"The show will kick off with a lot of Appalachia, add a nice gospel flavor and top off with Christmas," said Ralph Wilson, longtime Common Ground board member.

Walt Michael, founder and director, is bringing Common Ground to Baltimore and to Gettysburg, Pa., early next year. The nonprofit organization explores diversity and builds on commonality through the study of cultures around the world.

During the summer, it offers two weeks of daily courses in subjects that include songwriting, storytelling, African dance, Native American philosophy, Irish folklore, Icelandic poetry and Civil War history. Evening concerts of gospel, Celtic, blues and bluegrass music top off each day. Common Ground also sponsors concerts throughout the year, most often in Westminster.

It has endured and grown because it is grounded in traditional arts, Michael said.

"We want to get our footprint into Baltimore," he said. "We have always been neighbors, but Baltimore residents don't think Westminster is that close."

When Michael gave solo performances on hammered dulcimer at Brown Memorial, audiences were so receptive that "the place just came to us with a venue," he said.

Maria Wong, a member of the congregation, said the church hall, which can accommodate about 300 people, will serve as Common Ground's Baltimore base.

"We like the music and the message that goes beyond the music," Wong said. "This music is not just for people raised in the '60s. Don't imagine sad songs about flowers. This is true roots music, rooted in strong traditions."

Wong, who has attended some of the Carroll County events, said Common Ground shows how music and the arts foster tolerance of diverse cultures.

"It promotes diversity, understanding and living together in our environment," she said. "Baltimore has a problem with violence. There is no way around that. Here we have an organization that is spreading the message of nonviolence with art and music. The more we found out about it, the more we wanted to be involved with it."

Wilson, who has taken many of Common Ground's summer courses, foresees audiences building in the metropolitan area.

"Once you are there, you really want to be in that environment," he said. "This is not just about music. There is much to learn from Common Ground."

Fellow board member Tim Scully, a public defender in the city, came to Common Ground about 14 years ago, hoping to hone his guitar skills. The first person he met was an Inuit watercolorist, who engaged him in a lengthy conversation about life near the Arctic Circle and tribal traditions. Scully has stayed with the program ever since.


"You meet artists, musicians — all these people that you want to sing and dance with," he said. "This is not hippie, folksy or even rock. This is about world music and culture."

Michael is confident that Baltimore "has a thirst for our music and needs to get to know us."

The monthly concert series will continue through April, and several acts are booked for the fall.

The show starts at 8 p.m.

Friday at the church hall, 6200 N. Charles St. Tickets are $19 and available at the door. Information: 410-857-2771.