Looking back at — and ahead to — Common Ground on the Hill

Common Ground on the Hill, and its “Tradition Weeks,” is now, itself, a tradition, an annual gathering that is anticipated and well attended by both instructors and participants.

A lecture and educational series that also includes concerts, art galleries, dances and more, Common Ground is one of the largest celebrations in Carroll County and it has become so popular that this year it will expand from two Tradition Weeks to three. It begins on Monday, June 25, at McDaniel College and culminates with the annual Common Ground on the Hill Roots Music & Arts Festival on Saturday, July 14, at the Carroll County Farm Museum.


Nearly a quarter-century ago, though, it was just an idea — and one that didn’t necessarily seem like a sure-thing.

The first mention of Common Ground in the Carroll County Times came on Oct. 28, 1994, in a tiny brief near the back of the newspaper. “Hear ballads of the sea, of rural life and industrial toil and strife at a concert featuring English folk musicians John Roberts and Tony Barrand … . The evening is sponsored by the college and Common Ground Music Harvest, a new organization begun by alumnus Walt Michael. The non-profit organization was formed to bridge the gap between people from different backgrounds and points of view with music and honest dialogue.”


Shortly after the concert, Michael, a renowned hammered dulcimer player, revealed to the Times his lofty goals for Common Ground Music Harvest, saying he was in the process of putting together a a two-week event for the following summer, recruiting musicians from points of conflict such as Northern Ireland and Britain, and Israel and the Middle East. He noted he was hoping to have 20 musicians for that first year, with expectations that people would find much more than just interesting music, but also common ground.

Music seemed to intertwine with the warm breeze that rolled through the hills of the Carroll County Farm Museum Saturday, as the sounds of folk and roots music

“If people could sit down and play music together, then they could get along,” Michael said in the Nov. 22, 1994, Times. “Once they play the music, it becomes an active kind of thing! We're looking to create the common ground crisis resolution kind of experience.”

An article on June 24, 1995, said Michael was barely able to bring Common Ground back from “the brink of financial and spiritual disaster,” pulling off his goal of a two-week instructional event by making their target of 100 students. "It didn't look very good for us back in March," Michael conceded.

But he pulled it off and the event has been expanding to much more than music ever since as “the basis to explore culture diversity,” he said in the Times published July 19, 1995.

And while it might seem those sentiments are more relevant now than ever, the same could have been — and was — said more than two decades ago.

“By understanding the roots of art, and teaching traditions, we can find common ground,” Michael told the Times on July 6, 1996, noting that the event was particularly pertinent at that time in history because of the resurgence of hate groups. “What we're trying to get out is that the community's well-being is dependent on its cultural harmony.”

According to the commongroundonthehill.org website, Common Ground on the Hill was founded on the premise that there is a common human thread unifying all people expressed in our various artistic traditions.

“Our mission is to make this thread a path towards human understanding, tolerance, fulfillment, and enjoyment.The embodiment of this path is a music and arts community where master musicians, artists, craftspeople, and creative thinkers will provide a quality learning experience for an audience which we will endeavor to increase in size, diversity, and influence. It is essential to the success of this mission that the artists, teachers, and students, reflect local, national, and international communities,” the website says.

As musician Guy Davis instructed a class of a dozen guitarists in the styles and techniques of the blues during a Common Ground on the Hill class Wednesday at

A quick look at the schedule for the next three weeks makes it seem like they’re continuing to accomplish their mission.

For example, participants can learn about Arab/Islamic Culture, nature writing, banjo, popping/boogaloo, golf, beadmaking, blacksmitthing, cell phone photography, pizza/bread oven building, sculpting flowers, silk painting and vinegar graining, among other things.

And that’s just on the first day of the first week.

There are 14 more instructional days with a most diverse set of topics and crafts and learning opportunities and lectures. Go to the Common Ground website to learn about or register for programs and workshops.


Each evening includes art showcased in the Rice Gallery on campus and a concert at Alumni Hall.

Additionally, Common Ground on the Town is set for Saturday, July 7, when musicians will appear at six different sites around Westminster. For jazz, the Henry Reiff Trio at Rafael’s. For Celtic fiddle, Pete Clark & Ralph Gordon at O’Lordan’s Irish Publ. For Jazz guitar, Harry Orlove at JeannieBird Baking Company. For accoustic blues, Baltimore Red with Wayne Werner & Friends at Joahannsons Dining House. For electric blues, Chris James and Guilianova Groceria. And for alt-grass, the Eastman String Band at the Westminster branch of the Carroll County Public Library.

Of course, it all builds up to the Common Ground Roots Music & Arts Festival on July 14 at the Farm Museum. The festival includes musicians on four stages, a wine and beer garden, juried arts and crafts and plenty of food. The big day begins at 10 a.m. and is scheduled to go through 9 p.m.

The headliners are the Kruger Brothers, an American folk music trio consisting of Jens Kruger on banjo, Uwe Kruger on guitar and lead vocals and Joel Landsberg on bass. The group is billed as one of the most innovative ensembles active in Americana music and, appropriately enough for Common Ground, includes two brothers who were born and began playing music together in Switzerland and later moved to North Carolina.

Other well-known artists playing the Music & Arts Festival include Professor Louie and the Crowmatix, Pete Clark (of Scotland), Urban Artistry, Connla (of Ireland), Walt Michael & Co., Frank McGuire (of Scotland), Bing Futch, Sparky and Rhonda Rucker, and many others.

Halee Asch, of Westminster, uses a classmates bow to try and shoot an arrow. Attendees to the Common Ground on the Hill program at McDaniel College in Westminster take part in the Primitive Skills: Making a Green Wood Bow class Friday afternoon.
Halee Asch, of Westminster, uses a classmates bow to try and shoot an arrow. Attendees to the Common Ground on the Hill program at McDaniel College in Westminster take part in the Primitive Skills: Making a Green Wood Bow class Friday afternoon. (Paul W. Gillespie / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The Kruger Brothers are scheduled to receive the 2018 Robert H. Chambers Award for Excellence in the Traditional Arts, named for a former president of McDaniel College. Past winners have included luminaries like Roger McGuinn, Richie Havens, Ralph Stanley and Jose Feliciano.

Last year’s winner was blues musician Guy Davis, who has participated in Common Ground since the beginning. In anticipation of accepting the award, he reflected on the unique event, its origins and what it means.

“Robert Chambers was a boots-on-the-ground revolutionary," Davis told the Times on July 5, 2017. “Like Walt Michael, he worked hard within a fixed academic system, to reaffirm the worth and value of diverse human culture, as expressed through the Arts. The more this diversity is shown and appreciated, the more we all find we have in common. Bob Chambers' work was to remind us that we human beings, [we] were not put here to serve institutions. Institutions were created to serve us.”


And 24 years after its humble beginning, Common Ground on the Hill continues to grow and continues in its mission.


“What defines Common Ground is the component of bringing people together through the arts at a time where we are being divided at every turn,” Michael was quoted as saying in the June 24, 2016, Times. “We have people of wealth; we have agrarian people tilling the soil; we have people doing really well, homeless people; we have immigrants.

“It's all a microcosm of what's going on in the country. We can look toward what might be possible for us as a nation in this little picture we're putting together.”

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