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Concert series brings fiddler, banjo sounds to Springfield Presbyterian Church

Soulful strains of music floated eerily through the sanctuary at Springfield Presbyterian Church on Sunday, Aug. 11. All eyes were on a singular figure whose fingers drew music from the fiddle cradled in his hands.

Musician Jake Blount was the second of seven musical acts of music planned for this historic church’s 12th annual Concert Series. Earlier in the day, Blount shared a little about himself.

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“I play primarily fiddle and banjo music from black and Native American communities in the Southeast,” Blount said. “That’s my family’s heritage and what I tend to focus on.”

A Tacoma Park resident originally from Smithfield, Virginia, Blount said his life revolves around the fiddle and the banjo. He’s studied with modern masters of old-time music, and the songs he plays venerate his racial and ethnic heritage.

It was that passion that drove his focus when studying at Hamilton College, where he received his bachelor’s in ethnomusicology. Since then, he’s shared his music and research at the Smithsonian Institute, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and across the country, including in his current position as an artist in residence at Strathmore College.

An audience of about 40 people had come to learn more about Blount’s music.

“We’re not a member of the church but we’ve come to their past concerts,” said Mary Bruff of Winfield. She was there with her husband, Bob. “We enjoy going to concerts all over.”

Her husband Bob nodded.

“We like local activities,” he said. “It’s a good way to participate in the community.”

Church music director Linda Caviglia is part of the concert committee that selects the acts.

“We’ve always tried to have an eclectic group of musicians,” Caviglia said. “We have six each year, every other month, except occasionally when we throw in an extra one — usually because the only availability a group has is on one of the [off] months.”

According to Caviglia, the series began as the church was coming into its 170th anniversary.

“Our pastor at the time [Jack Sharp] wanted to celebrate all year. Now, we hold them every other month from August through June, the 2nd Sunday at 3 p.m.,” she said. “We’ve had the Baltimore Boys Choir, the Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra and on October 13, we will have the Cornerstone Saxophone Quartet, a local group.”

Throughout the show, Blount switched from fiddle to banjo and back again, explaining the history behind each song.

“This is a song about John Henry," he said. “It’s the most recorded folk song in American history and the story of a black man working on a chain gang. The story is that he was no fan of the new steam hammer and he took it on, racing to see who was faster. He won, but he died right after, so I am not sure that that’s much of a win.”

When he sang, even without a microphone, Blount’s rich, buttery voice filled the sanctuary. He stopped from time to time to tune his instruments.

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“This banjo is new to me,” he said while tuning. “But it still thinks it’s a tree.” The audience laughed. Later, tuning the same instrument, he said, “There’s a banjo player at the front door and he can’t find the key.”

The audience tapped their toes and moved with the music.

“This next song is called ‘Polly Put the Kettle On’ and this rendition is one that Manco Sneed played,” he said.

Sneed, a Cherokee fiddler from the Blue Ridge Mountains — born in 1885 — is best remembered for his elaborate rendition of this song. Blount said he was honored to play this and other Sneed songs at Manco Sneed’s family reunion.

“I didn’t grow up hearing the music I played, but I grew up hearing folk music,” Blount said, noting that his dad played songs from Peter, Paul and Mary, and James Taylor on his guitar. “My grandparents don’t remember anyone in our community playing the banjo or fiddle — yet they recognized the music. The only time I’ve ever seen my grandmother dance was the first time I brought my banjo home from college.”

Pastor Rebecca Crate said she’s always surprised and pleased by the variety of groups the committee brings in.

“I am glad we don’t have just one genre,” she said. “This place is steeped in musical history. The building was built in 1836 and music has been an important part its history. This brings out people of all denominations, religions and non-religious into this place with its wonderful acoustics.”

Eldersburg resident and church member Sharon Pappas said she’s attended almost every concert from its start.

“Every time [Caviglia] brings someone in it is always something new and different,” she said with a smile. “And it usually is about the fingers, how fast they can move.”

Pappas said she was fascinated by watching Blount play.

“For him, with [many of the songs having] no words I wonder how he even knows where he is. And then, the research that he’s done on the songs…”

Donald and Margaret Waite are not church members, but said they live “right down the road.”

“We come to a lot of the concerts,” he said. “This one is different than what we usually hear but it’s a nice difference.”

His wife agreed.

“We both play. I play the piano and he plays guitar. We are drawn to music and we’ve really enjoyed this.”

Looking over the crowd of about 40 people, Caviglia said they never know how many each concert will bring. They’ve seen as few as 10 to 15 in the audience, but they’ve also packed the sanctuary with over 125 in attendance.

“When the group coming has a following, we get a bigger crowd,” Caviglia said. “The Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra brings a big crowd. We’ve had them four times. We have a small sanctuary and they have a lot of players — 25 to 30 — but it works, and people have a great time. They are coming back in December of 2020.”

After the concert, attendees were invited to a reception with beverages and finger foods.

“I always make my cheesecake and a pesta loaf,” Caviglia said. “I think some people come for the food! In August we’ll have an ice cream social [after the concert] with homemade ice cream. My husband is an engineer who loves to experiment with ice cream recipes, and they’re really good.”

Blount had three CDs available for purchase. He was happy to mingle with the crowd and share his love of music. Caviglia smiled, seemingly happy with the turnout.

“We have some really good groups coming in, even though we’re a small church,” she said.

Pastor Crate also seemed happy.

“I’ve heard from different people coming and going that they are very grateful for something free in the community,” she said. “It’s a free gift with amazing and wonderfully talented musicians.”

Upcoming shows

Look for these upcoming shows in the concert series. Each is at 3 p.m. inside the church, at 7300 Spout Hill Road in Sykesville:

Oct. 13, 2019: Cornerstone Saxophone Quartet

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Dec. 8, 2019: Aaron & Ben (piano and voice)

Feb. 9, 2020: Eric Byrd Trio (jazz)

April 19, 2020: Haskell Small (piano; classical and original music)

June 14, 2020: Hungrytown (Americana/folk; music duo)

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