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Getting back to our roots

Common Ground on the Hill has returned to Westminster. For 20 years, musicians, dancers, writers, filmmakers, artists, artisans and activists have gathered in early July at the college on the hill, now McDaniel College.

Common Ground goes back to the roots of our culture, allowing people of all traditions to find a place to share. Walt Michael, founder and executive director of Common Ground, wrote in the 2014 catalog, "Our common ground is our humanity, often best expressed by artistic traditions that have enriched human experience through the ages."

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Those traditions were being put into practice on July 8, during this year's second Traditions Week. Classrooms and open spaces all over the campus were being used for activities ranging from Beginning Guitar to Nonviolent Problem-Solving to Bowl Carving.

In a workshop in the Art Studio, Tom Jolin, of Orrtanna, Pennsylvania, and Slim Harrison, of Eyler's Valley, Maryland, were teaching a class on "Mountain Dulcimer Construction." Both men are experienced musicians and instrument-builders.

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"I started making dulcimers in the mid-1970s," Jolin said. "I've been playing various instruments since high school."

"He's teaching the class, I'm just hanging out here making trouble," said Harrison, jokingly. "I'm making bullroarers for the World Village [Common Ground's children's camp]. This week we're doing boomerangs and bullroarers."

Upstairs, in the Art Studio, Sheila Zent, of Hanover, Pennsylvania, taught a class called "Reuse, Repurpose, Refashion." "It's about up-cycling clothing from something old to something new," she said.

Zent, a native of Taneytown, explained that her background was in costuming. She talked while she fitted and pinned a section of embroidered linen fabric into the front of a lace top for Cheryl Held, of Westminster.

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Even as temperatures soared close to 90 degrees, Common Ground participants still engaged in outdoor activities. Some were even pushing it up a notch in the "Having your Way with Fire" class.

Held in the shade of the maple trees behind the college's Harrison House, class members were learning the skills of cooking over an open fire. Five dutch ovens had coals piled on their lids and raked under their bottoms, while two other pots hung on a rack over the fire.

Most of the students were sitting down, waiting for the cooking process to finish. It wasn't all rest, though. "Everybody in the class participates in some way or another," said Shelton Browder, one of the instructors.

Inside the small, stone chapel known as Little Baker, voices were raised in song. For the "Big Song Swap," Common Ground faculty and students filled into the pews and took turns singing and leading others in song.

Some musicians shared songs they had written, others dug back into memory for traditional classics. Folk singer and faculty member Sparky Rucker, of Maryville, Tennessee, played his guitar and led the group in "The Tramp on the Street."

Other songs were rescued from obscurity. The Ronstadt Generations Project's Michael J. Ronstadt, of Tucson, Arizona, also part of the faculty, offered up a rendition of "The Eggplant that Ate Chicago."

After the "Big Song Swap" ended, all 3 members of The Ronstadt Generations Project at Common Ground had time to talk, while they packed up their instruments, which ranged from guitar to cello to tuba. "This is my 7th year, and this is these guys' 5th year," Michael J. Ronstadt said, indicating his sons, Michael G. Ronstadt, of Cincinatti, OH, and Peter D. "Petie" Ronstadt, also of Tucson.

"I feel like it's a place to recharge," Petie said. "You wear down your inspiration through the year, and you come here and hear all the wonderful music and see all the great art, and you get recharged. That inspiration can last you for almost a whole year."

"It's like having a family here," said Michael G. Ronstadt.

Singer-songwriter and faculty member Pablo Peregrina, of Tucson, Arizona, exemplifies the spirit of activism found among so many of the Common Ground community. "I've been in the humanitarian movement for 14 years," he said. "In 2004, I decided to start writing music, to be 'The Voice of the Voiceless.'"

"What was the inspiration for my music?" Peregrina said. "My life, growing up and being a first-generation immigrant…I'm giving back to my community."

Peregrina works to provide humanitarian aid to immigrants crossing the border through the desert. "How authentic is this music — going out to the desert, meeting people who need water," he said.

With so many musicians in one place, Common Ground holds concerts, open to the public, every evening when it is in session. The evening concerts are generally followed by some type of folk dancing.

Once the Traditions Weeks and Common Ground on the Hill Festival have ended, local residents can still enjoy the monthly Common Ground concerts offered throughout the fall, winter and spring. More information is available on the website at http://www.CommonGroundOnTheHill.org or by calling 410-857-2771.

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