Bridging cultural divide with 'Common Ground'


Common Ground on the Hill, a music and arts festival that brings hundreds of students and notable performers to Westminster every summer, operates most of the year out of a small, cluttered office in the basement of a McDaniel College building.

Walt Michael, 57, founder of the festival and the college's artist-in-residence, toils amid bookcases filled with CDs, videos, music memorabilia and academic texts. He composes music on the same laptop in which he writes curricula, class schedules and performance dates for Common Ground. As he juggled phone calls and interviews recently, his lone assistant interrupted.

"Do you know anybody in Hot Tuna?" the assistant asked.

"Sure, I do," he answered. "Let me get you a cell phone number."

That Michael would know the acoustic blues duo with more than 27 albums to its credit comes as no surprise.

"Walt lives in his music and has so many connections with nationally known performers," said Barbara Beverungen, Carroll County's director of tourism. "He is not a promoter. He has personal relationships with these people, and they come here not because they have ever heard of Carroll County but because Walt is involved."

He routinely draws performers well known in music and arts circles to the Carroll County seat. So far, not Hot Tuna. But, musicians like Pete Seeger, Tom Chapin and Roger McGuinn, a Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer and former guitarist for the Byrds, have played at Common Ground. Seeger, whose hits include "If I Had a Hammer," "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," even penned a song for Michael. The lyrics are framed and hanging in Common Ground's office.

Walter M. Michael II, son of a Methodist minister, spent his youth demonstrating against the Vietnam War, working in the civil rights movement and honing his musical talent.

Decades later and still entrenched in the struggle for equality, he returned to his alma mater, formerly Western Maryland College, and built Common Ground on the Hill. Instead of marches and sit-ins, he is using the music and arts to build harmony and bridge the gaps between cultures, races and religions.

Michael, a leader in the revival of the hammered dulcimer, spent decades on the road with his music. He launched the first Common Ground in the summer of 1994. The two-week program has grown steadily ever since, with more than 300 students already registered this summer and room for more.

"In the most basic way, Common Ground teaches traditional arts as part of the human experience," he said. "This is hands-on art that is hard to find in the day when everybody gets entertained on the Internet or at the mall. We offer real ethnic traditions that speak to people's identities."

Michael, who received the annual Carroll County Human Relations Commission award last month, promises students "a quality learning experience with master musicians, artists and crafts people, while searching for common ground among ethnic, gender, age and racial groups."

Common Ground offers standard favorites this year, such as its gospel choir, and adds new classes, including the Pueblo Potters from New Mexico. Students can take lessons in banjo, guitar or dulcimer. They can write a song, a poem or a folk story, step into a jig, a samba or a square dance and dabble in metals or printmaking. They can learn to weave, quilt or make wooden spoons.

The program will again focus on the area's role in the Civil War and the Underground Railroad, with visits to several historical sites that were stops along the flights to freedom.

"Western Maryland is really coming back into a stronger sense of its part in the Civil War," Michael said.

McDaniel College, situated close to Baltimore and Washington and with a long tradition of community involvement, provides "a great environment for the arts" and the ideal venue for Common Ground, he said.

"The college makes a cultural gift to the community in giving us this opportunity," Michael said.

The festival blends the lessons of the 1960s into courses in music and art taught by renowned performers and artists.

"Learning to think creatively and humanely is clearly stated in the college's mission statement," said Joyce Muller, spokeswoman for McDaniel. "How perfectly, then, is the extension of that learning in the Common Ground offerings. In July, persons of all ages and backgrounds, but especially adults, can re-engage in unconventional courses that will empower them to rediscover their artistic selves. Common Ground offers that opportunity to create - art, music, dance, writing - and the thinking that goes behind these human expressions."

Throughout the year, Common Ground also brings singers, dancers and musicians to Westminster, most recently for a series of monthly performances at the Carroll County Arts Center.

"Walt has brought internationally acclaimed acts here and offers us a continual education process," said Sandy Oxx, director of the arts center. "He is succeeding at bridging the gaps through music and art with diversity an integral part of the Common Ground mission."

Arlo Guthrie will headline the American Music and Arts Festival, along with Chapin, Michael and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, all performing at the culmination of the two-week program on July 10 and 11 at the Carroll County Farm Museum. As many as 5,000 fans have attended the concerts at the museum.

And, for the third time, Common Ground will replay in Scotland in August. The two-week course will be repeated on a college campus there.

Other colleges are showing interest in the program, Michael said. The state Office of Tourism promotes the festival as one of the area's featured events.

"We are really putting Carroll County and Maryland in the international arts," Michael said. "McDaniel College and Westminster is where it all is."

As one of several dozen instructors, Michael will share with students his repertoire, which ranges from Appalachian to Celtic music and includes original compositions. He hopes that with guidance from seasoned musicians, Common Ground students will discover the artists within themselves.

"You don't have to be an artist or a musician," he said. "Come here. Learn something and be entertained."

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