Common Ground unites music, arts

Common Ground on the Hill opens for its 10th season today at McDaniel College in Westminster with artists plugging into the roots of American music, potters passing on tribal arts and peace activists preaching nonviolence.

The traditional music and arts organization explores diversity and builds on commonality with a cornucopia of daily courses and evenings filled with concerts. The two-week event pulls participants into fiddling, song writing, storytelling, gospel choir, African dance, Native American philosophy, Irish folklore, Icelandic poetry and Civil War history. There are even relaxation therapy, yoga rhythmics and the possibility of college credit.


"We have endured and grown because we are all about the traditional arts, and those always have value," said Walt Michael, founder of Common Ground. "If we were teaching the faddish and depending on the trends, we would be in trouble."

American roots music is enjoying a surge in popularity with renewed interest in banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar, said Michael.


"That music has a power and quality that comes through," he said. "Music goes through all the pop cycles; the roots are always there."

For the third year, the event will include the Common Ground Institute on Nonviolence.

"We are all about honoring one another at an elevated place," said Michael, the artist-in-residence at the college, which overlooks Westminster. "When you stop honoring each other, that is when violence happens."

Charles Collyer and Pam Zappardino, who teach the nonviolence class, said the philosophy parallels many music and art traditions.

"Right from the beginning, Walt intended this to be a place where people from different backgrounds come together," said Collyer, a professor at the University of Rhode Island. "The study of nonviolence fits into the theme."

The couple will dabble in music the next two weeks. She is learning dulcimer, and he plays a style he calls "bad guitar."

"Common Ground offers a wonderful world of people who play live music together," said Collyer. "It is like the oral traditions that exist in other cultures, and it stands in contrast to the mass marketing of today's pre-recorded music."

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


"A lot of stragglers will come in at the last minute, God bless them," said Michael.

Arlo Guthrie

The program culminates with the American Music and Arts Festival on July 10 and 11 at the Carroll County Farm Museum. Folk artist Arlo Guthrie headlines, along with performances by Tom Chapin, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Michael. The show could draw as many as 10,000 fans, Michael said.

Among the festival performers will be Arlo's daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, and her husband, Johnny Irion, the great-nephew of author John Steinbeck. They will perform what they are calling a family series.

"It could be like reading The Grapes of Wrath while 'Riding on the City of New Orleans,'" said Michael.

Irion, a returning instructor who will demonstrate the art of musical accompaniment in "Complementing Each Other," persuaded his wife to join the Common Ground faculty. He promised it would be a relaxing change from their grueling concert schedule that included 185 shows last year.


"I fully experienced the camaraderie with great artists, and I actually learned something," he said.

Sarah Lee Guthrie, the granddaughter of the legendary Woody Guthrie, will teach songwriting for children and families.

Acoma pottery

Also new to the faculty this year are two Native American sisters who will share the secrets of Acoma pottery, an art they learned from their mother.

Delores Lewis Garcia and Emma Lewis Mitchell have prepared for weeks so their students can work with source materials. The artists have gathered clay from the mesa near their home in Acoma Pueblo, N.M., and shipped it to Westminster, along with paints, tools and their favorite firing material.

"We only work in our clay and we would never be able to get anything like it anywhere else," said Mitchell. "We mine it, grind it, mix it and then let it age for a few days. We do our work in steps, and it takes almost three weeks."


To expedite the process, the sisters shipped aged clay. They have already ground minerals into black, white and orange paints, the only colors they ever use.

"We have never been to Maryland, and we are looking forward to meeting new people who are interested in what we do," said Garcia. "We have been doing this all our lives, ever since we were able to handle clay. We are self-taught from watching our mother."

Diverse backgrounds

Michael said he has tried to offer students of all backgrounds and skill levels "the big spectrum" of music and the arts.

"Not everyone who comes to Common Ground plays the fiddle or paints a picture," he said. "And they don't have to be a nonviolence advocate, either. These are just among all the things we do."

Participants can enroll in one class or a week of studies and concerts. Room and board are also available at the college. Information: 410-857-2771 or