Folk music for younger folks


With strains of "She'll be Coming Around the Mountain" wafting throughout the cafeteria at Bollman Bridge Elementary School, about 300 pupils stomped their feet and clapped their hands as they practiced a circle dance for the school's big hoedown.

Some groups of giggly girls and boys locked arms and circled one another while Slim Harrison, a folk musician and artist-in-residence through the Maryland State Arts Council, played folk instruments, including the banjo, fiddle and guitar, at the Jessup school.

The children were practicing Monday morning for the school's evening hoedown at Patuxent Valley Middle School, where community members were invited to see what the pupils had learned since Harrison had taken them under his wing Nov. 29.

During the weeklong program, called "Exploring the Roots of American Folk Music," children learned to make instruments and perform dances in preparation for the hoedown.

Learning the steps

Decked out in a plaid shirt, dark cowboy hat and pants, Harrison led the pupils through dance steps during rehearsal.

"OK, ladies on the left, gentlemen on the right," he said with a hint of a Southern accent. "One, two, three and clap ... circle and switch ... now promenade ... that means walk with your partner."

The pupils who waited their turn to dance cheered the others on with musical instruments they made under Harrison's guidance.

Some shook tambourines made of paper plates and beads. Others beat small drums fashioned from bowls with lids, while some blew on mouth organs made of paper towel rolls and wax paper.

'It was fun'

"It's been really great to be able to learn the Virginia reel [a country folk dance]," said Joseph Williams, a fifth-grader. "Folk music is something I didn't know a lot about. I made a tambourine, and it was fun."

Added Melissa Marx, a third-grader, "It's been exciting to learn how to do the circle dance."

Music teacher Randy Forton was thrilled to see the children dancing so well together.

"I think it's a community-building experience for these children," he said. "Where do you see all the classes together like this? They're usually in their own classes. This is what it's all about."

He added, "This is a really good opportunity to expose them to American folk culture."

Homemade music

Harrison said he grew up playing folk music with his family on washboards and with spoons.

"There was no TV or radio, so we had to make our own music," he said, referring to times his family visited his uncle's farm in the Catoctin Mountains.

About 25 years ago, Harrison bought his uncle's farm and made it his home.

"They didn't get electricity until about 1959," he said of the mountainous region.

Harrison said he was an apple picker before he joined the artist-in-residence program more than 20 years ago.

"This is a great job. I get paid to play music," he said.

Foreign origins

Harrison explained that some instruments used in American folk music can be traced to foreign countries.

"The banjo is originally from Africa ... and I brought in a Chinese version of the mouth organ," he said.

Despite the prevalence of pop music on the radio airwaves, Harrison said he believes folk music is making a comeback among young people.

"The kids really enjoy it, and they hear a lot of the music on the cartoons they watch," he said.

Harrison added that at recent banjo and fiddle competitions he attended, youngsters took home top prizes.

"This is fun. People just realize that they can play music and don't have to invest a lot of money," he said.

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