Most of them don’t take long to get the twang of it.
By all accounts, the children in the Georgia Pick and Bow Traditional Music School in Dahlonega show an uncanny aptitude for Appalachian music, so forget about the nails-on-a-chalkboard cacophony you normally might associate with a roomful of beginning fiddle players.
“They learn so fast, and some of them are already reading music notation, which isn’t common in bluegrass,” says instructor Curtis Jones, who’s noted for his guitar work with Patty Loveless and other famous mountain larks.
Jones is one of six instructors for about 35 students, in grades 4-12, who are learning to play “old-timey” banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar and upright bass. After every hands-on class in the media center of the Lumpkin County Middle School, the students and their teachers—some of whom dress the part in overalls, floppy hats, and collar-length beards—congregate for a toe-tapping jam session that usually starts off tentatively but builds in peppery confidence on numbers like “Cripple Creek,” “Muleskinner Blues” or “Soldier’s Joy.” Still, as they hunch their shoulders under fiddles and crook tiny fingers into claw-hammer position over the moon-face of a banjo, the young players wear expressions of granite solemnity.
This old-as-the-hills music is serious business, and they know it.
“Once, not too long ago, getting together to play music, to talk and sing and dance and eat was just part of life, a matter of course,” says guitar teacher Lara Kenney-Polangco, who regards the “P&B” as a sacred calling. “Today, we are rapidly losing cultural ground to the homogenizing effects of corporate influence and television loneliness; many children think food comes from the store, music comes from the radio and money spells success. This incalculable loss of community, to me, is like tossing your great-great grandmother’s irreplaceable wedding china in the trash in exchange for brand new, brightly colored plastic-ware. The real purpose of music is to draw folks together in an intimate, fluent and emotive way.”
Faith first, funding later
The music program’s message of cultural pride also helps counter the stigma of Deliverance, which was filmed just down the road (though “Dueling Banjos” remains an evergreen favorite among the kids). Students learn about ancestral pluck in every sense of the word, becoming, as Kenney-Polangco says, “keepers of thousands of years of an organically-evolved artistic inheritance that has crossed oceans.”
Impishly summing up his own family tradition, eighth-grader Winfred Dockery, who has proved to be a banjo prodigy, says, “My daddy, uh, thinks he can sing, so he does. But my Pawpaw Pirkle—now he could make a guitar talk, let me tell you what. So maybe that’s where I get it from?”
The high-lonesome sounds of bluegrass, backcountry folk and Celtic balladry, punctuated by the Adam’s apple-quaver of a yodel, have threaded through this rugged north Georgia town since before Fiddlin’ John Carson—the first artist ever to record and sell a country record—led the regular public jams that still liven up the square most weekends. However, as the motto of Pick and Bow points out, “A tradition is no good unless it’s passed down to the next generation.” So in 2007, Dahlonega’s flannel-knit community of music makers teamed up to make instruction affordable for any kid willing to bend a plaintive note. Lessons that might otherwise cost $50 per hour are taught at a rate of $100 for a 10-week course, with need-based tuition rates and “instrument scholarships” available. About a third of the students rely on scholarships.
“We don’t want to turn anyone away,” says Sarrah Ellen McDonald, the director of Pick and Bow and a down-home diva in the Barefoot Creek band. “If the desire is there, we’ll find a way. We started on faith.”
During the first session, in fact, instructors worked without a salary, but the program since has operated on grants, raffles, contra-dance benefits and unexpected generosity.
“We’re eat up with guitars,” McDonald says, “but we’re always looking for fiddles, which are more expensive.”
So the rootsy sweetheart of the Grammys, Allison Krauss, donated eight of the coveted instruments. Local pickers, too, pass the hat. “For example, the Buzzard Mountain Boys might donate their tips one night,” McDonald says. “I hate to use this word, but it’s a little incestuous the way all of the bands around here play together and overlap. Many times I’ve fiddled the sun up as it rose behind a mountain at dawn. I can’t think of any other way I’d want to live, and it’s just a way of life we want to preserve.”
Winfred Dockery already is doing his part. He landed an extracurricular gig at the Mountain Music and Medicine Show, where an anonymous benefactor emerged from the crowd to give him a banjo. (“I’m thinking of turning professional,” says Winfred, who clearly enjoys applause as much as the next picker.) And look for the Pick and Bow kids to perform as a group during the Bear on the Square Festival later this month.
Among the lyrics that echo from P&B gatherings: “What have they done to the old home place? Why did they tear it down? Why did I leave the plow in the field to look for a job in the town?”
It is the sort of song that little Connor Clark, an aspiring heir to Doc Watson, says “makes my heart feel huge.”
Learn how the Georgia Pick and Bow Traditional Music School has grown since this article was first published in 2009 by visiting their website. Check out the photos of the 100+ kids now participating and make a donation online.