Saturday, October 11, 2014

Parkway's Midday Musicians take a bow

   An interesting thing happens every day during the warm months at the Blue Ridge Music Center near Milepost 213 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  At noon, from May through October, a group of musicians, many of them professional players of considerable note, assemble in the breezeway between the museum and its intimate auditorium next door, and begins to play a variety of music reflecting the culture, history and lore of the mountains.  It's free.  People come from all over to listen. And it's the toe-tappingest place you'll find anywhere in the hills for the next four hours.

And on Fridays, something else happens. On Friday's it's an open jam, welcoming anyone who walks up to bring an instrument, or borrow a spare, or just join in or even lead the singing in a song.  I've sat in this Jim Marshall and Friends Jam for five months now (bass fiddle), and we've had visitors from around the globe.  (Mr. Marshall started the jam years ago and now resides in a nursing home; Mark Raynes and Renee Igo lead the Jim Marshall Jam in his absence.)  A few weeks ago visitors included a fellow from Spain who lives in London and who came forward to sing some compositions of his own.  A month ago, a woman who sings in a choir back home somewhere in the Midwest did a gorgeous version of Amazing Grace.  Two weeks ago, a couple from Argentina came up and sang seven or eight Argentinian folk songs in Spanish -- just superb music, though I recognized maybe one word in 20 or so. They stole the show, as Mark Raynes put it.

But that's the beauty of the free Midday Mountain Music program that runs every day for six months of the year: you never know what you are going to hear or who you are going to hear it from, but it's always interesting.  Some folks expect mostly bluegrass, yet what they hear is a mix of American roots music with a lot of influences from around the world.  Bluegrass, yes, but also traditional mountain music, folk music, blues, gospel, country, olde timey music, new timey music, funny songs, sad songs, train songs, cabin-in-the-hills songs, moonshine songs, lonesome-for-the-Blue Ridge songs -- even a 19th century Josef Wagner march, "Under the Double Eagle," popularized by John Phillip Sousa's band before Benny Goodman and later all kinds of bluegrass players jumped all over it. I wouldn't be surprised to hear some R&B and beach music once in a while.

And here's the most amazing thing: This daily offering of music is played and sung by volunteers who put in more than 100 hours of performance time each every year.  Add in travel time -- some come from two hours or more each way every week to perform -- and jam groups that can grow to more than 20 musicians at a sitting, and you've got thousands of hours donated to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the enjoyment of its visitors.  Four hours of music, by the way, is a pretty long gig.  These folks play because they want to. It is a service to the public, and judging by how many people come every day to sit and watch, they appreciate it.

So it was entirely appropriate and gratifying that the National Park Service recognized the volunteer Midday Musicians at a luncheon the other day at the Folk Art Center near the Blue Ridge Parkway headquarters in Asheville, North Carolina. The annual gathering honors volunteers all along the Parkway who do a terrific job as interpreters and maintenance volunteers.  My friends Mark Raynes and Renee Igo accepted the Parkway Partner Volunteers of the Year Award on behalf of all the musicians who play at the Blue Ridge Music Center.

From left, Richard Emmett, Renee Igo, Mark Raynes, Mark Woods. Photo from Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation website.
With them were Richard Emmett, music program director at the center, and Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Mark Woods.  The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, the private fund-raising partner of the Parkway, agreed to operate programs at the center after the Parkway requested its help several years ago. The Foundation named Emmett to operate those programs, which include the Midday Mountain Music as well as the weekend concert series, which concludes today with the Steep Canyon Rangers.

At the awards ceremony Tuesday, Superintendent Mark Woods had this to say:  "Through your service, visitors to the Blue Ridge Music Center have the wonderful treat of hearing authentic, live music seven days a week, every day the Music Center is open. This service over eight visitors seasons [since the opening of the Music Center] likely represents a contribution of over 30,000 volunteer hours. How wonderful to consider how many tunes have floated from instruments during that time."  Amen.

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