ABINGDON, Va. — An after-school program that introduces Appalachian music to local youth has kicked off its second year of operation this month with nearly twice the number of participants, and fueled by a new coordinator who is eager to share her passion for music.
Tammy Martin, an accomplished hammered dulcimer player with the music group Fire in the Kitchen, is coordinator of Washington County JAM, a program affiliated with Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) that was formed in 2000 in Alleghany County, North Carolina.
The after-school program that began in the county last year — hosted and largely supported by Southwest Virginia 4-H Educational Center — offers local elementary and middle-school students unique opportunities for instruction on instruments common to the Appalachian region, including fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mountain dulcimer.
This year more than 50 children in grades four through eight spend from 4 to 6 p.m. each Tuesday at the Southwest Virginia Educational Center where they learn music skills, one note at a time.
It’s a program where every child is a musician, but these youth have a different goal in mind. They are interested in learning traditional, old-time musical instruments and Southern Appalachian culture.
A heritage of music
Martin said the mission of the program is to instill an appreciation for Appalachian music, its culture and people.
“We strive to expose the children to music and traditions of our area they may not pursue on their own. It’s also a good way to learn the history behind our music and each instrument that is taught,” she said.
“It’s important to preserve the music and the culture of our region. In your standard music class in school, students are not going to learn clawhammer banjo or Mountain dulcimer.”
Dustin St. John, a sixth-grade student at Damascus Middle School, returned to the program this year to continue instruction on the banjo. Dustin comes from a family of musicians---his mother plays fiddle, banjo, and guitar.
“I like the program because I get to meet other people my age who like old-time music,” said Dustin, who unlike many of his classmates enjoys listening to Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty. His favorite song to play on the banjo is “Old Joe Clark.”
“This program means the world to us because Dustin is very intrigued by music,” said his mother, Christine St. John. “I think this program is a great way to teach the younger generation about our heritage and roots with the added benefit of learning how to play an instrument. As a child, I found old-time music and I believe I was meant to play it. The mountains are our home and the music is part of us.”
Jewel Raines, a seventh-grade student at Glade Spring Middle School, is a new student of JAM. She chose the dulcimer to learn. “It’s different from other instruments. Some people don’t know what it is. Everyone plays the guitar so it’s nice to be different,” she said.
According to Craig Makufka, 4-H Center program director, the majority of the JAM students are beginners. “It’s great we are reaching and introducing those youth to Appalachian music and heritage. We also are fortunate to have a good mixture of returners from last year to infuse their experience into the program,” he said.
Falling in love with music
An instructor for JAM last year, Martin never hesitated to accept the offer to coordinate the program this year. “I love music and the Appalachian region,” she said. “It was a perfect fit for me when they asked me to become coordinator because I love what it stands for and what we’re doing. It’s great to see the kids get so excited when they get their instruments.”
The musician hopes the program will lead children to a lifetime of enjoying music —just as it has for her.
Martin, a native of Washington County, was drawn to the sweet sounds of the hammered dulcimer when she was a youth growing up in Emory, and she continues to play the instrument as a solo performer and with her Appalachian and Celtic music group, Fire in the Kitchen.
She also plays and instructs the JAM students on the mountain dulcimer, an instrument that is associated with the Appalachian region.
Music had been a part of her life as far back as she can remember-— since she was a toddler and recorded songs on a tape recorder at home. She later took piano lessons and played the trumpet and was drum major in the Rebel Regiment Marching Band at Patrick Henry High School.
“I really fell in love with folk music when I was a senior in high school. John McCutcheon was performing at Emory & Henry College and I went to see him. I said when I get my first real job, a hammered dulcimer is what I am going to buy. Later as a teacher, she shared that instrument with the students in her classroom at Meadowview Elementary. She now works as an Instructional Technology resource teacher for Washington County School System.
“It’s sort of a ministry to be able to share my music. As a Christian, I believe my talent for music is a gift from God.”
Not all about the music
Martin said a portion of the weekly program offers the children cultural experiences that focus on the Appalachian region, such as clogging, square dancing, quilting, nature walks, and team-building activities. The 4-H Center staff also is excited to share the campus and activities generally utilized only during summer camp throughout the year. This year the children will learn about the A.P Carter Family and how their music had a profound impact on music in this region and throughout the country. The coordinator said she hopes to offer opportunities for field trips to places such as The Carter Family Fold and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
Support for Southwest Virginia 4-H Educational Center
Fundraising events for the 4-H Center support all programming at the center including help to pay for snacks served to the JAM children each week as well as pay professional musicians for their instruction and weekly operational costs. Along with Martin, Barbara Walton, Ryan Bernard, and Will Robertson are providing their talent and expertise as JAM instructors. The 4-H Center was a 2015 recipient of a Virginia Commission for the Arts Education Grant, which provided the instruments for Washington County JAM. Capo’s Music Store has also provided support for the startup of the after-school program.
Dates to remember
Southwest Virginia 4-H Educational Center will host a fundraising event on Oct. 20 at the Southwest Virginia 4-H Education Center. “Concert, Cake Walk and Contra Dance” is scheduled from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. The public is invited. Admission is by donation.
The event will feature the performances of three bands: Sulphur Springs String Dippers; Rafferty Knob Ramblers; and Fire in the Kitchen. Washington County JAM instructors are members of these bands.
Following the concert, there will be a cake walk and an evening of contra dance, a folk dance consisting of long lines of couples. The dance originates from English, Scottish, and French dance styles with a strong African influence from the Appalachian region. Beginners are welcome. Warren Doyle will be the caller.
A second fundraising event is planned for Jan. 5 when Ken and Brad Kolodner from Baltimore, Maryland, perform in concert. The father and son duo is regarded as the most influential hammered dulcimer players and old-time fiddlers in the United States. Tickets will be available at the 4-H Center and local businesses closer to the date of the event.