Journal-Times (Grayson, KY)

December 5, 2012

Playing their music from the Appalachian roots

By Mike James - CNHI News Service

Dec. 5, 2012 —     The first question musicians had to answer after their opening number for a school group concerned the difference between a violin and a fiddle.

    Structurally they are the same instrument, said Jesse Wells, education director at the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University.

    The difference is more a matter of musical tradition, he explained. Put shortly, violinists learn by the book where fiddlers learn from each other.

    While sheet music has its place, fiddlers, especially in the heart of Appalachia, listen to one another and try to replicate what they hear.

    You could say that about all the musicians in the Old Time String Band, which played a morning concert at Ashland Community and Technical College’s EastPark campus Monday.

    It was one in a series of performances in the Smithsonian Institution’s “New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music” exhibit.

    The musicians are Morehead State students who are steeping themselves in Appalachia’s traditional tunes.

    They started their performance with a fiddle piece, “Angeline the Baker," played by Linda Stokley.

    A bit later, Ellen Kearney played “Juliana Johnson” on her mandolin. “You can clap along if you’d like,” she invited the children. They would like, it turned out, and clapped enthusiastically.

    Kearney, who is from Nova Scotia, came to Morehead for two years after meeting Wells at a workshop. She came to her interest in Appalachian traditional music by way of the Celtic music tradition in her native land.

    A professional session musician in her youth, Kearney played behind Maria Muldaur and other artists in the 1970s.

    She found fertile musical ground in Morehead.

    “I learned more about music and old-time music in the first two weeks of school than in 30 years,” she said. “There’s so much music here and so many people who play and play well.”

    The Old Time String Band brings new blood into the Appalachian musical tradition, and that is important, Wells said. Their inheritance comes from generations of singers, songwriters, fiddlers, guitarists and banjo players.

    The academic world is beginning to take traditional music seriously, said KCTM director Raymond McLain. The genre is following the same path as did jazz in the first part of the 20th century.

    At first dismissed as insignificant popular tunes, jazz now is recognized for unique contributions to the world of music and the study of jazz is indispensible.

    The same thing will happen with traditional music, McLain believes, and Morehead State is leading the way with a new traditional music major.

    “There will be more and more programs and schools of higher education focused on traditional music,” he said.

    Mike James is a writer for the Daily Independent. Reach him at or by phone at (606) 326-2652.