The lights flicker on in St. Luke’s Chapel, and the musty silence is bro-ken by the entrance of a diverse group of individuals. Old and young, carrying cases of many different shapes and sizes—these are local musicians gathering for the weekly meeting of the Sewanee Folk Music Collective.Each week, Professor James Carlson brings together Sewanee instrumentalists of all back-grounds and proficiencies under the banner of the Collective. Carlson founded the group in 2011 in reaction to what he perceived as a lack of venues on campus welcoming to amateur musicians. “I think that’s its main function,” he says, “to have an option, an ensemble, that’s attractive to an amateur interested in folk music … open to both students and community members.”
Since its inception, the Collective has established a regular presence on campus—from its weekly meetings to concerts at Crossroads and collaboration with a visiting Eastern European women’s choir. The Collective is made up of a small but faithful band of players, and a wide array of instruments can be seen at a typical meeting—fiddles, flutes, mandolins, guitars, banjos, accordions, and even a bassoon. “We kind of laughed at that a little at first, but now we think, ‘wow, this is perfect’ [because] it provides a low note … now we’re glad to have [it].”
The nature of the Collective is inclusive and, to a large extent, egalitarian. “We accept almost any instrument,” says Carlson. The Collective is also open to students bringing their own ideas and suggestions to the group: “It’s all open. It’s sort of like ‘If you build it, we will come’ because if a student has an interest and we have the forces to do it, there’s no reason why we can’t facilitate that.”
“I’d say what’s exciting about it is that it introduces students to folk music outside of Appalachian or American folk music, with a particular emphasis on Eastern European, Klezmer and Irish music” said Joseph Butler, C ’14, T’ 17. Butler is a multi-instrumentalist who focuses on mandolin and has been a regular participant since the Collective’s start. In addition to the styles listed by Butler, British pub music, Russian and Slavic music, French Balmusette, and many other genres have been selected for the night’s rehearsal. This diversity is apparent from the exotic song titles such as “An hini a garan,” “Yiddische Mame,” and “Odessa Bulgar.”
“I always think that this is the kind of music that people like, but they don’t know it,” muses Carlson. “They always liked it, but they didn’t know what it was. They’re immediately attracted to it, but they never seek it out, and yet it’s out there. I think people in Europe, for example, are much more in tune with the folk music scene … here people are interested in bluegrass, but there’s [also] a whole world of music out there [to discover].”
The Collective is always looking for new members, and Dr. Carl-son encourages students and community members to get involved, regard-less of experience. “It’s a pretty fun group. Any students with an open mind … [who] want to experience … creative music making that’s a little outside of what they’re used to, this is the one. We invite people to check us out as well because I think this stuff’s pretty immediate. It’s also different from what most people are listening to these days, I think it cuts through the chatter. Folk music has that immediacy, it has that emotional connection. The reason this stuff stuck around for so long is because of this quality. We appeal to a public that are looking for something that’s a little different.”
I shall be in Sewanee from Sept 30th for a week. May I visit the Collective please? I shall have flute, Northumbrian Smallpipes and galoubets from Provence in my case. tin whistles might also fill up a corner. Best wishes, Jack.
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