This issue of NASAA's Partners publication is the fourth in a series on state arts agency projects assisted by the National Endowment for the Arts' Challenge America program.
Photo: Sydney Brown
Except for the automobiles and the ribbons of road that wind through its mountains, the landscape of western North Carolina has remained virtually unchanged for centuries. The cultural traditions that grew out of this steep, rocky earth were born of necessity -- weaving, glassblowing, woodworking, pottery and music. The mountainous terrain has kept these traditions intact and prevented large-scale economic development and industry from taking root. Yet lack of economic opportunity has also led people to move to other areas. As a consequence, 14 of 23 counties that make up the western end of the state are considered "economically distressed" by the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
The North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recognize the value of preserving the region's cultural assets, which have sustained generations of people and have become national treasures. Together they joined with a consortium of other states and agencies to launch the Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative (BRHI) in 1998. Wayne Martin, the arts council's folklife director, articulates one of the core values of this initiative: "The Southern Appalachian region of North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia can claim extraordinary cultural and natural resources that are significant to our nation. Tourism has used these traditions to promote the region for years. This initiative allows communities to have control over the way they present themselves and their traditions."
The Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative has broken new ground with the development of a system of driving tours and programs built around cultural resources and designed to draw visitors into the region to shop, learn and participate in events and activities. A key element of success has been to balance marketing with preservation and education. This involves not only teaching business practices and stewardship, but also passing on skills to the next generation of artists.
Keeping Musical Traditions Alive
The NEA's Challenge America program supported and helped expand on the success of the Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative by addressing one of the primary needs expressed by the community. During meetings for the BRHI's Blue Ridge Music Trail, residents voiced the desire for their rich culture to be studied in the public schools. They also asked that long-time local musicians present this heritage to students.
Local musicians like Jonathan Byrd engage kids in "pickin' and learnin'" as part of the North Carolina Curriculum, Music and Community project. Photo: Sydney Brown
However good this idea is in theory, it is not an easy sell to kids whose culture is defined by the music they hear on MTV, the radio and their MP3 players. In fact, by encouraging more tourism, the BHRI was risking diluting local culture even more with mass-market music, cuisine and products that were already eroding the connections children had to their cultural heritage. Fortunately, mountain music is still heard and played in local halls, churches and other venues in the region, providing schools with a means to counteract this threat.
The arts council's approach was twofold: use local music to teach subjects to state standards, and create an environment for children to learn from master musicians after school. The North Carolina Curriculum, Music and Community project (CMC) uses the talents of local musicians and their music traditions to teach the state-mandated curriculum. The curriculum -- a course of study for fourth-grade students in six western North Carolina counties -- was designed by teachers rather than out-of-classroom educators. Incorporating music makes the coursework more exciting and meaningful to students. Whether students polish their writing skills to create ballads, enhance their analytical ability by comparing different treatments of the same song, or develop deeper relationships through interviews with community elders, they find empowerment in ways not normally associated with textbook learning.
Snapshots of Success
"We do know that all JAM students (42) who participated in our program throughout the 2001-2002 school year passed their state achievement tests. This is the second year in a row that JAM students have successfully accomplished this difficult task."
-- Allegheny County JAM Evaluation
"Our after-school program average daily attendance has increased a combined 300 percent and total enrollment has increased a combined 81 percent since the inception of JAM."
-- Stecoah Valley Arts JAM Evaluation
"Students seem equal in their enthusiasm, inquisitiveness and success rate. It becomes a connection for all, instead of a few."
-- Teacher Evaluation of CMC
In addition to sparking kids' interest in their studies and heritage, the CMC project has an invigorating effect on teachers, as well. According to the arts council's Wayne Martin, "This project is exciting for teachers as they get students engaged in learning, and what's more, it allows everyone involved -- teachers, students and musicians alike -- to appreciate the value of shared community traditions."
After-School "JAM" Sessions
As important to what happens inside a classroom is what happens after school. The NEA and the arts council collaborated on another component that gives young people a chance to test their skills with master traditional artists/teachers. The master artists tutor students in the intricacies of playing fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass or dulcimer. The Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program is for fifth through eighth graders and employs a time-honored mountain tradition of musicians coming together to play and learn from each other. In this case, children with varying degrees of musical skill join with local musicians for instruction and music making after school. In Allegheny County, program evaluators summarized their success this way:
"JAM has brought so much to the lives of everyone involved. There is a renewed interest in family history -- who played what instrument -- and family groups who usually don't attend school functions showed up for JAM concerts. Older musicians in the community are welcoming the kids into events and are beginning to develop relationships with the students. Several have donated instruments to promising young players."
Students learn from local musicians to play fiddle, banjo, dulcimer and other instruments that bring their musical heritage alive. Photo: Sydney Brown
Partnerships Expand Program's Reach
The success of CMC and JAM relies on collaborations that were catalyzed in part by financial support from the Challenge America program and by the arts council's expertise. The first pilot CMC project in 1999 involved art council staff and the University of North Carolina faculty in working with teachers and artists to plan and develop units of study that integrate the musical traditions of the community. As such, CMC was not designed to be a one-size-fits-all template, but rather a program that fits the values of the Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative -- locally driven and developed. Dwight Rogers, a faculty member of the UNC School of Education and one of the co-directors of CMC, says, "The CMC project has reinvigorated children's desire to learn and rekindled teachers' and parents' interest in the traditions of their local communities."
Whereas CMC grew out of a collaboration, Junior Appalachian Musicians represented another kind of opportunity. The JAM program had been part of a larger initiative, Mountaineer Millennium -- a three-year, after-school program supported by a federal grant initiative. Its strength in teaching kids the value of their musical heritage made it a perfect complement to CMC, since it reinforced lessons learned in school. In particular, program evaluators noted that JAM instilled "a sense of connectedness between various cultures and genres of music and the sense of respect for every and all tastes and opinions of music." For the NEA and the arts council, this outcome is key to addressing the needs of the many at-risk youth and other young people in this program. The exposure to different styles and cultures, according to the evaluators, "engenders a camaraderie between students who would normally never associate with each other," and also generates "respect from peers and adults for talents not addressed by academic settings."
Challenge America and other NEA funds allowed the arts council to expand JAM beyond its original site in Allegheny County. In developing and expanding these programs, the arts council took another important step toward the goal of the Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative to present music not only to tourists, but also to the children in the region. These education efforts also addressed an often unspoken perception that music played in clubs, churches and kitchens was "low-class" and not in the same category as "big-city" culture. However, through CMC and JAM, teachers and parents have gained a new respect for the value of their cultural traditions in improving the academic success of children.
More than a clever marketing strategy and business plan, the Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative recognizes that education is essential to sustainable economic development. Says Linda Bamford, director of the council's Arts in Education program, "The underlying strength of this initiative is teaching the community that culture doesn't need to be borrowed or built, but lives here in the songs and styles of music making. These are traditions that are worthy of being taught in schools -- revealing new talents and inspiring another generation."
Editors: Kimber Craine and Jill Hauser Design: Benson Design Sources:North Carolina Arts Council and University of North Carolina School of Education
Partners is published in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts. The work of NASAA and of state arts agencies is supported and strengthened in many ways through funding and programming partnerships with the Endowment.