News & Events
Smithsonian Institution Exhibition, “New Harmonies,” Coming to Mars Hill College
When traditional musician Joe Penland sings the old songs that he learned as a boy from ballad singers on Sodom Laurel in Madison County, he knows he is calling up ghosts of love and longing not only from early Appalachia, but from the ancient Celtic highlands where many of those tunes originated.
|Joe Penland, shown performing at the 2009 Lunsford Festival|
“Twelve generations of my folks thought this music was important enough to keep alive. It was handed down just like DNA. If something has been that important, how can you not want to keep it up? I don’t want it to die with me.”
Just as notes of celtic history are found throughout traditional Appalachian music, the stories of other countries and native peoples are written in thousands of sounds and instruments that have made their way into the history of American music. Our collective American heritage is written in our music, as surely as it is written in our skin, hair and eyes.
Exploring those connections is the goal of a traveling Smithsonian Institution Exhibition coming to Mars Hill College this fall, called New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music.
From September 25 to November 6, 2010, Mars Hill College will host New Harmonies, which highlights our country’s unique and rich cultural soundtrack. The exhibit is a provided through Museum on Main Street, a partnership of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), and the Federation of State Humanities Council.
As a frequent performer at Mars Hill College’s Bascom Lamar Lunsford “Minstrel of Appalachia” festival, Penland and musicians like him are part of Mars Hill College’s ongoing effort to preserve Appalachian music for future generations.
As a native of Madison County, he understands that like the ballads he sings, all of American music is an inheritance from earlier times and other cultures. He has stood on the land of Pentland Hills, Scotland, not far from where his distant ancestor lived before making the perilous journey to America. From there, it is inevitable to contemplate what drove those long-ago Scots to make their epic crossing.
“I can’t think of anything at all that could convey what would go through someone’s mind when they were so hungry for a better life that they would take this terrible risk to go get on a ship to go somewhere that may not even exist,” he said.
Though Penland may not be able to convey those feelings in words, the songs he sings, like “Pretty Saro,” tell the stories of those long-ago Scots who gave up everything to pursue their dreams in America.
It’s not the long journey I’m dreading to go
Nor leaving of this country for the debts that I owe;
There is but one thing that troubles my mind,
That’s a-leaving pretty Saro, my true love, behind.
“They left everything that they knew, their parents, their friends, their land, all their acquaintances, their whole frame of reference. They just walked away from it, and the only thing they had to bring with them was stories and songs,” he said.
Music is much more than entertainment, he said. It is a form of communication that lays bare the soul and ties people together across generations and cultures and oceans.
“When a person is able to open up and sing from that place deep inside, it’s a wonderful gift and it transports the person listening to another place and time. If a person can let that part of their soul escape through music, it’s just amazing,” he said.
He said it is easy to see how people in difficult circumstances would have relied on music to tell their stories and leave their marks on the world.
“Everybody has a need to be swept away,” he said. “Music and stories are the ultimate escape for us; they are ways that we can express ourselves outside of our human condition.”
Mars Hill College has a longstanding commitment to preserving and celebrating the music of the Southern Appalachian region. Dr. Karen Paar, Director of Mars Hill College’s Ramsey Center for Regional Studies, believes that is why the college was chosen to host New Harmonies.
“We are fortunate to live in an area where traditional Appalachian music continues to be preserved and performed,” Paar said. “Mars Hill College has long worked in partnership with the region to safeguard this strong and vital form of roots music. Hosting this exhibit continues that important work.”
According to Paar, this year’s Lunsford Festival, set for October 2, and now in its 43rd year, will be one in a lineup of events and performances that will bring the public into contact with the New Harmonies exhibit and introduce them to various kinds of roots music.
New Harmonies tells the American musical story through photographs, instruments, lyrics and artist profiles. The exhibition explores the work of well-known folk, gospel, country and blues artists who have inspired generations of musicians, like Ma Rainey, B.B. King, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Mahalia Jackson, Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez, and captures the spirit of musical styles that are at the heart of local heritage in the United States—Tejano, zydeco, polka, Cajun, conjunto and klezmer. New Harmonies focuses on how roots music gives Americans a soundtrack and a voice for their stories.
An exhibition honoring Madison County music traditions will complement New Harmonies and feature the rich music collections in Mars Hill College’s Southern Appalachian Archives, including the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Collection. In addition, the centerpiece of the New Harmonies activities will be the 2010 Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival, held each year on the campus, within feet of Lunsford’s birthplace.
Six sites in North Carolina were chosen to host New Harmonies, beginning in March of 2010. By the time it arrives in Mars Hill, the New Harmonies exhibit will have spent time at Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, Warren County Memorial Library, the Museum of Albemarle and the Arts Council of Wayne County. In November, after it leaves Mars Hill, the exhibit will move to Don Gibson Theatre in Shelby.
“Whether through school groups or through family groups, we really hope that as many people in the region as possible will take advantage of the New Harmonies exhibit,” Paar said. “How often do you or your children get to see a Smithsonian-quality exhibit without ever leaving western North Carolina?”
The exhibition is free, and will be open to the public Tuesday – Friday, 11 am – 5 pm; Wednesday until 7 pm. On Saturday and Sunday it will be open from 12 pm – 4 pm. Closed Mondays
Click here for additional information and a full calendar of events, including the opening celebration and a kids day. Contact Amy Carraux Price, Program Coordinator at the Liston B. Ramsey Center for Regional Studies, with any questions (firstname.lastname@example.org or (828) 689-1571).