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Volume 26, Number 5 — May 2019

Founder of ETSU Bluegrass Program speaks at Harvard

Participating in the
Participating in the "Fire on the Mountain" symposium at Harvard, from left, were Jack Tottle, Alison Brown, Sam Bush and Bobby Hicks. (Photo courtesy of The Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology, Harvard University)

'Fire on the Mountain' Music Symposium

April 18, 2010

JOHNSON CITY, TN East Tennessee State University Professor Emeritus Jack Tottle spoke in Cambridge, Mass., at Harvard University's 2010 "Fire on the Mountain" bluegrass music symposium.

His topic during the morning session was African American Influences in Bluegrass Music. He also touched on the importance of Washington, D.C., in the evolution of bluegrass and on the role currently played by the ETSU Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Program, which Tottle founded in 1982.

Participating musicians included Harvard student Clint W. Miller from Abingdon, Va., North Carolina fiddling virtuoso Bobby Hicks, Kentucky's "newgrass" pioneer and mandolinist Sam Bush, and California banjo virtuoso Alison Brown, whose husband Garry West (co-owner with Alison of Compass Records) discussed today's market for bluegrass and related acoustic musical styles.

In addition to Tottle, academic speakers included Matt Glaser, artistic director of the American Roots Music Program at the Berklee College of Music, Boston; Michelle Kisliuk of the University of Virginia; and Neil Rosenberg of the Memorial University of Newfoundland.

The morning session was moderated by Boston Globe folk music writer Scott Alarik. An early afternoon session featured Lynn Dudenbostel, a luthier (instrument maker) from Maryville, Tenn., and Harvard student Forrest O'Connor, who presented his undergraduate thesis on instrument building.

During the afternoon, Tottle moderated a session with Hicks, Bush and Brown, during which the three talked about their careers and played a variety of tunes. Tottle says they "awed the enthusiastic audience both with their virtuosity, creativity, and the wide range of (their) musical visions."

The musicians also gave an informal concert that evening using only banjo, mandolin and fiddle. "It was really a unique evening," Tottle said. "The absence of guitar and bass was no drawback at all. If anything, the unusual three-piece instrumental combination highlighted Bobby, Sam and Alison's tremendous musicianship, as well as the remarkably flexible nature of virtuoso bluegrass compositions."

Attendees at the symposium included Raymond McLain, director of Morehead (Ky.) State University's Kentucky Center for Traditional Music and former director of the ETSU Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Program. Also present were the founders of Rounder Records and members of the Boston Bluegrass Union, which sponsors the popular Joe Val Festival and also conducts bluegrass outreach in area schools.

The daylong event was sponsored by the Harvard Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology; Harvard's Office for the Arts, Office of the Provost and Undergraduate Council; and the Harvard College American Music Association.