Arts & Culture

Come Together

As folk traditions become endangered, one festival has been keeping them alive for 25 years.

It’s nearly midnight, but the party is still going strong. On the front stoop of McDaniel College’s Baker Memorial Chapel, people are gathered in a circle—some seated, some standing—to play old-time traditional music in the sticky July heat, singing and wailing and taking turns leading the improv.

“Key of E, 12-bar, no quick change,” a guy calls out as he starts in on a song. Then a few others, on percussion, bring in a beat. After a few bars, others join in, bit by bit: a guitar, a fiddle, a mountain dulcimer, an upright bass.

Most in the crowd are in their 50s or older, predominately white, middle-class folks, dressed casually in button-downs, T-shirts, and shorts. Occasionally people standing around join in to sing the chorus. Older folks pull up lawn chairs.

These musicians have made the historic Baker Memorial Chapel, with its tall, stately pillars and large cement entranceway, their front porch for some late-night pickin’.

An hour later, the circle is two rows deep. Then it’s leaning toward three rows, as others crowd around to be near the ecstatic, communal energy at its center.

These aren’t McDaniel College students but rather all-ages, lifelong learners from across the globe who have gathered here each summer for the past 25 years for the little-known Traditions Weeks. A three-week summer camp of sorts, the event offers classes in all manner of traditional arts and crafts, from beadwork to basket weaving to wooden spoon carving, as well as a hefty load of music courses—African drumming, Scottish fiddle, tin flute, and countless others.

Traditions Weeks culminates in the Common Ground on the Hill Festival (this year on July 13), a full day of outdoor concerts at the Carroll County Farm Museum that has brought the likes of Pete Seeger and Doc Watson to its stages. Last year, Pete Clark, one of the top fiddlers of Scotland, performed. Acclaimed Baltimore folk singer-songwriter Caleb Stine regularly performs and leads workshops. Another Baltimore treasure, MacArthur Fellowship-winning artist Joyce J. Scott, has also taught classes.

Part of what’s so magical about these loose, late-night jams at the end of each day of camp, before the crowd disperses and people head to the campus dorm rooms for the night, is the general “all are welcome” attitude of everyone involved. Even newcomers say it feels like a family reunion. Young musicians who are taking classes during the day are not only exposed to world-renowned teachers and learning new techniques, they’re also joining in each night, getting a taste of what it’s like to play alongside these legends.

And those who think they are simply watching aren’t really spectators. Everyone’s within earshot. Everyone’s welcome to sing, clap, stomp. There really is no division between audience and performer; even the couples dancing in the grass nearby are playing their parts.

The annual tradition is a bit like the Scottish legend of Brigadoon, a mythical, enchanted village that’s remained unchanged by time for centuries but only becomes visible to outsiders once every 100 years.

“It’s great to come back every year and see familiar faces and just be creative,” Hummel says.

Laurel Hummel, who lives with her family in New Windsor, has been attending the fest almost every summer since its second year. “I heard about it through some friends, and it was a great way to get my kids doing fun stuff when they were little,” she says. “We’d put them in World Village, which is an all-day program for kids.”

Like many others, Hummel often volunteers at the fest to offset the cost of classes, which can otherwise add up (a full-time tuition for one week is roughly $500, with other options for participating in just one, two, or three classes). Over the years, she has gotten to meet a lot of interesting people because of those volunteer hours (one memorable moment was preparing a veggie dish for Arlo Guthrie), and she’s also been able to try her hand at numerous classes—gospel singing, natural dyeing, cast-iron cooking, Native American flute, dance, and, her favorite, wooden spoon carving.

“It’s great to come back every year and see familiar faces and just be creative,” Hummel says. “There’s really nothing else around like it.”

For that, Hummel can thank Walt Michael, the man who founded the festival and continues as its director. Michael, a baby boomer who grew up in Bethesda on Appalachian music, graduated from McDaniel (then called Western Maryland College) in 1968, joined the seminary for a short time, and then joined a band, discovering his true calling. He traveled around the world for more than two decades as a multi-instrumentalist playing in folk bands, and was best known for his skills on the hammered dulcimer. When he returned from touring in 1993, he pitched the idea of starting a festival to Robert Chambers, the president of McDaniel at the time.

“He really understood the vision,” Michael says, telling his story while riding a golf cart across the hilly Westminster campus during Traditions Weeks.

In 1995, Michael held the first Traditions Weeks. A few years in, he grew it to include the Common Ground on the Hill music festival (so named because the McDaniel campus sits atop a hill). But it was always about more than music.

While it’s not written overtly in the festival’s mission statement, if you read between the lines—and certainly if you attend—you’ll notice that what Michael has built is a meeting ground for various cultures to be celebrated and elevated and shared, because he knows intuitively that by learning about different cultures, we gain compassion and understanding of one another, people of all backgrounds. Michael saw the festival as a means for integrating two aspects of himself: the artist and the activist.

“I wanted to create a festival that involved issues of social justice and change, but through the arts,” he says. “I have great faith in traditional arts. I think they speak truth because they’ve withstood the fire of time.”

When the sun is high in the sky again, people lounge in the grass outside the library, read books, nap, work on crafts, and do yoga, while others scurry from one building to the next, carrying musical instruments.

“It’s like a musical Kripalu,” one guest says, referring to the famed yoga retreat in Massachusetts.

Inside Hill Hall, nearly every classroom across three floors is filled—a storytelling lecture, a fiddle class, American singing, Jamaican singing, jazz, blues guitar, beginners guitar, a Celtic jam, an old-time jam, music theory. Rather than focus on one style of music, like a lot of festivals do, Common Ground highlights traditions from cultures as varied as Swedish, Native American, and African.

Across campus, the “wet art” building is buzzing with students working on projects inside.

Robin Tillery leads a small Native American Flute Making class—indeed only two women are there, working on their pieces near a large window, surrounded by assorted piles of seashells, carved pendants, and beads. Tillery also teaches classes on playing the flute that you’ve just crafted with your own hands.

Another popular class is braiding, which has already sold out this year. Its instructor, Carly Miller, brings in models so students can try different styles on them while learning about the history of braiding through various cultures and time periods—from Egyptians to pop culture to African tribes.

“I was an athlete growing up and always braided people’s hair before games. Eventually, I kind of got bored with the normal braids and started experimenting,” Miller says. “What’s fascinating about braids is that they appear in every culture. They transcend time, race, culture, and wealth.”

Like many instructors here, Miller teaches in Carroll County Public Schools. In a partnership with the festival, county teachers are offered continuing education credits by taking courses here, and many also choose to teach.

“They have so many classes—art, dance, music. You can really do anything there and step out of your comfort zone,” Miller says.

It’s true. Nearly every building on campus opens up to another world of classes.

In a large, bright room, Erica Rai Chesnik readies the space for her next yoga class. In the music building, an instructor teaches a prep class to a handful of students interested in learning rock ’n’ roll, all of them wailing on electric guitars at once. “There’s Celtic harp players directly beneath us,” instructor Harry Orlove says with a laugh. In a small auditorium, a dance class practices onstage.

Elsewhere, students gather for the Search for Common Ground class. Two chatty, middle-aged women, waiting for it to begin, practice singing a song they just learned. Michael stands in front of everyone and greets them, saying, “This is our flagship class that we hope creates ripples. We want you to leave this place nurtured and rested but also with tools we can use on the street.” He tells the class, which has filled to capacity, about a recent conversation with his neighbor, who had blurted out that his whole family hates him because he identifies as a conservative. “It was refreshing to hear him be so open, because that’s the kind of conversation that might be our salvation,” Michael says. “But the question is, how do we get to that?”

What starts as a lecture turns into a group dialogue about our country’s current affairs. “I think we need a new narrative about what it means to be an American,” one woman says.

It’s exactly the kind of dialogue Michael wants to foster. “Everyone holds a piece of the truth,” he explains. “If we’re going to survive, we need to talk to each other.”

“I have great faith in traditional arts. I think they speak truth because they’ve withstood the fire of time.”

This year, musicians performing at the fest will come from Mexico, Argentina, Sweden, and across the U.S., including Native Americans from Florida. Among the artists will be Tommy Sands, a singer-songwriter and activist from Northern Ireland whose songs have been recorded by Joan Baez, Kathy Matthea, and Frank Patterson. Paul Dolan, who staged benefit concerts with the likes of John Lennon and Stevie Wonder and went on to become the executive director of ABC News International, will give this year’s keynote.

“Being able to meet these great musicians really shaped my idea of what the music world is,” says Lydia Martin Foy, who started going to the festival in 1996 with her family and now teaches banjo here (her sister, Emily Martin, also teaches). “To see the real African drummers 20 years ago had a huge effect on me. You can never forget that sound. Or to see a real Latin band. Or blues guitar in a room. It’s not enough to consume these things through CDs; you have to experience them in person. And [at Common Ground], it’s not always a concert setting with a big sound system between you and the performers with you sitting in a chair in the audience. They’re right there in the classroom or outside at jams.”

The festival has also expanded in recent years to include year-round Common Ground on the Hill concert series at two locations, the Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore and Carroll Arts Center in Westminster, carrying on traditional music in a more accessible form for those who can’t commit to a full week of classes. These, too, are rooted in Michael’s original vision—that this is about more than the art.

“The name is not just a reference to the literal hill that McDaniel sits on,” Michael says one afternoon, as he takes in the music that’s pouring out of multiple nearby classrooms. “You have to go to that higher place in each other to find that common ground.”