A Remarkable Year of Learning: Notes from a Folklife Apprenticeship

Introduction by Zoe Van Buren | Story by Paul Brown and Trevor McKenzie

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Thanks to a partnership with South Arts and its “In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Arts and Culture Initiative,” the Folklife Program of the North Carolina Arts Council has been able to support pairs of artists—a mentor and a student—for year-long apprenticeships in the traditional arts and folklife of their Appalachian communities. Many folklife programs around the country offer such apprenticeships because they are a time-tested means of investing in technical know-how, the transmission of cultural knowledge, and community relationships.

In 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, old-time fiddler Paul Brown (of Winston-Salem) and Trevor McKenzie (of Boone) received an In These Mountains Folklife Apprenticeship grant and embarked upon the age-old relationship of student and mentor under very unusual circumstances, using video calling technology to meet weekly while sheltering at home. When they were finally able to see each other in person, in the summer of 2021, they celebrated the end of their apprenticeship year with a live segment on Mount Airy’s beloved WPAQ radio station.

Although officially these apprenticeships last for one year, the relationships between the artists who go through this program last a lifetime. Paul and Trevor reflected on the importance of a year spent together during a time of isolation, the connection between traditional arts and knowledge of people and place, and what it means to them to still be playing the old fiddle tunes of the North Carolina/Virginia border region, even in the digital era.

Paul: Trevor and I look back upon a remarkable year of learning through the Appalachian Folklife Apprenticeship program. We both feel we understand more about music, traditions, and life in our region of the mid-South than we did at the outset. I’ve had the great privilege of passing along repertoire that I learned when I was Trevor’s age and younger from musicians whose sources dated back to the Civil War era and beyond. It’s been a peak experience, and I think we both consider it just a start. 

Modern technology enabled us to meet regularly despite the pandemic. We used Zoom. I looked forward to every week’s meeting with this curious, good-natured, cracking smart young man who deliberately set out to learn in an unfamiliar musical environment the techniques, rhythms, phrasings, and melodies of times gone by. Talk about a challenge! 

Trevor: I got to know Paul Brown several years ago while working at the Augusta Heritage Center’s Old-Time Week, at Davis and Elkins College, in West Virginia. He and his partner, Terri McMurray, were teaching a class on the history and sounds of string band music from western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia. I was fortunate to sit in as a guitarist and staff musician, playing alongside them over the course of the week. It was the start of a friendship with both of them that has continued and I have since had the opportunity to play music alongside Paul and Terri at several other festivals and concerts. At these events I noticed how Paul was able to switch gears between fiddle styles. In particular, I was drawn to the sound and techniques that Paul learned from mentors such as Luther Davis, Tommy Jarrell, and Parley Parsons—fiddlers whose music was rooted in an era before radios and had a much more rhythmic sound than the bluegrass/honkytonk styles that I was familiar with.

Paul: Trevor’s first fiddle mentors, some of whom I knew personally, came up in an era when bluegrass, swing, rockabilly, jazz, and classic country were on most players’ minds. These mentors and styles were his starting point.  

He says that executing the notes, bowing, and phrasing of the older styles he’s studied with me is more difficult than what he learned earlier. For me, it’s just the opposite. I’d like to understand better some of the newer ways of playing descended from the old mountain styles. I can hear that they’re related—and we’ve frequently examined those relationships—but the execution feels somewhat foreign to me. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective. 

Trevor: Growing up in the thin part of southwest Virginia, sandwiched one county away from North Carolina and one away from West Virginia, I was fortunate to be in an area with a lot of talented musicians to learn from. Part of my attraction to traditional music developed from my interest in history, an interest that started from spending a lot of time on my family’s farm in my early years. It seemed that—although there are many types of music emanating from this part of Appalachia—traditional songs and tunes spoke a language that mirrored the landscape and lifeways of agricultural communities in this part of the world. By the time I started trying to play traditional music, many of the older players around the area were those who came of age in the Depression era and World War II—an exciting time of radio and modernization in rural areas. I think the way that I naturally go about playing the fiddle reflects what I call the “VFW dance hall” variety of fiddling, with sounds of early bluegrass and honky-tonk, a result of learning from and admiring the music of people from this point in the history of mountain communities.

Paul: One of the most inspiring outcomes of this year has been our exploration of lifestyles, work, social history, rhythms of life, and spoken language that our traditional fiddling reflects. This is an undertaking both broad and deep, one that has occupied a place within me ever since I was a little kid listening to my mom tell stories between her songs, or hearing the old relatives transplanted from Virginia weave their stories through an evening. I know that Trevor and I will continue to explore this ground.

Trevor: I feel I need to outline my background to clarify why I asked Paul to mentor me through this apprenticeship. When I contacted Paul about possibly mentoring me in older fiddle styles and techniques, I was wanting to dig deeper into traditional sounds and back past the style of music that I was comfortable with. Paul’s formation as a musician was built out of interactions and friendships with people whose lives and music were connected to a completely different era, many of them having lives and music more connected to the nineteenth century than the twentieth. The styles of fiddling reflect the difference almost like a separate language. When Paul puts the techniques of these older fiddlers to work, his solo fiddling almost sounds like a full band in itself. As Paul relayed to me from discussions about fiddling with the late, great Tommy Jarrell, the goal is to have the instrument playing all the parts, the rhythm and the melody simultaneously. It’s an approach that was completely foreign to me and I have enjoyed the challenge of trying to learn to tackle some of these older styles with Paul’s guidance.  

Paul: One of the stories I tell to as many musicians as I can is the day at least 40 years back when the fiddler Benny Jarrell, of Mount Airy, stopped me as I was playing with his dad, Tommy, and bluntly told me I was out of time. He deeply startled 26-year-old me. Then Benny had us begin again, and shouted “Right there!” every time I was out. It was a turning point for me, a day when I started to listen more intently when making music than I ever had.

Trevor recently remarked that this year has prompted him to start listening more carefully than he ever had before to this old music, to the rhythms of language, and to his own more modern personal repertoire. He says he’s making discoveries all the time. That is a great outcome.

Trevor: Throughout this apprenticeship, Paul has shared more than just tunes and techniques. He has shared with me his memories of friends and family, snippets of personalities and life histories of people with whom he spent valuable time decades ago. Alongside the music, he conveyed to me the feeling of what it was like to interact with these mentors. I think Paul is a rare person in the way he is able to present these people with an immediacy and an empathy that goes beyond just storytelling. It is a feeling that is carried over into his own music and how he presents it and shares it with others. It is a sort of magic that Paul is able to accomplish in this way and I felt fortunate to be able to witness this weekly.  

Paul: We’ve shared with one another the sense that this project helped keep us emotionally afloat through the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic. The structure of what we did inadvertently became something of a lifesaver for us.

I would love for Trevor to know every old tune that I’ve learned from people whose art was informed by times and circumstances I could never experience, and pass them on, live and in person, to new generations. The notes? They’re the easiest part to learn. How people speak? How we sound? How life sounded years ago? How it all flows through an individual or communal heart, mind, bow arm, and voice into recognizable music of a place in what we call style? It takes time, and deep listening, to get a grip on all that. It also happens to be one of the finest accomplishments, and some of the best fun, any musician could hope for. 

Trevor has been a fabulous apprentice. I’m forever grateful to him for having proposed this joint endeavor. I keep telling him I’ve learned as much as he has. Whether he believes it or not, it’s true.  

Trevor: I cannot thank Paul enough for what he has shared with me both as a musical mentor and a friend during the months of this apprenticeship. Both of us think of this as only the start of my learning these fiddle styles and of the projects we can work on together to present the music and history of this region to others. Thanks to the North Carolina Arts Council and South Arts for providing the opportunity for me to work with Paul as an apprentice and for supporting both of us during this past year. It has been a highlight in some troublesome times in the world and I look forward to years ahead of music and friendship. 

Paul: I’m also deeply thankful to the North Carolina Arts Council and South Arts. You placed value on Trevor’s idea, and on the idea that in a world awash in pop culture whizzing by at warp speed, the old tunes, passed down one-to-one, burnished over time, reflecting the lives of real people past and present, deserve a hearing and recognition, too, plus preservation.

For more information about the Folklife & Traditional Arts program of the N.C. Arts Council, visit https://www.ncarts.org/discover/folk-traditional-arts.


About the North Carolina Arts Council
The North Carolina Arts Council builds on our state’s long-standing love of the arts, leading the way to a more vibrant future. The Arts Council is an economic catalyst, fueling a thriving nonprofit creative sector that generates $2.12 billion in annual direct economic activity. The Arts Council also sustains diverse arts expression and traditions while investing in innovative approaches to art-making. The North Carolina Arts Council has proven to be a champion for youth by cultivating tomorrow’s creative citizens through arts education. NCArts.org

About the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

The N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (NCDNCR) is the state agency with a vision to be the leader in using the state's natural and cultural resources to build the social, cultural, educational and economic future of North Carolina. NCDNCR's mission is to improve the quality of life in our state by creating opportunities to experience excellence in the arts, history, libraries and nature in North Carolina by stimulating learning, inspiring creativity, preserving the state's history, conserving the state's natural heritage, encouraging recreation and cultural tourism, and promoting economic development.
 
NCDNCR includes 27 historic sites, seven history museums, two art museums, three science museums, three aquariums and Jennette's Pier, 41 state parks and recreation areas, the N.C. Zoo, the N.C. Symphony Orchestra, the State Library, the State Archives, the N.C. Arts Council, the African American Heritage Commission, State Preservation Office and the Office of State Archaeology, and the Division of Land and Water Stewardship. For more information, please visit www.ncdcr.gov.