Alice Gerrard: Traditional Musician and Music Scholar
by Sara Jane Bell
It’s not just a question of keeping the music alive, but of integrating it into our own lives, and of its having meaning alongside of the way we live now. — Alice Gerrard, in Homemade American Music
Alice Gerrard has devoted a lifetime to documenting, learning, performing, and celebrating the music of traditional American musicians. Even before she settled in North Carolina in 1989 she had already made myriad journeys into our state, traveling back roads and mountain paths to seek out the fiddlers, banjo players, singers, and dancers whose music had inspired her for decades. She returned again and again, logging countless hours in living rooms and on front porches picking tunes, listening to stories, and patiently absorbing and recording individual techniques and styles. She is more than just an inquisitive visitor with a guitar and a tape-recorder; for many of these men and women, some of whom ventured outside their home counties only rarely, she became a loyal friend.
She has been an inspiration and a role model to legions of old-time music fans ever since the first recordings she made with Hazel Dickens were released on Folkways Records in the mid 1960s. Young women were particularly encouraged by their example, and by the way they integrated empowered and conscientious female songwriting into their repertoire. Before Hazel and Alice few women were performing their brand of raw, true bluegrass duets in the vein of the Louvin Brothers and Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, and Emmylou Harris, the Judds, Molly O’Brien and many others who followed credit their style and adopted their unique arrangements. As a part of the thriving bluegrass and old-time music scene that flourished around Washington, D.C. and Baltimore in the 1950s and 1960s, she helped to cultivate a convivial musical community that recognized the valuable musical traditions being interpreted by legendary players like Bill Monroe and Ralph and Carter Stanley, who regularly toured the clubs and festivals around the nation’s capital and befriended this new generation of dedicated music fans.
Alice Gerrard was born in Seattle and raised in northern California. Her parents were classically trained musicians whose house was filled with friends and music making, and Alice created the same atmosphere wherever she made her home. She moved east to attend Antioch College in Ohio, where she met her first husband, Jeremy Foster, and where she was first introduced to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and similar recordings on the 78s that she eagerly collected. She describes that experience as being “a huge thing for me and a lot of people,” and that hearing those sounds for the first time was transformative. “We reveled in the hard edged sound, the close-to-the-bone feelings, and the way old-time and bluegrass music put us in touch with a missing piece of our lives.” She had a co-op job in Washington, D.C. as a student and found the city, being in such proximity to the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina, where the musicians making these records lived, an ideal place in which to cultivate her enthusiasm for the music she loved.
She continued to pursue her musical interests despite profoundly challenging circumstances. Those first powerful recordings with Hazel Dickens were made while she was mourning her husband, who was killed in an automobile accident, and raising their four young children. She credits her tight-knit community of friends and musicians with making it possible for her to tour and manage her home life and music career. She composed her own moving songs, like “Quiero Decir Gracias,” about a childhood friendship with a Mexican cowboy named Mateo, and “Mama’s Going to Stay,” which captures a bittersweet moment of home life. She participated in the Southern Folk Festival tours as part of Anne Romaine and Bernice Johnson Reagan’s Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project, which brought white and black musicians together in the midst of the Civil Rights struggles to share songs and perform with one another in concerts throughout the South, highlighting the ways in which artists of African, European, and Native American descent have long borrowed from each other’s traditions and collaborated to create unique American styles that resist racial barriers.
She and longtime friend Mike Seeger eventually married, and the two continued to perform together and seek out the players they admired, documenting their songs and individual techniques, logging interviews and promoting their artistry to larger, appreciative audiences. Through Seeger she met and played with Elizabeth Cotten, the cherished Carrboro instrumentalist, songwriter, and singer, who may have never returned to a life of music if happenstance had not led her to work as a domestic in the musical Seeger home. In the film Homemade American Music by Yasha and Carrie Aginsky (1980, available at http://www.folkstreams.net/film,153), which beautifully documents Alice’s and Mike Seeger’s work with traditional musicians, Cotten describes how the Seeger siblings and their friends would do her housework so that she could be free to play her songs while they recorded them.
The film also focuses on Gerrard’s trips to Toast, NC, in Surry County, to visit Tommy Jarrell, with whom she forged a deep friendship. Jarrell was an innovative and elegant fiddle player and was known for his remarkable ability to simultaneously sing and play intricate melodies on his fiddle. He also perfected a clawhammer banjo style that was unique to the Round Peak community, near Mount Airy, where he grew up. With her friends Les Blank and Cece Conway she further documented Jarrell’s life and music in Sprout Wings and Fly, a film which was released in 1983. She moved to southwestern Virginia, just over the North Carolina border near Galax, in 1981, and from there she had further opportunity to befriend and chronicle scores of other North Carolina musicians, among them Bertie Mae Dickens of Ennice, Lauchlin Shaw of Harnett County and his partner A.C. Overton of Apex, and Joe and Odell Thompson of Alamance and northern Orange Counties.
While in Galax Gerrard formed the Blue Ridge Music Association with a group of other local musicians, and true to their motto —“Musicians for the Preservation of Traditional Music and Dance of the Blue Ridge”—they were active in organizing free monthly concerts in order to give area musicians an arena in which to perform outside of the competitive atmosphere of fiddler’s conventions and picking contests. This was of special advantage to older musicians and those who were not regulars on the performance circuit. Alice created a newsletter to promote these shows and convey other pertinent information to old time music fans, and this, she says, was what inspired her to found The Old-Time Herald in 1987. It soon became clear that the magazine would benefit from being centered in an area with access to more resources, and she moved herself and her operation to Durham in 1989. She formed the Old Time Music Group, Inc. to oversee its publication, and the magazine continues to thrive as one of the most important chronicles of current and archival traditional music.
Alice Gerrard is now well into her 70s and shows no signs of slowing her pace. Though she stepped down as editor of The Old-Time Herald in 2003 she remains active on its board. In the spring of 2009 she served as Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor of Documentary Studies at Duke and UNC, where she taught a course in documenting traditional music to a new generation of folklorists and organized a concert which surveyed her storied career. She is working on a book of photography that will cull from among the thousands of photographs she took in the 1950s on through the 1990s, which capture old-time musicians at home and at gatherings across the United States, and will showcase her additional talents as a visual artist. She continues to play and has plans to make more records, both of her own music and as a curator of others’ tunes which she has recorded over the years. She still tours, performing solo and with various groups, and participates in workshops at bluegrass festivals around the country.
For her tireless advocacy and devoted promotion of traditional American music, Alice Gerrard is a national treasure. She has done as much as any native to shine a spotlight on the riches of North Carolina’s exceptional musical heritage, and we are tremendously privileged to claim her.
In addition to those noted, quotations come from personal communication and the essay Alice Gerrard wrote as part of the liner notes for the 1996 Smithsonian/Folkways release Pioneering Women of Bluegrass.
Sara Bell graduated from N.C. State University in 1992 with a B.A. in History and a minor in Russian Studies. She entered the UNC Folklore program in 2009 after many years performing and recording with numerous musicians as a singer, songwriter, composer, and multi-instrumentalist. She received a FLAS Fellowship in 2010, and was able to research music in Southern Italy as a recipient of the D.K. Wilgus Fellowship.
Bell, Sara Jane. “Alice Gerrard: Traditional Musician and Music Scholar.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 57.2 (2010): 13-18.