Tuesday marked the second year of the establishment of the Alabama Folk School, an effort by local musicians and craftspeople to strengthen the folk music and folk art communities in the region.
“This is very important culturally,” said instructor Adam Johnston. “This has to do with a lot of our heritage.”
The school offers retreats several times a year in which attendants take music lessons as well as courses on crafts like quilting, wood carving or basket weaving. The seminars also offer concerts, jam sessions and social gatherings.
“We felt like it was such a community builder to learn music in this way,” said Danielle Dunbar, director of the folk school.
Dunbar said the program at Camp McDowell is modeled after the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C., which offers more than 800 week-long classes in almost any creative outlet emphasizing the influences of the Appalachian region.
Dunbar said the Alabama Folk School has grown significantly, and organizers are seeing students from places as far away as Chicago and Hawaii.
She said people throughout the country are interested in folk music and folk art. However, to fully understand the crafts, one must learn it hands-on with actual people.
“Folk art is taught a certain way, and it’s not from a book,” she said. “We’re the only school in Alabama that provides that.”
Dunbar said the local school offers some of the best folk art and folk music instructors in the country. During the most recent seminar, the school offered courses taught by quilting legend Bettye Kimbrell. Kimbrell is a recipient of the 2008 National Endowment of the Arts Heritage Award.
At the Camp McDowell seminar, Kimbrell taught a Native American quilting technique called leaf pounding, where quilt makers imbed the image of a plant into the fabric.
Charlie Hartness, a student at the retreat, drove from Athens, Ga. to learn from fiddling instructor James Bryan, who at age 17 was named Fiddle King by the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention.
Hartness said he pores over the lessons and recordings from the seminars all year. He said the highlight of the retreats is the chance he gets to talk about folk music with people who share his passion for the genre.
“This is front porch music,” he said. “You’re not going to make a big killing in Nashville with it.”
In addition to quilting and fiddle lessons, the latest seminar also offered courses in harmonica, guitar, banjo as well as classes on pottery and furniture making.
For more information about he Alabama Folk School log on to www.campmcdowell.com/folkschool or call 205-387-1806.