Common Ground to teach peace with words, music

July 07, 1995|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

With music and art as a foundation, Walt Michael and Robyn Boyd are building Common Ground on the Hill at Western Maryland College.

After spending their youth demonstrating against the Vietnam War and working in the civil rights movement, the partners still see vestiges of hatred. They hope that by teaching the lessons of the '60s, they can create two weeks of harmony in their multi-cultural center at the small liberal arts college in Westminster. (The program's classes and concerts begin Monday.)

"Each new generation needs to be taught the values that came to the fore in that era. A lot have gotten the message, but don't know what to do with it," said Mr. Michael, founder and artistic director for the center.

Together he and Ms. Boyd have drawn teachers well-known in arts and traditional music circles. Folk singer Tom Paxton, for instance, is a member of Common Ground's advisory board. A mix of backgrounds and beliefs will infuse the project, he said.

Humanity in common

"What we have in common far outweighs our differences," said Mr. Michael. "Our common ground is our humanity, and our humanity may best be expressed in our music, our art, our dance and our language."

Classes during the first week will revisit the activism that inspired the folk music of the 1960s and delve into the Irish and British experience the next. In the evenings, participants will have the opportunity to wax poetic in a would-be Irish pub or solve world problems in a '60s-style coffeehouse.

After decades on the road with his music, Mr. Michael returned to his alma mater with the concept for Common Ground. He chose the college for its proximity to Baltimore and Washington and for its history of community involvement. When he contacted Ms. Boyd, an agent-manager for several folk artists, she agreed to move from New York, then began a year of planning, recruiting artists and scheduling classes.

Mr. Michael, a leader in the revival of the hammered dulcimer, will share with students his repertoire, which ranges from Appalachian to Celtic music and includes original compositions. He hopes that with guidance from renowned musicians, the participants will discover the artists within themselves.

Ms. Boyd promises "a chance to hang out in the Greenwich Village of the '60s," filled with the activism of the civil rights and peace movements. More than 30 years ago, Ms. Boyd sang in those smoky cafes and she began a lifelong struggle for the rights of the oppressed. At 18, she volunteered in the Mississippi Summer Project.

"Traditions in Black and White," the theme for the first week of Common Ground will focus on the mutual heritage between races. Artists will examine congregational singing, blues, Gospel music. They will delve into the rich sounds that emanate from the hills of Appalachia, where Mr. Michael volunteered with the Student Opportunities Service during his college years.

In the second session, International Week, Common Ground will turn its attention to the British Isles.

Mick Maloney, a college professor, has included Common Ground in his national lecture tour on the Irish famine. Craobh Rua, a traditional Irish band, will lead four workshops. Shetland fiddlers, English folk singers and storytellers, will add scales and tales.

Poetry at the pub

In the evenings, the musicians hope to replicate the atmosphere of an Irish pub, which Mr. Michael called "a meeting place filled with music and spontaneous poetry."

Courses will range from traditional clogging and songwriting to New Age vocal yoga and the joy of breathing. Participants may learn to play a dulcimer, pick a banjo or fiddle an old-fashioned reel.

Anne E. Hills, whose "Never Grow Old" album recently won a national songwriters award, will join about 60 artist-teachers at Common Ground. She will teach voice strengthening and stretching techniques.

"Music is the international, intercultural language, the one place where all cultures find common ground," she said.

"We need to teach tolerance and understanding for the beauty of difference, and we can use our voices as instruments of healing," she said.

Blacks in the Civil War

James D. "Sparky" Rucker, a Civil War historian and guitarist, will mix stories about black cavalry soldiers into lessons on playing the blues.

"I favor this approach to preserving the history of folk culture in this country," said Mr. Rucker, who often appears at his concerts in a Confederate uniform. "If you know where you come from, you will know where you are going."

Mr. Paxton, writer of such classics as "The Last Thing on my Mind," "Ramblin' Boy" and "The Marvelous Toy" during his 35-year career, sees the project as a way to pass on what I have learned."

Part of his course will show how songs can be just plain fun or tools of political and social awareness.

"Can you conceive of civil rights without 'We Shall Overcome?' " he asked.

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