The Folk Week Experience

Cultural Heritage Programs

By Aubrey Atwater & Elwood Donnelly

One of the most meaningful and sublime times in a long career as folk singers and dancers is every second week of June, for five days, from 9:30 to 10:30 am when we gather in the Great Hall for morning singing. It is there that we have spent many years in the presence of Jean and Edna Ritchie, other Ritchie family members, as well as many other great singers and players of Appalachian music.

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We sing together, laugh, hug, cry. During this time, Aubrey talks about getting quite moved, marveling how this primal, human experience of singing together is so profound, ancient, healing, and beautiful. In a culture that becomes increasingly distant from its own participation in music and entertainment, she thinks, “Who gets to do this? WHO? Who has a life like this?” And the answer is: “we do.”

When Aubrey first stepped into the May Stone building back in June of 1992, she had driven 900 miles from Rhode Island in order to meet Jean Ritchie. There had been a small advertisement in Sing Out! Magazine earlier that year, saying only, “Appalachian Family Folk Week with Jean Ritchie and others.” The address for the week-long event was the Hindman Settlement School, Hindman, Kentucky. Aubrey was compelled to go since we had been researching and performing songs of the Ritchie family and Aubrey was determined to meet Jean.

“…We cannot thank Folk Week enough for helping us create the trajectory of our most magical career and for being the wellspring of our lifelong music, dance, friendships, and values.”

Her first encounter in the Great Hall was with Marion Sumner, the extraordinary Appalachian Swing fiddler playing a round of an old-time tune. It was in that moment when Aubrey felt she had come home. I followed Aubrey in due course, and there, at the Forks of Troublesome Creek, we made life-long friends; and between us, over these 25 years, we learned to play banjo, clog dance, call contra and square dances, design a chair from a tree, make corn-husk dolls, and explore the music of the hills of eastern Kentucky, adding a vast collection of songs to our repertoire.

We weren’t the first Rhode Islanders to find their way here; 19 year old Elizabeth Watts had just finished schooling when her mother’s friend, Olive Dame Campbell, wife of mountain reformer John C Campbell, persuaded Ms. Watts to become involved with Hindman Settlement School.

Ms. Watts left Bristol, Rhode Island in 1909, planning to stay a year in Hindman, but remained for forty-seven years of active service. After retirement, she continued for another thirty-seven years as a member of the board of directors – eighy-four years of service in all.*

We owe considerable gratitude to the Settlement School for taking us in as family, making us part of the fabric woven so purposefully and beautifully.

Our music has been heavily influenced by eastern Kentucky, and our attitudes have increased in regard to hospitality and unpolished kindness. We cannot thank Folk Week enough for helping us create the trajectory of our most magical career and for being the wellspring of our lifelong music, dance, friendships, and values.