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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

'The Revels' Ring In The Solstice With Appalachian Music

For over forty years, in ten different American cities, amateur singers and dancers have joined professional performers to welcome the winter solstice with a holiday variety show called “The Revels.” This year at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center, the theme is “An Appalachian Celebration,” and it features some high-stepping, fast-fiddling Vermonters.

As the lights go down, brass instruments herald children and adults in homespun dresses and overalls as they stroll onto the stage. Artistic Director Maureen Burford says she took her inspiration this year from a memoir of Appalachian life by famed folk singer and dulcimer player Jean Ritchie.

"[I was] thinking of the idea of an Appalachian quilt in terms of weaving pieces of memories together from her life," Burford says. "But they could be anybody’s memories of a Christmas back in 1920 or 1930."

Suzannah Park opens the show, belting out the traditional folk song “Day Is Breaking in My Soul.” Park lives in Ashville, N.C., where she learned singing and clogging from her parents and their many musical friends. Park says she loves "The Revels" because it celebrates not just a Christian holiday, but the winter solstice. And it stitches together African-American gospel and Appalachian music dating back to English and Scottish tradition.

“And what’s so great about any Revels community that I’ve been in is that they’re not all professional musicians," Park says. "They’re a doctor and they’re a school teacher and they’re a stay-at-home mom [who has] brought her children into the performance. It’s multi-generational, and it’s my favorite way of being in music,” Park says.

While the Southern Appalachian twang in the spiritual “I Wanna Be Ready” may seem miles away from New England, musically speaking the two regions are not so far apart. Both were settled by colonists from the British Isles. But there is one big difference, says headliner Pete Sutherland, one of Vermont’s most famous fiddlers.

“The encounter with the banjo in the African music tradition down south, which we did not benefit from up here, changed the rhythm entirely—so it’s much more funky,” Sutherland says.

And that funky banjo comes front and center in  the children’s chorus to “Buck-eyed Jim.”

Sutherland tips his hat to southern tradition, but he’d rather not play in blistering heat. In fact, he says long winters may help make Vermont the musical place that it is. After the harvest is in, families have plenty of time to sing and dance together.

“So that’s great,” Sutherland says.  

He recalled a fiddle player, Tommy Jarrell from North Carolina, sweating out a summer festival in 95-degree heat.  "You know folks, when the snow flies, that’s the time to make music," Jarrell said.

And the snow is likely to be flying this weekend, as "The Revels" comes to the North Country. It will be presented in the Spaulding Auditorium at the Hopkins Center through Sunday.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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