Some would say that traditional, old-time mountain music is more caught than taught. The songs are circular in nature, rotating from “A” to “B” parts and back again. In jams, the more accomplished musicians sit in the center of a circle and those learning surround them. Creating something of a vortex, the tunes pull those learning into the song.
Alleghany Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) follows a similar process. In 2000, Sparta (NC) Elementary School guidance counselor, Helen White, founded the first JAM program at Sparta Elementary. Aided by local musicians, the program set out to expose elementary aged students to traditional mountain music. As JAM grew in popularity, it received funding from a variety of sources and has spun into 29 programs in four states. But for all its success and expansion, at the center of the JAM circle are the students.
Tiffany Vargas has been a fiddle student in Alleghany JAM for five years. While she enjoys old-time tunes, she also plays semi-classical music in a string quartet and the flute in the school band. Her grandfather, Charlie Earp, is an accomplished classical and jazz musician, and Tiffany has taken fiddle lessons from Erika Godfrey in neighboring Surry County.
Isabel Engel has also been in the program for five years. Like Tiffany, she’s from a musical family. Isabel’s dad plays the guitar and her step-dad plays the guitar, mandolin and bass. Isabel finds music relaxing. She enjoys the challenge of working through the complexities of the songs. One of her favorite tunes is the Peacock Rag.
Musician and educator, Lucas Pasley, is the current program director Alleghany JAM. He describes the Alleghany County program as focusing on kids, heritage and community. With the help of local musicians, they seek to provide a positive place for kids to belong, regardless of their skill level.
In an exciting bit of news, this year, for the first time, Alleghany JAM will be offered to high school students. In addition to their instruction, the high school students will assist with the elementary classes. This will help the high school students develop leadership skills and enhance a pathway for them to college.
Across the country, public schools have suffered a loss of programs during the economic crisis. North Carolina and Alleghany County are no exception. As school funding decreases, the arts are often the first programs cut. This makes community based initiatives such as JAM even more valuable and vital. The students’ tuition only covers about 20% of the costs of the program. Alleghany JAM is funded primarily through grants and fundraising activities such as their annual golf tournament. Grassroots, local support keeps these students in class.
A popular song throughout the mountains asks Will the Circle Be Unbroken? With a focus on heritage and community, the Alleghany Junior Appalachian Musicians will assure that the circle remains intact as they continue to embrace and celebrate our mountain culture.
Alleghany JAM musicians will begin their recruitment tour on August 21, 2015. They will visit all four Alleghany public elementary schools and the Blue Ridge Christian School. The registration deadline is August 24, 2015.
For more information on how you can register a student or support JAM, contact Lucas Pasley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 336-572-5266. For a great overview of the program, watch the UNC TV video below.