Dancing with the Spirit

by Belle Mickelson

Our project connects Alaskan youth and elders through school music camps as a way to bring joy, happiness and hope to villages; encourage healthy living; and prevent suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse. We teach guitar, fiddle, mandolin, bass, singing, dancing, and culture in week-long trips to remote Native villages with primarily Native staff. Over the past 16 years, we have traveled to 55 villages, most of them many times. We use a color-coded system and, by the end of the week, students are able to sing and play for a community concert and dance. During the pandemic we traveled virtually by sending instruments and providing song videos, curriculum, and Zoom lessons to keep the music going. Last spring we started to travel again and, over the spring and fall, went to 23 schools in Native villages for a week at a time! In the summer, two of us of European descent–took 11 Gwich’in youth from Yukon Flats Villages plus six fluent-speaking adults (musicians and storytellers) to the Midway Music Festival in the Northwest Territories for a week long immersion in Gwich’in fiddling, dancing, and singing. We gave a fiddle to a Canadian Gwich’in high school student and sent all the students on the trip home with a fiddle, guitar, or ukulele of their choice.  

We are very grateful for the Arnold Shultz Fund!  We were able to make more bluegrass videos than promised but— because of the continuing pandemic—mostly with individual musicians or a husband and wife team rather than the full bluegrass band we had envisioned. We did record Amanda Kerr (Deg Hit’an Athabascan) on fiddle, her husband Dan Booth on guitar, and his dad Greg Booth on Dobro on “Faded Love.Amanda and Dan recorded “I’ve Endured,”by Ola Belle and Dave Reed. Amanda also did slow fiddle videos for those two songs. Katy Rexford and Rion Schmidt (Supiaq) recorded “Wagon Wheel.” Stella and Jason Norris recorded a mandolin demo using “The Crawdad Song.” These and many other songs are posted in Volume 2 on the Dancing with the Spirit website. Many of these musicians have played in bluegrass bands—some touring nationally. Dan Booth played bass in Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen; Greg Booth still travels with the Kathy Kallick Band; Katy Rexford played fiddle and Rion Schmidt played guitar and banjo in the Aloha Bluegrass Band; and Jason Norris was in Bearfoot Bluegrassfor almost 15 years. Other national bluegrass musicians that recorded songs for Volume 2 include Angela Oudean (Inupiaq) and Mike Mickelson—both in Bearfoot Bluegrassand still playing lots of music and helping with the Dancing with the Spirit village school music program.

Our song and fiddle videos, together with the songbooks and fiddle tab, are free for downloading on our website: https://www.dancingwiththespirit.org. And this curriculum is on jump drives with lanyards that we are passing out to teachers and students in schools where internet is slow or lacking in student homes. The videos make it seem like our musicians are right there with you in school classrooms or your living room, so you can play along slow and then up to speed. And the videos and songbooks and fiddle tab can be used by people all over the world!

California Bluegrass Association Bluegrass Bridge Project

by Nate Schwartz

CBA’s October 8performance/workshop at Avenal State Prison in B Yard went very well. I was joined by musicians Ryan McDiamid, Erik Shiboski, and Nick Valentini, who are new to bluegrass but were great representatives of the spirit of CBA.

We generated lots of enthusiasm from inmates in attendance, and several inmates made requests for specific bluegrass instruments. The next step is to bring instruments (we’ve set aside a group of instruments from CBA’s lending library) and instructional materials (including repertoire books donated by Jack Tuttle and Dix Bruce) to the facility and hold small, 90-minute, focused workshops on each bluegrass instrument for the inmates.

We expect to hold the second performance/workshop sometime during Q1 of 2023—probably February or early March. Work is also underway to create a digital repository of curriculum resources for teaching bluegrass repertoire/history/performance, with an emphasis on rehabilitation and healthy self-actualization. A hand-drawn thank-you card was received from some of the inmates at the program, with notes from 18 attendees.

In the January 2023 issue the Bluegrass Breakdown, the monthly publication of the California Bluegrass Association, Evangelina Barrosse reported that around 150 men gathered in the prison yard to hear the October 8, 2022 set of music at Avenal. Following the performance, one young man who was two weeks into his sentence expressed his bewilderment at the donated instruments available to check out. “I always wanted to play guitar,” he told the band. “My family couldn’t afford one.”

A thank-you note from one of the attendees read, “It was the best concert in my almost 30 years in prison.” Another wrote, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming in here for that short period and offering a small sense of freedom. It is not often we receive such kindnesses at ASP, and your kindness was truly a light in the dark.”

Barrosse concludes: “At its core, bluegrass is a celebration of integration and inclusion; the music is the synthesis of disparate muical genres, and the distinct tradition of “passing a break” invites everyone, regardless of skill, to take a solo. CBA’s Bluegrass Bridge program pays homage to this legacy, imagining a better future for the incarcerated through bluegrass music.”

Return to the March 2023 issue of The Cornerstone.

Photo above: Sixth through ninth graders from the Alaskan village of Ruby pose with their fiddles.