Eye on the Scene

On the Porch at Highlander

Happy 75th birthday, Highlander! It sure was a great celebration last weekend. As one attendee put it so eloquently, â“It could be hotter.â”

When we arrived on Sunday afternoon, the We Will Overcome Brass Band was marching throughout the property, similar to how the New Orleans-based Preservation Hall Jazz Band ends each of its shows, with a joyous, brassy march through the crowd.

Behind the horns, a long line of revelersâ"many of whom were dancing as they marchedâ"followed close behind. It was an odd sight, a few hundred bodies caught up in the moment, in spite of the day's heat.

Later, up the hill on the main stage, yet another crowd was being worked into a frenzy. â“All the undercover cops in the house be quiet!â” yelled Peace Love Universal , the silver-tongued MC from D.C. The crowd roared, letting everyone know that they were, in fact, not cops. There was music everywhere, and the sounds echoed out into the scenic vistas all around us.

We barely missed a performance by Guy and Candie Carawan , the always-adorable couple who have been a part of Highlander's musical tradition since 1959, when Guy took over the musical program after Zilphia Horton passed away. Songs such as â“We Shall Overcome,â” â“We Shall Not Be Movedâ” and â“This Little Light of Mine,â” most of which were adapted from hymnals, were popularized by Horton, Pete Seeger, and later by the Carawans.

And, if the music that we heard at the 75th anniversary is any indication, Highlander's tradition of poignant folk music is just as strong and just as important as it was during the Civil Rights Movement, when non-violent protests throughout the south were singing â“We Shall Overcome.â”

By the end of Peace Love Universal's set, the crowd was on its feet, chanting in unison: â“Free! Your body! Your mind! And your soul! Free! Your body! Your mind! And your soul! Free! Your body! Your mind! And your soulâ.â”

Down the hill from the main stage, a much smaller group had gathered in front of a quaint porch for an afternoon of sincere folk music. Walker T. Ryan , who was accompanied by WDVX radio personality and banjo aficionado Matt Morelock , was in the middle of his set when we wandered towards the porch. His crackling, grizzled voice carried the weight of post-traumatic stress disorder, memories of Vietnam, and countless other injustices. â“Sand in my bedroll/I got sand in my shoe,â” he sang, â“I got the Baghdad Blues!â”

Up next was a solo set courtesy of Jon Worley , the frontman of the shoeless, hillbilly-and-proud-of-it Cornbred Blues Band, which is an agglomeration of bluegrass, funk and a near-lethal dose of corn liquor. â“I just ripped my pants,â” he told the crowd. â“Underwear's expensive, but because I love y'all, I'm gonna run out to the carâ.

â“I usually split my pants later in the performance.â” Last year, Worley broke his ankle in seven places. Without health insurance, he walked around with a cane until the bones set themselves. â“I can't run,â” he told us, â“but if I can play five shows a week with one foot, I should be able to play 10 shows with two. That's just how I feel about it.â”

Last year, Worley told us that he wants to â“fulfill the same function that a shaman would in an agrarian societyâ. I put the bells and the whistles on, and crawl up in a hole in the mountains by myself and have my visions, write it down and bring it back down to the people.â” He's still living that dream, telling his stories night after night, finding a sense of peace between Dionysian excess and Apollonian introspection.

â“Don't let it get down,â” Worley sang. â“Don't let it get down.â”

But the real treat that afternoon was hearing Evan Carawan and his protégé Mary Biggs play their hammered dulcimers. Michael Ginsberg , a longtime local musician who composes original music for WBIR's Heartland Series , came out of his chair to play a little accompaniment on the guitar and flute.

Sometime during the set, Guy and Candie Carawan seated themselves on the steps of the porch. Guy hummed along as Evan lead the group through a few traditional Irish folk songs.

â“Well, dad,â” Evan said, â“you wanna pick one with us?â”

â“I'm having fun just listening,â” Guy responded.

A voice from the audience said, â“You got your priorities straight!â” But, whether he wanted to play or not, Guy found himself holding a guitar, playing along without a single misstep, as if he'd been warming up for hours.

â“Remember?â” Evan asked while they continued to play. â“A minor.â” And the song slowly took on a new shape, immediately morphing into something completely different. â" Kevin Crowe

Local CD Review

Hector Qirko

Wherever You Go

Local bandleader Hector Qirko is best known for searing electric lead guitar lines as well as his namesake outfit's distinctive brand of smooth, jazz-inflected blues. But on his latest solo effort Wherever You Go , released on his own Blind Guru Recordings imprint, Qirko pushes the envelope of his personal muse with 12 tracks of mostly acoustic proto-country and mountain-style folk music. And having written or co-written all but one of the songs on Wherever (the lone exception being a cover of the Johnny Cash nugget â“Cold Lonesome Morningâ”), he proves nearly as comfortable with the conventions of rural Appalachia as he is with those of urban blues.

The songs are anchored by Qirko's characteristically assured acoustic picking; his lead vocals are backed by local stalwarts Maggie Longmire and Steve Horton, while Mark Fain holds the bottom end on bass. But the star of the record ensemble-wise is sideman David Johnson, who switches off between fiddle, banjo, dobro, and mandolin. Johnson's wistful counter-melodies and traditional string lines are so precise and liltingly beautiful that he almost merits second billing. Maybe next time, because this foray into tradition-minded mountain music is so ravishing and confident in its execution that Qirko will almost assuredly repeat the experiment. â" Mike Gibson


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