We’ll Have You Dancin’ In the Aisles

Harry Bolick is somewhat of a national treasure in that he is one of a handful of fiddlers keeping this tradition alive in our country.  The genius of this musician is not just his skill with a fiddle but his pursuit of his roots and musical traditions in his home state Mississippi.  On the theory that you never know what you’re going to find when you start searching, Harry stumbled on a treasure trove of folk music in the state archives which had been researched, notated, assembled and forgotten.  The work was done in the Depression era by some 130 WPA workers who travelled the dirt roads of Mississippi through farms and villages to discover such locally popular tunes as “Soapsuds Over the Fence,” “Butterfat,” and “Sugar in the Ground.”

While these songs mainly from the 1930’s never made it to Broadway, they will have new life in a performance on Saturday night, February 20th when Harry Bolick takes the stage at ArtsWestchester’s historic building at 31 Mamaroneck Ave., White Plains. They will also have long life in a book in which Harry has complied more than 300 of the tunes.  What is interesting about the songs is not just the music but the stories that they tell about the lives of ordinary folks, slaves, freemen, farmers and fiddlers…African Americans and Anglo Saxons… some of which date back to the period following the Civil War.

Some years ago when I first came to ArtsWestchester (in those days it was the Council for the Arts in Westchester) I noticed the presence of many folk traditions which interested me deeply.  To my delight, the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) had a folk arts program which gave us early funding that continues to this day under the talented baton of our own folklorist Tom van Buren, who happened also to be an ethnomusicologist.  That is a long word for someone who has brought to us and to Westchester music from the past and music from the world.  I might add that Tom, true to his calling, walks to his own drum beat, when it comes to discovering and preserving the folk arts of our region.  He now serves also as the President of the New York Folklore Society.  Catch Tom and Harry (neighbors from Hastings), at ArtsWestchester as Harry fiddles and Tom claps and everyone is welcome to dance.

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