At the Sparta Elementary School on Wednesday afternoons, you will hear the sounds of the next generation of old-time and bluegrass musicians coming into their own. Children as young as seven and eight years old, wielding fiddles, mandolins, banjos, and guitars, cluster in small bands or in circles around their instructors.
Helen White, a guidance counselor for the Alleghany County schools, founded the Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program in 2000. The idea was to make learning mountain music an option for all kids through subsidized instruction and instrument rental fees. That would in turn inspire pride and interest in the young people’s own heritage and would help provide a healthy place where the community could come together, all while injecting new life into the region’s traditional music scene.
JAM students learn in a small-group setting, with a heavy emphasis on playing by ear, as opposed to relying only on sheet music or tablature. The classes are taught by some of the region’s most talented artists, many of whom grew up playing old-time or bluegrass. Students also learn about the history of the music, take field trips to music venues, and spend time with musical elders from the community.
The Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center in Graham County hosts a JAM program, and if you come to the Jones House Jam in Boone, you may get a chance to hear students from the JAM program, which meets on Thursday afternoons before the jam begins.
The idea has proved popular, and JAM and other similar programs have spread across the mountain regions of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. The North Carolina Arts Council-funded JAM programs and other traditional music programs here in the Blue Ridge help to guarantee that North Carolina’s traditional cultures will continue to thrive. To learn more about lessons and JAM student performances, visit the website of Junior Appalachian Musicians, Inc. and the North Carolina Arts Council.
Excerpted from Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina by Fred Fussell with Steve Kruger.
Learn more about the JAM programs and TAPS programs (Traditional Arts Programs for Students) in the Western North Carolina region: