For most of Donna Ulisse and the Poor Mountain Boys’ Wednesday afternoon performance and workshop at Carnage Middle School, the students in the audience were politely attentive. Then when the band fired up a quick-time version of the old bluegrass standard “Rocky Top,” the kids became engaged enough to bounce up and down.
But bedlam did not erupt until two of their Carnage instructors, including strings teacher Winifred Marecheau, began to dance a jig. As the audience jumped up to get a better view, a mix of laughter and cheers swept the auditorium.
“Rocky Top, you’ll always be, home sweet home to me!”
“I’ll betcha didn’t know he had those moves,” Poor Mountain Boys banjo player Greg Davis said afterward. And while it’s doubtful that any of the assembled kids were going to give up their Nicki Minaj playlists, there were probably a few YouTube searches for “Rocky Top” emanating from Raleigh’s middle school population after school let out Wednesday.
Outreach programs such as this are a regular feature of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass. The organization canvasses every year’s showcase artists for volunteers, then coordinates with the United Arts Council to send them into public elementary and middle schools throughout Wake County during bluegrass week.
It’s all part of trying to keep alive a music whose primary audience is gray and getting grayer. Ulisse and her Nashville-based band were glad to do it.
“This music is our heritage, and we have to reach out to young people,” she said. “Once they hear it, it’s like a little fever that clicks. It’s mathematical, edgy. Interesting, too.”
Students with the band
As one of a dozen area schools to host such a program, Carnage also had its student string band onstage to work on a few songs with Ulisse and band. Wednesday’s gathering commenced like most symphonic rehearsals, with Marecheau calling everyone to tune up.
Along with introductions to the bluegrass instruments of banjo, mandolin and upright bass, the program included collaborations on the festival favorite “Old Joe Clark,” as well as one of Ulisse’s originals, “Black Snake.”
Ulisse explained how “Black Snake” was inspired by Virginia’s winding mountain roads, which legend has it were laid out by setting a black snake loose and following it down the mountain with a tar truck.
Before taking it on, Marecheau worked through the song’s chord changes with the students. He played them on a keyboard and called out the changes. It didn’t take long for everyone to have it down.
“A on G, play that now,” he said. “Natural on G E, D, then C. Perfect!”
Ulisse was impressed, and even more so by how the song sounded when everything was all put together.
“Wish I’d had you guys on that record,” she said. “That would have been awesome. You guys are bluegrassers now!”
After the session broke up, Kevin Zhang – a 13-year-old Carnage eighth-grader who usually listens to classical and had never played bluegrass before – took a moment before packing his violin away.
“That was pretty cool,” said Zhang. “I never knew a mandolin had eight strings.”
So would you try bluegrass again?
“I’d do it again, yeah,” he said. “Maybe.”
Marecheau’s students mastered “Black Snake” and “Old Joe Clark” so quickly that Ulisse decided to do some extra songs, including “Lonesome Pine” and “Rough and Ready.” There was talk of some of the kids possibly joining Ulisse and Lonesome Pine onstage at one of their World of Bluegrass shows later in the week, too.
If that happens, maybe they’ll get a chance to do justice to “Rough and Rocky,” which Ulisse described by saying, “Bluegrass is famous for its forlorn songs.”
She hit just the right note of heartbreak in this old classic about a grievous final parting.
“But before the morning’, darlin’
“We’ll be many miles apart ...”
It was quite nice, with the students right in the pocket up until the moment that the piercing change-classes bell began to blare and broke the mood. Yes, it was impossible to forget that this was taking place in a school.
“Well,” Ulisse said, “I guess that means it’s time to stop that one. But it’s sounding so good. You guys are amazing.”