Mountain Music: Unveiling the Jewel

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

Betty Carpenter’s many years as a Grundy County Schools educator gifted her with a glimpse at a rare jewel: the “extraordinary” music made on front porches and the lawns of community centers and churches. “It’s so common place to them, they don’t see the jewel of what they have,” Carpenter said. Her dream to share the gift she received found a nest in the documentary “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” a work-in-progress that hopes to celebrate the music-makers, their generosity and their joy.

Carpenter first became aware of Plateau mountain music as a Tracy City Elementary Pre-K teacher when she heard one of the moms “belt out” a ballad rich in Scotch-Irish overtones. Later the kitchen cooks sang for her. “I was blown away by the harmony,” she confessed.

Fast forward a few years to Carpenter waiting in the hallway with her special ed class at the high school. The teacher aide started playing the piano and in the children’s enthusiastic response, Carpenter “saw a window.” People referred to these children as “couldn’t do anything kids,” Carpentered said, “but music deals with a different part of the brain.” The Comprehensive Development Class (CDC) formed the Seedy Sea Band and ultimately performed in Nashville at the Bluebird Café and Opryland Hotel. The “can’t do anything kids” became a source of pride for their parents and for Carpenter a “foot in the door” to a world she didn’t know existed.

The band found themselves invited to “singin’s’”—fundraising gatherings at community centers and churches where local singers and musicians performed. The crowd would pass a hat to collect money for a family whose house burned or someone in the hospital with no insurance. The hat-passing sometimes raised thousands of dollars. None of the gifted performers had any formal musical training. Grandfathers had taught grandsons, aunts had taught nieces passing the musical tradition down through the generations. Carpenter came to realize that for these people with few extracurricular activities to engage in, music was as much a part of daily life as raindrops and biscuits for breakfast.

An ordained Episcopal deacon, Carpenter met Episcopal priest Maryetta Anschutz in the summer of 2020. Carpenter learned Anschutz had a media company, told her about the documentary idea, and took her to visit the Music Barn, an off-the-beaten-track music store on the outskirts of Tracy City. Owner, Mary Dykes, and her friends played and sang for Anschutz. Her response: the world has got to hear this music.

In the trailer for the documentary, Stephen Miller, University music department chair, describes Plateau mountain music as a hybrid, “a style while rooted in their Grundy County origins has obviously been inflected by a lot of the African American music styles they’ve heard, a lot of Southern gospel.”

“It makes sense,” Carpenter said, “Each person who passes the tradition down adds something.”

“Music is the language that talks to the soul,” said Ralph Patrick, Grundy County singer and guitarist.

Dykes said when she first opened the Music Barn in May 2002, she worried no one would come. “We didn’t know if people would travel out this far on a country road, but by December my husband was busting out the wall and making it bigger.”

The “Go Tell It on the Mountain” documentary project received a grant from the South Cumberland Community Fund and has applied for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. The project needs $20,000 to reach fruition. To help fund the effort send checks to the Grundy Area Arts Council, P.O. Box 363, Monteagle, TN 37356. View the trailer at https://www.tellitonthemountai...

Summing up what the documentary is about, Carpenter said, “It’s the joy. The way music is used to help your neighbor, as a form of praise, and just for pure fun.”

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