Thursday night, I headed up to the manor house again to give clogging another try. It was only a minute or two from my dorm, but I passed two bands along the way. A trio was nestled on the narrow shoulder of the road, barely out of the way of the few cars creeping cautiously up the hill. On the other side of the road, another group had set up folding chairs and music stands under the trees. The light from the mansion's porch barely illuminated their music.
I didn't last long on the dance floor. I was wearing an old pair of Reeboks, great for negotiating the steep trails of the campus, but way too heavy for dancing. Sure enough, my shins rebelled after ten minutes, threatening to end my evening unless I sat out. So I left the porch and walked the short distance to the mansion's stone retaining wall, where there were some empty seats.
I found myself sitting next to a white woman in a wheelchair. Her name was Ginny. I'd met her earlier in the week, at the afternoon song-swap sessions for the singing school. West Virginia was her home. She was proud to be a hillbilly, and had been coming to the Augusta Heritage Center for years. Like me, she'd grown up around bluegrass and other kinds of country music.
That night, there were bands everywhere--jamming on the roadside, playing on the porch. Their sounds swirled around us. Celtic airs slid into hornpipes and reels. Mandolins traded solos with fiddles. Ginny listened intently to every song, keeping time with her head and hands.
As the bands played on, I turned to Ginny with a question. "What's the difference between old-time and bluegrass?"
"Old-time is old."
"I love you, too, Ginny."
She laughed and gave me a quick lesson. The music I'd been hearing all week, old-time music, dominated the mountains for more than a century. In the 1930s, a man named Bill Monroe began mixing together various old-time forms--ballads, gospel hymns, and string-band instrumentals--and playing them at faster tempos. He also borrowed techniques of improvisation and syncopation--Africa's gifts to American popular music--from jazz. Monroe was later joined by Earl Scruggs, a banjo player who had invented a way of playing the instrument by picking the strings instead of plucking them. Monroe, Scruggs, and the other members of the "Blue Grass Boys" became legends, and their music came to be known as bluegrass.
"I didn't care for bluegrass, that much," Ginny told me. "That's what the Klan boys listened to."
The folks on the shoulder of the road had just started up again, when a dancer happened by. She spread a square of carpet on the asphalt and placed a portable wooden dance floor on top. Then she switched shoes, hopped on the platform, and began to dance.
She jumped lightly from one foot to the other, before returning to the basic step I'd learned from Charley. She skipped forward, then backward. She crossed one leg over another, then slid a few inches to one side of the platform. All the while, her feet tapped a drumbeat, goading the musicians to play harder and keeping them from straying outside the rhythm.
I watched the dancer intently. Her dance steps were complex, her movements beautiful to behold. I was in awe of her skill. I was grateful to be here, enjoying her dance. Somehow, it didn't matter anymore that this was "white music," or that I was the only black woman within sight. I could feel a connection to the music.
After all, some of my ancestors had come from the mountains where this music was born. All of them had leavened their hard lives with music. The Irish ones had played the fiddle. The African ones had picked banjos. Maybe the sharp lines that segregated the Nashville of my childhood had always been lies. Hadn't jazz seeped into the music that the "Klan boys" enjoyed? Hadn't an Irish man sired a lineage that resulted in me and mine?
There I was, a black woman in Appalachia, tapping my feet to the music of all my foreparents.
And I felt right at home.