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American Routes Shortcuts: Alice Gerrard

Irene Young
Alice Gerrad

Alice Gerrard has been a musician, researcher, publisher, and advocate for old-time music for much of her life. She's best known for performing and recording bluegrass and country with West Virginian, Hazel Dickens. Alice produced Sprout Wings and Fly, a film about North Carolina fiddler Tommy Jarrell. Her introduction to old-time music happened at Antioch College in the 1950s with husband Jeremy Foster and friends. The couple soon moved to the D.C.-Baltimore area for work and found a community of traditional musicians and their followers. Alice Gerrard recalled those days.

Alice Gerrard: One of our co-op jobs, Jeremy and I ended up in Washington, D.C.; working–

Nick Spitzer: Your husband, while you’re Antioch students, have these jobs, yeah.

AG: Yes. You know, Mike Seeger was a childhood friend of Jeremy's, my husband. They had gone to high school together. He was close to their family. Spent a lot of time there. Then, I believe, Mike was living in the area at the time we were there for our co-op jobs. But it was also, just generally speaking, a time when there were a lot of young people like us, middle class kids who were just becoming totally aware of bluegrass and traditional music. Part of it had to do with so many people from the South had migrated up to find work around the D.C. area and north in Baltimore. And there were enclaves of people, you know, up around north of Baltimore, there was lots of people from North Carolina up there, Ola Belle Reed and Fields Ward, and you know, when people migrate, they'd bring their culture with them to some extent. And music is a big part. So, I just remember Baltimore had a little bar on every corner and every bar had a little bluegrass band in it.


NS: One voice, obviously, is a voice you remember greatly, and that's Hazel Dickens. And if you could say a little bit about your first hearing of Hazel, and then meeting her.

AG: My first meeting with Hazel was actually not a physical meeting. It was my husband saying to me, “There's this little girl with a great big voice that you should meet.”


AG: She was older than I was. She had this kind of streetwise aura about her, and I definitely liked her, and I wanted to learn from her. She was really a mentor to me in so many ways, but I didn't really sing with her for a long time. I listened to her for a long time. Whenever there was a party, there was music, and it was a gathering of musicians who would, you know, put up the song book, get out their instruments, and take turns and play. And these went on all the time. And it was at some party, I'm sure, that somebody suggested, why don't you guys sing together? From there, it just went on.


AG: Until Peter Siegel-

NS: The producer.

AG: Yeah, the producer of the album. He came down with David Grisman to go to a bluegrass festival that got rained out, and then he heard about this party as one does sometimes and came to it, and Hazel and I were singing. That's when he suggested that we should make a recording, and we had friends who were super encouraging of us doing this. Hazel wasn't married to anybody who would tell her no. Tom Morgan, who was a musician and a friend, and Jeremy thought it would be a really great coup to get Chubby Wise to play on our CD. They went down to talk to him and like said, "Hey Chubby, they're these girls that are trying to make a record, and they'd love it if you'd help 'em out on the fiddle." And he said, "Well, I believe I will." That was all. And then he–

NS: That's all you need.


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