From The Beacon: Smithsonian exhibit on music to stop by Beaufort

Beaufort County is known and loved for many things -- beautiful landscapes of saltwater marshes and miles of beaches; massive oaks covered with hanging moss; a rich history; a commitment to our armed forces; and a cultural heritage that sings in many voices our own unique music.

"New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music" is part of the "Museum on Main Street," a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and The Humanities Council of South Carolina. This traveling Smithsonian exhibit is touring through 2012 and was funded in part from a S.C. Humanities Council grant to the Beaufort Friends of the Library. It will come to the Beaufort library Dec. 17, and it will run through Feb. 4.

The exhibit is more than 800 square feet of interactive content with eight stations displaying information about American music genres, including gospel/sacred, country and western, blues, jazz, folk, and dance music. "New Harmonies" will include a listening station for visitors to experience original recordings of the music and musicians featured throughout the exhibit. This is an experience to be shared by everyone who claims a part of the Beaufort County heritage.

For many of us, the term "American roots music" may not be familiar. PBS developed a teaching series on the subject, "Tapping the Roots of American Music," and places the birth of the genre at the turn of the last century. At the beginning of the 20th century, the term "folk music" was used by scholars to describe music made by whites of European ancestry, often in the relatively isolated rural South. As the century progressed, the definition of folk music expanded to include the song styles -- particularly the blues -- of Southern blacks as well.

In general, folk music was viewed as a window into cultural life. Folk songs communicated the hopes, sorrows and convictions of ordinary people's everyday lives.

Increasingly, music made by other groups of Americans such as American Indians, Mexican-Americans and Cajuns came under the umbrella of "folk music." It was sung in churches, on front porches, in the fields and other workplaces, while rocking children to sleep and at parties. The melodies and words were passed down from parent to child, though songs -- and their meanings -- often changed to reflect changing times. Historian Charles Wolfe wrote: "Instead of writing books and plays, the artists of roots music craft songs and ballads ... hymns and protest songs. Their art has generally been oral, passed on by word of mouth, or by custom and imitation." Music indeed is part of who we all are. Someone might have sung us lullabyes. Someone taught us the songs of our nation. We all share that uncanny ability to recall a time in our lives by the music that was playing at a school dance, on the radio in our cars or by the latest download to our MP3 player.

This is the first time a Smithsonian exhibit has come to Beaufort County. The library system is committed to bringing great programs to our residents, and "New Harmonies" will accomplish much in that regard. Our goals for the project are to promote a communitywide discovery of the artistic, social and cultural importance of American roots music; to celebrate the music that has its roots in our area; and to present music performances and lectures that will also serve as a magnet for cultural tourism to attract music lovers and other visitors to Beaufort.

So if you love music and want to find out more about the important role our community played in the development of roots music, make time this holiday season to check out "New Harmonies" at the Beaufort library. You'll see a full-page flier in the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette on Thursday. It contains a listing of all of the programs and activities linked with this exhibit. The grand opening is at 2 p.m. Dec. 17 at the Beaufort library and features live music by local musicians, exhibit tours and more.

Be a part of an historic exhibit for our county and spend some time with American roots music. After all, this is an important part of our shared American experience. For more information about the exhibit and related events, go to