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Rising Stars: Meet Walt Michael

Today we’d like to introduce you to Walt Michael. 

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
In 1994, after 25 years of performing, touring the world, and recording folk/traditional string band music, I moved back from New York to my native Maryland, to found Common Ground on the Hill. I returned to the campus of my alma mater, McDaniel College (formerly Western Maryland College), and began the work of building a nonprofit that has as its core mission to seek common ground through the traditional arts. In a fractured and troubled world, we do this work by producing Traditions Weeks, a series of week-long classes, lectures, and concerts where people of all ages learn the traditional musical and visual arts of a wide variety of cultures. Included in the class offerings are interactive lecture classes where we learn about the work of activist-artists, fostering dialog about the everyday issues that face us as citizens. We know that the traditional arts are windows into cultures which allow us to encounter and learn from one another. Throughout the year we also offer concerts in both Westminster and Baltimore, as well as two festivals. Two years ago, the Maryland State Arts Council named us the Folklife Center for Central Maryland, an exciting development for us as we work to archive our 28-year history as well as to identify, produce and support emerging folklife activities. At the same time, I continue to perform, record, and play music throughout the US, the UK, and Canada, staying nourished by that work. 

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
The traditional arts are best encountered in person, in place. However, the Covid pandemic has challenged us to rise to the occasion, to continue bring our work forward. As a result, we have successfully produced two years of online virtual Traditions Weeks as well as virtual concerts. In doing so, we have maintained our regular audience while expanding our reach to countries and artists throughout the world. This summer, 2022, we look forward to producing Traditions Weeks virtually as well as in-person! Our 50th Anniversary Deer Creek Fiddlers’ Convention, a Maryland tradition, will be offered in two separate productions: virtually in May and in-person in July. As often is the case in life, the Covid obstacle has resulted in an opportunity for growth. As with any non-profit, it is a constant challenge to build the financial resources that fuel our work. Our tuition-driven summertime Traditions Weeks is our main financial engine while being supported by loyal donors and the wonderful Maryland State Arts Council. 

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
I have played traditional and original string band music for over fifty years. While a college student in the 1960’s I journeyed to Appalachia, learning from elder musicians whose music harkened back to the 1800s. While in graduate school I co-founded the newgrass group, Bottle Hill. We recorded for Biograph Records and toured like maniacs. During that time, I took on the hammered dulcimer, adding it to my skill set as a singer, guitar, banjo, and mandolin player. The hammered dulcimer proved to be my strong suit and my ensuing groups and recordings (Michael, McCreesh & Campbell, and Walt Michael & Co.) were centered around that wonderful stringed instrument and surrounded by great fiddlers, bassists, guitarists, and harmony singing. My music has taken me on an artistic journey that I couldn’t have imagined at the beginning of my affair with traditional music. Coal camps, the White House, Lincoln and Kennedy Centers, international folk and bluegrass festivals, and the Closing Ceremonies of the XIII Olympic Winter Games are among the myriad of venues that have allowed me to share my music. 

How can people work with you, collaborate with you, or support you?
I consider myself blessed to be joined by a great team of artists and administrators in the work of Common Ground on the Hill. While I focus on the music and lecture portion of Traditions Weeks, artist-educator Linda Van Hart heads up the visual arts. Maria Wong is our Director of Promotions and Development and Matt Vinson is our Office Manager. We are supported by a robust roster of volunteers and a supportive board of directors. We are in-residence at McDaniel College, a wonderful campus on which to do that work. The keystone of this relationship is my position as Artist-in-Residence of McDaniel College. Being in the employ of McDaniel allows me to focus on the work of Common Ground on the Hill while giving me the opportunity to teach college students about the traditional arts and the cultures from which they spring. Over a quarter of a century, a vast array of traditional musicians and artists have helped put shoulder to the wheel to make Common Ground on the Hill what it is… a wonderful, unique community of people committed to creating a better world through the arts. I know it sounds corny, but it is true. The great folksinger Odetta came to Traditions Weeks in the aftermath of 9/11 and said “I’ve been needing to hear good news, and I found it at Common Ground on the Hill.” 

It is very easy to become part of Common Ground on the Hill. The first step is to attend Traditions Weeks, concerts, and our festivals to get a clear picture of what we do, our mission. I would also suggest taking some time to explore our website (www.commongroundonthehill.org,) and our YouTube channel (Common Ground on the Hill Official). If you are an artist interested in teaching and/or performing with us, merely contact us via email and tell us about yourself and how you feel your work might enhance our work. We always are in need of volunteers to help us in a myriad of ways, especially during Traditions Weeks and our festivals. 

Pricing:

  • Concerts: $25/22
  • Traditions Weeks: $225-515 per week
  • Traditions Weeks Housing: $440-480 per week
  • Festivals: $10-$25

Contact Info:


Image Credits:

Stuart Dahne
Randall Gornowich
Nelson Widdell
Pamela Zappardino

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