This week I’m continuing my chat with musician/songwriter/educator/Appalachian Artivist Sam Gleaves about a bevy of subjects dear to our hearts and our work in Kentucky and beyond.
He talks about how his work with cultural organizations such as the Appalshop, The Highlander Center, and Berea College have deepened his activism in the mountains.
He also shares more about the educational work he does with Berea College in teaching traditional ad bluegrass music to students there from many cultures and places.
We discuss the tightrope that artists living and working in traditional art forms sometimes face in trying to convey our authentic truths while maintaining awareness that sometimes our audiences have vastly different sociopolitical or religious beliefs than we do.
Sam also shares more about navigating the traditional music world as a queer man, how his music has changed as he has embodied his personal truth, and the importance of singers as storytellers who have the power to help shape new narratives of the world. (And how they’re MORE than just entertainers!)
And when asked about coping mechanisms for dealing with stress, anxiety, and despair around world events, his biggest exhortation is…..SING!
Artists/Links mentioned in show:
Sam Gleaves Website
Sam Gleaves on Facebook
Appalshop Cultural Organization
The STAY Project
Cowan Creek Mountain Music School
Reel World String Band
My Singing Bird by Sam Gleaves
welcome to the what dreamers do podcast. i’m your host carla govan and appalachian musician flatfoot dancer, mama creative and dreamer from kentucky. i’m on a mission to inspire others to realize their dreams and live their most creative lives. grab your mason jar full of sweet tea or something a little stronger, and pull up a chair because it’s time to get your dream off. that’s what dreamers
welcome dreamers to this week’s episode of the word dreamers do podcast and this week we are continuing our conversation with the amazing sam gleaves of berea, kentucky. he is a clawhammer banjo player picker of all kinds of instruments songwriter, singer, archivist, educator, and general all around awesome human being. if you did not catch last week’s episode, be sure and go listen to that one. before this one, you can hear some more background about where sam’s from and how he grew up learning this appalachian music that he plays and promotes so beautifully now. and in this episode, we’re going to dive into some more of his work as an archivist and learn why he does not call himself an activist, and hear another one of his beautiful songs. so stick around, you’re gonna love sam as much as i do.
and when i was at berea college, i got involved with the state project, ada smith, came up to me and said, the state together appalachian youth project is a youth network of still very much active young people in appalachia who want to create a more sustainable, inclusive future by working in their home communities. and data came to me and said, you know, like, do you want to help us? do you want to be involved? do you want to be on the steering committee, and i can’t be on a steering committee. i don’t know what that means. and then so but by involvement with the state project, which is connected to the highlander center, apple shop, going to those institutions meeting other young people who had fire in their hearts for social and environmental justice. and that was very important to.
well, yeah, both of those organizations that you mentioned are so amazing. and i am always in awe of the vein of activism that has been present in appalachia. and i think that’s another thing that doesn’t get talked about enough.
i agree. yeah. i should also mention, high rocks educational corporation in west virginia is also connected to the state project. okay, three parent organizations of this network that’s now in its own thing, but the state project if you’re a young person that in appalachia hope you’ll look that up.
awesome. well, you’re also working now with a lot of young people in your new capacity. i know i still think of it as your new job. how long have you been there?
every i started in the fall of 2020. so pretty, it’s pretty new. it is new? yes. yeah. i feel very grateful and honored to be working at berea college because when i enrolled at berea college in 2010, i enrolled because they had a bluegrass ensemble. i couldn’t believe that you could get course credit for playing in a working bluegrass band and touring and traveling and learning to perform in that way. our white was the founding director, right. and he founded the group and around the year 2000. and, but berea has this rich, long history with traditional music from its beginnings. but anyway, al was and continues to be a great mentor and friend and playing in that band for four years as a student at berea really just inspired me and showed me new possibilities. because when i enrolled at berea college, i didn’t think i could earn a living playing music. i just thought that oh, you know, like music is something that i’ll do, i’ll continue to do in my life, but it will be second to some other kinds of work, you know, and so to be able to teach there now and when allied chose to retire in 2020, and i was fortunate enough to be asked to fill that position of teaching appalachian instruments, one on one lessons with students and fiddle and banjo and guitar and mandolin, that sort of thing. and directing this bluegrass band of student musicians i was so excited. i mean, it was. i love my work every day. i really do. and the students are showing me new possibilities to you know, because they have their own spark and perspective. a lot of them are from appalachia. some you know, there’s a lot of international students at berea people come from very diverse backgrounds. i just i love the community of art and activism in berea. and it’s great to be part of it.
well, that’s a great thing to be able to say that you that you love your work every day. i do. and presumably, you’re still well, i know you are still doing some performing and some teaching in the summer. in fact, you’re going to be coming to cowan creek mountain music school.
yes. oh my gosh, i love cowan creek. and you’re a big part of why i love it, you know, because that’s a special opportunity to come and learn music in the mountains in eastern kentucky to see and be part of the landscape that has created and informed this music. yes, you know, and to be there and to hear the voices to be able to walk over to the old regular baptist church and hear singing there too. i mean, just the people that run the cow and community center are the salt of the earth. absolutely. and incredible community organizers. absolutely no. and so i always i always felt like count creek is is really, you know, with bev mays leadership and others, is this community organizing, i mean, they they are providing a, an open door for people to learn about appalachian culture. they’re on cowan, you know, and like that, for young people from that area to come and learn this music along with people that traveled in from brooklyn or wherever they may come from, you know, and it’s a, it’s a loving, very much a welcoming space, to learn to play and to, and to hear the stories that that are the backbone of this music.
it is it’s really special. and that’s one of the drums that i beat a lot is that even though i am happy that so many people all over the world love appalachian music and want to perform it and play it. i really believe in our our cowan creek school because we have the opportunity to share the cultural context for what we are teaching and it’s it’s personal, it’s not just i learned this from field recording number 47. this was you know, i learned this on zones i was porch and we you know, we used to play this when after we worked in the fields all day, you get the stories and you get the real life connections. and there’s something really special about that. so it’s, it’s kind of what you were talking about with the, the chance to learn knee to knee with the, with the older players, the elders of the art form. and i always think of in buddhism, how they have the the idea that you take direct transmission from the guru, and you sit with the guru and meditator or chant with them and then the spiritual energy comes right from his belly into into yours. and that’s what’s going on. and that’s really what cowan is like you’re getting direct transmission from these masters of fiddle and banjo and so it is and you’re going to be one of our visitors mr.
blushing just thinking about that term it deborah payne at a great fiddler from berea who i play a lot of music with deborah and i love to play and sing together. and she’s played for dances her whole life and is one of my favorite fillers than singers to hear. and so she will be doing that performance together. but i’m most excited about walking around to the classes here and everybody, you know, to get to sit with people like randy wilson, and carla grover and others that this camp is is really valuable. and i just want to share one little story is why cowan so important to me is that carol ison who helped found the cowan community center, right. i mean,
well, they publish it, she and her husband actually built building. yeah. and she helped establish the community. she grew up there her whole life, and she was actually my sixth and seventh grade teacher, mrs. potter elementary school.
yeah, well, so i got asked to come to cowan as a teaching assistant. i guess bev made maybe had asked me and i was so thrilled, you know and excited. i think one year we were together, a teaching assistant that so i was just so thrilled because i love a gig like that when you can just watch a master teacher like you did in, you know, just support. and i learned so much that we can add lunch one day carol eisen was sitting next to me and she said, i don’t think i’ve met you before. who are you telling me about you and your story. and i almost tear up every time i think about that, because that that touched me so much that i was this long haired, hippie kid, come down there from berea, you know, and, you know, probably hadn’t washed my hair that day or anything else. and here’s this wonderful woman who reminded me of my grandmother wanted to know who i was and why i was there. and that’s the kind of welcoming spirit that is that cow. and it really is for everybody. yeah, yeah. i mean, like it is in the place. but it’s, it’s for everybody. and, and you’ll learn so much and enjoy the experience so much. yeah.
well, i’ll be sure to put the link in the show notes. so anybody that wants to can sign up and find out more. last fall, we could june rise. it is a family reunion and a party and dancing and singing and eating and we look forward to it all year. drill. just have a few more questions before we wrap it up here. i know we could talk all night. but yes,
well, you fed us. so well. i enjoyed the supper you made and this. i’ve enjoyed enjoying looking at your picture of your granny and you right there. yeah, this is the right place to be talking about these. yeah, these topics.
it’s good kitchen table magic. well, i just wanted to ask, if you have any goals for your music, or your art that you might want to share with us, whether it be projects or just more of a general goal that you have.
i’m interested in helping to, in some way tell the story of lgbtq plus musicians from appalachia, or that play appalachian music, because there have been a lot of them through our history, real world stringband. and those women have been a tremendous inspiration to me,
speaking of su massac is also going to be at canyon creek. yes, is the real
world string band member who i met at first. and they are a great example of musicians with social consciousness and, and writing new songs and the tradition that honor women’s stories, especially and fighting oppression through their music, you know, and bringing people together. so when i see a great inspiration, like real world stringband and what they did in their 40 year career, you know, i think we need to tell this story somehow, you know, and that’s that’s what i’m thinking about a lot right now.
and yeah, there’s there are many other, you know, there are many other musicians who are lgbtq and have navigated this culture and appalachia that is very complicated in terms of
how people of different identities have been treated, or how welcome they are, you know, and so, there’s a story of resilience there. and so i’m interested in pursuing that. it not only through singing the songs that these folks have written, but you know, also writing about recording oral histories trying to share these stories, you know,
okay, so broadening it beyond maybe just playing music. i feel like that’s kind of what you’re mentioning. i feel like it’s kind of been my process throughout the pandemic is, as a songwriter. i’ve always loved being sort of a storyteller through music, but i feel like i’ve just been finding more ways to connect with people, largely revolving around stories or life stories. and that sounds kind of like what you’re talking about, you know?
yeah, well, you know, in my own songwriting right now. the songs i’ve written in the past couple of years, have been more visibly openly queer than songs i’ve written in the past. i think coming into my own body in a different way in the past couple of years has helped me to be more honest in my musical expression. and so the add my own song writing, that’s a thread that’s coming up to trying to be whole, you know, in terms of not censoring myself not censoring my queerness out of my music, which has been kind of a an impulse that i have felt because of where i grew up. and to a degree, you know, the, the culture of the old time music community sometimes can be a little bit. yeah.
and we, we live in the bible belt. yeah, with certain sets of morals. i mean, i feel that in general, playing traditional music, and somebody who is pretty left wing liberal, politically, and sometimes my songs reflect that. but then sometimes i’m playing for audiences that have really different political religious persuasions. and, and you can feel a little bit of a pressure like, i shouldn’t sing that song here. and i can imagine that that would be true for you. but yeah, it’s it always. it seems like it should be so much easier for us to just be who we are, and like, express ourselves, but i feel like i’m still learning that too. and like, shouldn’t i know how to do this by now? shouldn’t i just be able to say whatever i want and let the chips fall? where they may, but no, i’m still still work.
me too. i tell you, reading the room is such a skill and such a challenge. and for, for me, it’s there’s a complex sort of equation that happens when i start thinking about am i going to sing this song that acknowledges queerness or micronus? or that has a message about social justice? right? okay, if i’m, you know, playing music, there are other people present? am i going to sing one of these songs that i feel like, has a story that not everyone has heard before? or not everyone feels comfortable hearing? you know, that’s a? that’s a hard question. because my, my fundamental goals of performer is to bring people together and to share this music, to take people to the place where this music comes from. that’s something that jenny hawker talks about a lot, and many others, you know, but you know, that’s my fundamental goal is, you know, like, can we come together through music, but also, sometimes you if we don’t sing the song that tells the truth, that not everyone is comfortable with our truth? or are trying to bring another community’s story into the room? who’s going to do it? i mean, you know, like, when is that going to happen? if we don’t do it?
right, and we might be depriving somebody of the chance to grow or open their mind. yeah. and then they’ll never have that opportunity again.
and i have done it many times, there have been many times where i felt like i was playing in a church or a space that i wasn’t sure how people would receive a song that may have some kind of thread that people think of as controversial, but i mean, people’s lives to me are not controversial rights. but, you know, that’s a hard tightrope to walk. and i, i support people who make those choices carefully. and you know, i think we make those choices carefully, because we care because we care about how people feel them them feeling welcome and comfortable. but also siematic told me when she was learning from members of well, a sweet honey in the rock, oh, because they real world stringband and su mastic would go to highlander center, and learn from artists like sweet honey in the rock. and i think she quoted bernice reagan as saying, too often singers are considered to just entertainment. you know, like, there’s a real message and a story behind these songs, you know, and it’s good to tell it. and, but i’ve also really struggled in some situations of finding the courage to cross that barrier.
well, it’s interesting to me, because, you know, we’re thinking about these things, and we’re talking about them, probably more than many artists, people of artistic temperament would because we’re, we’re working in a traditional art form that, like you said, comes with its own set of, you know, preconceptions and tendencies and a cultural community that may or may not have always been open to a lot of diverse ideas, but i just finished reading amanda palmer’s memoir. and she, you know, in case you don’t know who she is, she’s a she was a member of the dresden dolls. she’s a singer songwriter. she is the queen of crowdfunding before anybody else figured out crowdfunding and she tours the world and she’s i’m basically not just a songwriter, but a performance artist, she gets naked on stage. and she lets people write things on her body and she, you know, auctions, stuff off, that’s super personal online, is part of her art. and while i wouldn’t feel comfortable, you know, doing all the things that she does, i do, i have to admit, i felt a little bit of envy. when i was reading her book, i was like, man, what would it feel like to be that free? you know? and i feel like it’s just part of, like you said the tightrope that we have to walk as traditional musicians who are also activists or artists, and maybe, you know, challenging some, some of the cultural norms.
yeah, yeah, i think it’s good to be intentional about the songs we sang. and then the spaces we sing them in. there are some mentors in the old time music community that i had, who are older, maybe from a fundamentalist religious right background that i’m not out to, that i would, you know, our relationship is based on music. and i think there’s good things about that, too, you know, when we can just connect through traditional music and, and get to know each other. yeah, you know, it’s like the a good intermediary from people who come from different perspectives. right. and but, and of course, there’s value in standing up and saying, hey, this is a song about some impression or injustice that’s happening, and i want to share it because it’s important to me. so, yeah, that’s balance can be found, i hope, because i think they’re hard questions.
well, thanks for for talking to me about that. i think that’s just, it’s an interesting subject. and one, which i’m sure we will have many conversations about in the future. i hope so. but we should probably wrap it up, go eat some of these goodies that we have over here and some chocolate, we have a little dessert stash waiting. we’re joking, because normally, i record these podcasts in the morning because i’m a morning person. and sam is also a morning person. so hopefully, we don’t sound completely sleepy at this point, because it’s like, on down in the air right now. but i wanted to ask one final question, just in light of what’s going on in the world, you know, this is it’s really difficult to watch what’s going on in europe, and to hear the reports coming out of ukraine. and, you know, i think it’s a normal human response at times like these, and really just did any moment in modern society in the last three years to potentially feel some despair, and to feel really discouraged. and sometimes, and i’ve heard many artists echo this sentiment lately, that everything feels kind of frivolous, when compared to what’s going on over there all the things that we normally do throughout the day. and since some of you guys might not know, sam, i will tell you that being around sam is kind of like just liquid sunshine, he’s so positive and supportive, and kind and affirming. and, you know, you just have this wonderful energy about you. and i was thinking that maybe we could just leave our listeners this week with what is it that you do inside yourself or in your mind? or how do you deal with coping with whatever’s going on in the world with things that are happening, that threaten to overwhelm and bring that positive, loving attitude into the day?
thank you for those words. i’m very humbled and moved to hear you say that because i feel like you’re a really bright presence and a bright light in my life and many others and i get discouraged and feel despair when i listen to the news. absolutely. i feel anxiety for sure. i mean, you know, i can only listen to the radio for so long. and i’m pretty guilty sometimes to sticking my head in the sand and sometimes not listening to the news and not staying informed about things when i feel like it’s overwhelming. but the messages that i’ve heard from you and a lot of people like in your last podcast, the episode preceding this one yeah. and silas house recently quoted audrey lorde and saying, i can’t quote exactly but you know that self care is self preservation. i am learning that if that if i don’t have enough quiet enough solitude enough space for to process, the emotions and the difficult uh, circumstances that we’re all in it. i mean, you know, even though we’re not being attacked in lexington, kentucky tonight, you know, we’re all dealing with trauma of different sorts. and i just think that solitude and pouring our hearts into whatever helps us to process this. for me, it’s singing, trying to learn to play the fiddle, you know, helping other people learn to play music that helps me feel helpful. you know, that even if there is hurt everywhere in every person, we still have a voice we can still sing. and you know, i don’t feel like i have a lot of wise words to say on the subject, but i feel that that time to take care of ourselves is more important than ever in my life. i mean, i can’t remember a time when i needed so much quiet so i could get it
so self care using our voice doing the things that that bring us joy and perhaps singing.
yes, well in connection you know, like talking with you, obviously, you feel better talking with you helps me feel grounded. you know, i mean, we we may we all have those people in our lives that we can talk to when we need to, and may we all have solitude when we need it, you know,
amen. well, i think that’s a great note to go out on and if i can get permission, i will add in one of sam’s songs
you absolutely have my permission. yes.
so i’m gonna leave you with singing bird from eight we brothers and i’m so grateful for sam’s voice in this world so grateful we got to talk to him today and i encourage you to go seek out his music and enjoy it right now.
i’ve seen the lord soar high more i’ve heard his song i’ve heard the blackbird pie is no i’ve heard the thrush and the lynn but there’s seem so sweet my saying bird as you oh, if i couldn’t climb a tree i would run wild birds and couldn’t catch my singing bird and i’d warn him there’s no saying so my saying bird has and when the sun breaks at my window and it seems i hear my singing between there’s saying so sweet, my singing bird has. am since my singing bird is flat to the mountain. and they’re saying this long song so so then oh although there’s no saying so swing by saying bird as you know there’s no saying so sweet. my saying bird yes you
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