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A River of Music: Ron Pen '73 and his passion for harmony

Ron Pen ’73 is awed by the power of music, and even more so by its social potential when people make music together. These interests have evolved in such a way that he is now director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky, where he is a member of the graduate faculty, and where his biography of that famed and controversial musicologist was published last year. Pen returned to W&L this past February and delivered a lecture on Niles.

He was back on campus-as he put it, “returning to the scene of the crime”-to participate in the Flournoy Playwright Festival, an annual event underwritten in part by the Ruth E. Flournoy Theater Endowment, that brings artists of stage and song to Lexington. This year’s emphasis was on Appalachian culture, so Pen’s talk on the essential and mercurial Niles was right at home, giving him an opportunity to share some enticing glimpses into Niles from his 25-year labor of love, I Wonder As I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles.

The book began life as Pen’s doctoral dissertation; he was, luckily, much closer to his sources than most. “The best scholarship is actually personal,” said Pen. “In Niles, I saw a mirror of myself in some ways, an objective lens for viewing things both musical and cultural that interest me in my own life. Niles’ widow, Rena, lived about a mile away, and I could experience so much of his life through her keen and enthusiastic memory. A vast collection of his letters, journals, publications, photographs and recordings had recently been deposited at the University of Kentucky library, so most of the research materials were close at hand and had not been examined by other scholars.”

The Niles biography is Pen’s magnum opus to date. His 1992 debut, Introduction to Music, covers a much wider waterfront, evincing the breadth and depth of his musicological knowledge. While it does not mention Niles, the book is a concise, insightful and comprehensive work of reference, condensing an entire history of music into little more than 300 pages, spiced here and there with the same sorts of tidbits and asides that peppered the lectures of the late Jim Cook, who, in the day, was half of the Music Department.

The other half was the late Rob Stewart, who became a mentor as well as advisor to Pen, helping him create an independent major with a concentration in music, since a full major in music was still in W&L’s future. He was, he said, “handed off” to Stewart by Professor H. Robert “English Bob” Huntley (as distinguished from then President Robert E. R. Huntley ’50, ’57L) after Pen turned in a tape of original music as his paper on T. S. Eliot’s “Wasteland.” Stewart immediately recognized an evolving talent already somewhat developed, and pretty much turned Pen loose to create at will, albeit within those structures required by academe. (Pen also received an A from English Bob for his Eliot opus.)

Those who attended Pen’s senior-year composition and performance recital in Lee Chapel may recall more than a dozen musicians, plus dancers from Hollins College, a light show and tape loops of natural sounds he recorded near his residence out in the county. The concert had everything but a smoke machine. While a student, Pen also began developing his teaching techniques, when he demonstrated the rhythmic pattern he wanted to the drummer in his Cartoone House Band by playing it himself.

Meanwhile, in a far more extracurricular fashion, Pen was discovering old-time music via Odell McGuire. A member of the Geology Department and a spirited banjo player, McGuire, who died in 2008, was an essential figure in the rebirth and burgeoning of that musical tradition around these parts and beyond. Pen’s chosen instrument is fiddle; he and a changing cast of fellow members of a very part-time old-time band in the other Lexington (Kentucky), known as Lettuce Turnip the Beet, regularly play at tailgate parties for UK home football games. More formally, Pen also oversees a performance series of Appalachian artists at the Niles Center, and has traveled as far as Kyrgyzstan to lecture on one facet of music or another.

Pen’s credentials also include co-founding the Appalachian Association of Sacred Harp Singers, which, he says, “sounds far more organized than it really is,” which some might also say about the music itself. As a member of that group, Pen performed on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.” His current writing project is co-authoring a work on Ananais Davisson, a pivotal figure in the development of Sacred Harp.

During the Flournoy Festival, Pen also visited a W&L music-history class, giving them a condensed history of Sacred Harp and then leading them in song. Pen sees community-created music, primarily in religious contexts, as an important influence in the development of American culture. Out on the frontier, what first musically empowered many people was this simpler system of musical notation that uses shaped symbols to indicate specific notes, thus its other name: shape note. Under either moniker, it is a living, thriving tradition to Pen.

Pen shares his interest in Sacred Harp music with a W&L music-history class. He told them, “Music that springs from a sense of place, from a group of people rooted to a place, that gathers to sing in a place sanctified by their collective singing has the most power to affect us. The joy of gathering together in song, the joy of creating a community whose only purpose is sharing a song is a wonderful thing. Harmony is a pleasure. It is perhaps the finest hillbilly intoxicant. Musical harmony creates social harmony and that is what attracts me to this.”

“The music has a power all its own not tied to denominations or worship services,” he explained. “It is a spiritual expression, but it is not sacred worship. We are re-creating the singing schools of a past alive in the present. It is as all-inclusive a way as I have found to share the river of music that winds through us all.”

To witness Pen enthusiastically impart its rudiments to students and transform them from seated takers of notes to active producers of notes around the four sides of the traditional hollow square, so-called for the physical configuration of the singers, holding forth in harmonies sometimes more spirited than precise, is to observe a progression bordering on the miraculous. It was exhilarating for Pen as well, who stood, beaming, in the middle of the square, himself in full voice as he spun like a dervish in slower motion, happily holding it all together.

“I was thinking of strategies to incite avenues for personal curiosity and learning in each student as I was responding to the more inquisitive students,” Pen said. “I suddenly felt even more deeply and directly connected to my friend and mentor, Rob Stewart, in a way I never had before.” Pen has also taught most every summer since the 1990s at the Swannanoa Gathering near Black Mountain, N.C., guiding string players into the intricacies of old-time fiddling as well as welcoming all comers for shape-note songfests. Faculty colleagues at this nationally renowned fusing of the scholarly and vernacular through hands-on ensemble music-making have included fellow alumni Scott Ainslie ’74 and James Leva ’80.

At this year’s Flournoy Festival, in fact, the finale was the premiere of Leva’s full-length work honoring a fiddler he and Pen both informally studied under, the late Tommy Jarrell. (See p. 23.)

At separate times, both men trekked to Jarrell’s front porch and parlor conservatory in rural North Carolina, a lively learning lab for an entire generation of young players hankering to hear old-time mountain music the way it sounded when it was still learned through being handed down by playing it rather than by listening to recordings.

On campus in February, Pen delivered a lecture on John Jacob Niles and signed copies of his book. “In Niles,” he noted, “I saw a mirror of myself in some ways, an objective lens for viewing things both musical and cultural that interest me in my own life.”

This prepared Pen well for writing about Niles, who had done the same thing decades earlier in Kentucky, amassing a repertoire with which he took music of the soil into the salon. That’s a stretch too far for the comfort of some, even today, but in keeping with Niles’ concept that music could be elite, traditional and popular all at once.

“Niles was a chameleon, and while it is true he could change his tune to appeal to different audiences, and play the folk tradition off against the art tradition, Niles was one of the first to grant our own American folk traditions the same degree of respect we have long given to European classical music,” explained Pen. “Rather than violins, viola and cello, a hillbilly string quartet might comprise fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar. But the resulting music can be every bit as expressive and profound as anything Europeans have charted out, and with a far more personal sound.”

Niles’ career casts shadows over several fields, some not considered related until he made them so. The crazy-quilt pattern of American history includes few musicologists with Niles’ breadth; his story is an unlikely and fascinating one. Pen tells it well, and English Bob can be proud of Pen’s prose, even though he ended up not majoring in English. It’s an authoritative book that also happens to be a pretty good read.

When it comes down to it, what many great teachers do is successfully share their own fascination for their subject with their students. In his W&L lecture, Pen recounted the experience that made him feel closest to Niles, having recently played, for a radio concert, an instrument built by Niles himself. Niles was, among other things, a skilled luthier. Pen christened this particular axe a “Niles-cimer.” It is perhaps most accurately described as a cello dulcimer and hadn’t been played since Niles’ death in 1980.

“Here I was with this instrument in my hands that Niles had played on stages around the world, from Carnegie Hall to the first-ever Newport Folk Festival,” he said. “Suddenly I was part of a lineage and history of an instrument that was created by one person but was now being transferred to another. When I strummed across the strings for the first time, a huge, rumbly voice, loud as a freight train, yet as sweet as bee’s honey, rang out. It is as close as I have come to playing a duet with Johnny Niles. I had finally found a way to marry the performance and preservation aspects of my association with Niles.”

That instrument couldn’t have passed into a more proper pair of hands.

Story and Photos by Patrick Hinely ’73