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Traditions & History  


'Breaking Up Christmas' - An American Mountain-Music Tradition
By Leda Hartman - Voice of America
Nov 18, 2008, 02:41 PST



Cedar Ridge, North Carolina
25 Dec 2001, 05:49 UTC

Hartman report - download 937k (RealAudio

Half a century ago, people in the mountains of the mid-Atlantic state of North Carolina celebrated Christmas quite differently than the way most of us do now. They held two weeks of house parties that were filled with music and dance - a tradition they called "Breaking Up Christmas."

Recently, some old-timers who practiced the tradition shared their memories and their music with a group of elementary school children.

Four veteran old-time string band players are whooping it up with a group of fourth- graders at the Cedar Ridge Elementary School, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In their younger days the musicians called themselves "The Smoky Valley Boys" - but that's a misnomer. The youngest is 62 and the oldest is 83. They've been playing together for 30 years.

Most members of the band grew up right here in what is known as the "Round Peak Area", along the North Carolina-Virginia border. The style of old-time mountain music they play is known for its lively melodies and driving rhythms.

Paul Sutphin
Guitar player, Paul Sutphin tells the children that Christmas was a very different affair when he was their age. "We'd get one orange, and one stick of candy, that's all we got - an apple once in awhile," he said.

Mountain people didn't have fancy holiday decorations either - just a tree strung with popcorn, usually. That's because most folks were farmers and didn't have much cash.

Verlen Clifton
Mandolin player, Verlen Clifton said the area was still pretty isolated in those days. "We didn't have electricity," he said. "We didn't have TV. And they'd do all this stuff at Christmas to entertain theirselves, that's the way they had, in place of watching football on TV or a parade in New York they'd all get together and have their own playing around the country." Even today mandolins are used around the holidays to get people into the spirit.

The best entertainment came during the two weeks following Christmas - when neighbors would visit each other's homes and have rollicking house parties. The hosts would move the furniture outside and the musicians would stand in the door.

Mr. Sutphin said everyone else would kick up their heels. "They'd cook this big meal," he said, "and they'd take the beds down out of two rooms, and the music would get in the door. And everybody'd just go and eat when they'd want to and when they'd get done they'd dance, all the neighbors, they'd dance. And so the next day, they'd go to another neighbor's house and they'd do that."

There was even a tune that commemorated the tradition, called "Breaking Up Christmas."

The people who learned to play "Breaking Up Christmas" and other old-time tunes didn't have sheet music or lessons to go by. They picked up the music by ear and that's how it was passed down through the generations.

The "Breaking Up Christmas" presentation at Cedar Ridge Elementary isn't just a one-time piece of holiday fun. It's part of a larger educational program called "Curriculum, Music And Community." The program started three years ago in one North Carolina school, and has expanded to nine schools in six counties. The object is not to teach kids how to play a tune or dance a dance but to help them appreciate their own heritage, not just mainstream pop culture.

The youngsters listening to the Smoky Valley Boys at Cedar Ridge Elementary are intrigued by the lives and music of their older neighbors. They're full of questions - How did the musicians learn to play? How old were they when they started learning? And how long did it take to move the furniture out of the house?

The session has left nine year old Christian with a newfound sense of pride. "It was real good," he said, "'cuz I'm not really used to listening to old-time music. I'm like used to like, listening to music like - nowadays. It was an inspiration kind of thing."

By the end of the program, most of the kids are up on their feet, dancing, the way generations of other mountain people have before them - celebrating Christmas the old-time way.

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