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Sing Me High Festival celebrates faith and music in the Shenandoah Valley

8.29. 2016 Written By: Randi B. Hagi, for The Mennonite 825 Times read

Photo: The Virginia sky while the Walking Roots Band performed to a packed-out “main tent” during the final set at the Sing Me High Music Festival on Aug. 27 in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Photo by Randi B. Hagi. 

The “Sing Me High” music festival in Harrisonburg, Virginia, brought a diverse crowd together under the sweltering sun on Aug. 27. Dreadlocks bounced past head coverings; children, twenty-something parents, thirty-something singles, and septuagenarians intermingled; and classic country followed global folk on stage. Drawn together by Anabaptist roots, the festival’s cultural and religious basis invited a range of demographics and musical genres.

Nicolas Melas of the Ears to the Ground Family band defined the day’s atmosphere, explaining that while their band members are not ethnically Mennonite, they “feel really thankful to be a part of the greater Anabaptist community.”

The festival was a collaboration of The Walking Roots Band, made up primarily of Eastern Mennonite

Ears to the Ground Family band: Nicolas Melas, Hannah Cranston, Nichole Barrows, and Jake Cochran. Photo by Randi B. Hagi.

Ears to the Ground Family band: Nicolas Melas, Hannah Cranston, Nichole Barrows, and Jake Cochran. Photo by Randi B. Hagi.

University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, alumni, and the Valley Brethren-Mennonite Heritage Center. The event was held on the Heritage Center’s Crossroads campus.

The Blue Ridge Mountain Dulcimer Players opened the festival with about a dozen Virginian dulcimerists, while Walking Roots Band member Greg Yoder dashed around attending to last-minute logistics, and the Ears to the Ground Family arrived on bicycles.

“We would like to be able to share our joy with other folks who have a strong sense of being grounded to the earth, and who have a strong sense of faith,” said Blue Ridge Mountain Dulcimer Players President Dinah Ansley. The group hosts regular dulcimer jams in Bridgewater and Fishersville, Virginia, for any who want to “come and learn to dulcify.”

The Highlander String Band, an “old-time” musical group performed in the main tent of the festival grounds. Their “mountain-modal tuned” banjo riffs, invitation to flat-foot dance, and historical tidbits about songs and instruments attracted a quickly-growing crowd.

“If you lived here in the Valley in the 1800s to early 1900s, and you had a party for any reason…people would come and they would have instruments like what we have,” banjoist Gene Bowlen explained. “It really was the prevalent style of music up ’til the advent of the radio.”

Later, the relaxed harmonies of the Ears to the Ground Family wafted up from the forested “Auditorium” stage area. Touching on themes like the grief of a mother’s death to quiet outrage over the Air and Space Museum’s glorification of violence, Ears to the Ground Family’s music “is meant to be intimate, no matter the audience,” said vocalist Hannah Cranston.

“Devotional and worshipful and religious as well as bold and political at times is our hope,” added Melas. The group’s songs are often based on old spirituals, Biblical poetry, or Cranston’s interpretation of bicycle rhythms. The group formed in part through their participation in the worship music of Early Church, a Mennonite congregation that meets at a nearby nonprofit organization.

Similarly, the seed of faith-based vocal ensemble Good Company was planted in another group – the all-male a capella group, Sons of the Day. Bass singer Nathan May says of the festival, “Today’s performance was both an opportunity to promote our heritage of congregational singing and glorifying our Creator through song.”

Running over to the Burkholder-Myers house, built in 1854, one could catch the classical melodies of The Springs Ensemble, a harpist-and-cellist duo of Virginia Bethune and Ed Gant. While sitting on the porch during the packed performance, volunteer Cindy Phillips leaned over to me and said, “This must be a piece of heaven, don’t you think?”

Back at the main tent, John Schmid was introduced as the Johnny Cash of the festival. Schmid, a prison-focused, musical minister runs Common Ground Ministries. “Our common ground with people who don’t go to church is not the church; it’s the marketplace, the ball diamond, the grocery store. And I’ve found that if you have fun with an audience, they’ll listen to your story,” he said. To that end, the audience’s laughter at Schmid’s jokes could be heard halfway across the heritage center.

Following Schmid, The Hatcher Boys’ kicked off a rousing bluegrass set. Sixteen-year-old Connor Hatcher led several songs with an the upright bass towering over his head.

The Walking Roots Band gave the night’s final performance to a packed-out main tent, after over 530

The Walking Roots Band performing to a packed-out "main tent." Photo by Randi B. Hagi.

The Walking Roots Band performing to a packed-out “main tent.” Photo by Randi B. Hagi.

tickets were sold at the door. Greg Yoder garnered whoops and cheers from the audience with the “folk-rap” tune “Summertime Livin’.”

Songwriter and instrumentalist Seth Crissman introduced the band members and their spouses, even noting singer Rachel Yoder’s new managerial position of the newly-opened popcorn shop in downtown Harrisonburg. As the Walking Roots played, the heat subsided. Children buzzed around the main tent, and the day’s closing campfire was lit against the mountainous backdrop. Band members briefly scampered out of the tent mid-performance to catch a glimpse of the sunset.

Hundreds of people sat listening to the type of harmonies iconic of their cultural heritage as The Walking Roots “sang high” the finale of their first festival.

Watch a short Greg Yoder of The Walking Roots Band. You can find more original video interviews from the festival on our Facebook page: 

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