Until this month, Oxford University in England, the city of Chicago and the Round Peak music of Surry County had no common threads.
Then Laura Turner came to town.
The 29-year-old classically trained violinist, who hails from Sussex in southeastern England, is on a musical odyssey that could be described as circuitous. It has taken her from Oxford to the University of Chicago and most recently to Mount Airy, where she began a summer internship with the Surry Arts Council centered on old-time music.
Turner presently is a PhD student in the Windy City, majoring in ethnomusicology, a field of study devoted to the music of different cultures. She has been enrolled for five years at the University of Chicago, which has an internationally known ethnomusicology department.
And when reaching the point where she had completed class work and needed to choose a theme for her dissertation to obtain the PhD degree, Turner was ready with the answer.
“I always wanted to do something (related to) music in the Appalachian Mountains,” the student said in a thick British accent last week after a day spent working at the Old-Time Music Heritage Hall housed in the Earle Theatre downtown. That is her home base for the internship.
Migration to America
Laura Turner’s journey to Surry County, which many consider a hotbed of old-time music, wasn’t exactly direct.
Her hometown of Sussex is located about an hour south of London, and Turner attended school in Kent, a neighboring community.
“I also trained as a classical violinist and went to Oxford University to study music,” she said of an educational pursuit accompanied by playing the violin with symphony and chamber music groups along with string quartets.
After earning her undergraduate and master’s degrees at Oxford, Turner migrated to the American Midwest in 2011 to pursue her PhD at the University of Chicago.
“So I have about two more years to go and then I’ll be done,” said Turner, who explained that she has gradually developed an appreciation for old-time fiddle music and managed to keep it in harmony with her classical violin background.
That still does not explain how she wound up in Mayberry this summer.
The seeds for that were sown in 2013 when Turner attended the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina. It is an educational program consisting of a series of week-long workshops in various folk arts held every July and August on the campus of Warren Wilson College just east of Asheville.
She recalls being in a jam session with a lot of people, where a certain name got tossed around in between performances.
“I just remember someone mentioning somebody called Tommy,” a reference to the late legendary old-time fiddler who lived in the Franklin community, where many a young musician ventured to learn from him.
“They talked in very intimate terms about their great master,” Turner said of those at the Swannanoa Gathering who were in awe of Jarrell. “They told me who he was, and said, ‘You’ve got a lot to learn,’” she recalled of the musicians who were trying to bring her up to speed on the iconic figure.
“I found out that Tommy Jarrell was like the Beatles and Rolling Stones of the old-time world.”
The “education” continued later when Turner attended Clifftop, a week-long gathering in West Virginia which is devoted to old-time music.
“Round Peak music just kept getting mentioned,” she said of the community in Surry County which has produced a legion of well-known old-time performers.
Turner said old-time music circles exist in both England and the Midwest, but the more she learned about Round Peak the more she became captivated by the unique musical style it represents. “And I started to learn some of the tunes.”
This has been a challenge for the person trained as classical violinist, who explains that old-time fiddling is an entirely different style due to its timing and rhythm. But she enjoys the challenge of doing both.
Internet provides link
As Turner’s enthusiasm for Round Peak music grew, she sought ways to experience it firsthand, agreeing that “being there” is the best way to learn about a place and its culture.
So she turned to the medium most people do when needing information: the Internet. Turner searched for internship possibilities that would correspond with her educational/musical goals while also providing a community service.
Turner eventually connected with the Surry Arts Council and its executive director, Tanya Jones.
Jones, who has found Turner to be “delightful,” said the student contacted her months ago regarding the work/study internship and housing was arranged for Turner with one of the arts group’s board members, Sue Brownfield.
Turner mainly is working at the Old-Time Music Heritage Hall, where her functions include greeting visitors to the shrine-like facility. She also is assisting Abigail Linville (the SAC director of collections and acquisitions) with an inventory of items in the Old-Time Music Heritage Hall.
The visitor additionally is aiding local fiddler Jim Vipperman with a program he offers on Thursday nights, participating in and helping with Thursday jam sessions and working with the Saturday morning Merry-Go-Round program at the Earle.
Turner further plans to spend time at local radio station WPAQ, which has been a stronghold of old-time music since going on the air in the late 1940s.
Interacting with local performers is a key part of Turner’s mission.
“The arts council is connecting her with area old-time musicians including Richard Bowman and Andy Edmonds to start,” Jones added.
Turner said she later will continue her field work in Asheville, en route to completing the PhD requirements.
“I hope to become a professor of ethnomusicology at a university somewhere, if somebody will give me a job,” she said.
That might be in Turner’s native England, since she and husband Nick — who now works in the computer field in Chicago — are both from there and have families in England.
For right now, though, she is enjoying the musical heritage of Surry County and Mount Airy, where everyone has made her feel at home.
“It’s a really, really friendly town,” Turner said, one where people seem to look out for each other.
“Somebody gave me cookies the other day,” she cited as one example.
“Everybody is very welcoming — and wondering why an English person is in Mount Airy.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.