Singing Scholar: The Ballads of Max Hunter

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Author Talk, Performance

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Author and musical performer Sarah Jane Nelson spent almost a decade researching and writing about the life of Ozark ballad collector Max Hunter. It all began late one night in August of 2016 when she was surfing the internet from her New England home in search of ‘new’ old songs for an upcoming concert. A lifelong singing friend sent her message suggesting she look at the Max Hunter Folksong Collection. She stayed up well past midnight listening to the digitized recordings of his sources and wondering just who this Max Hunter was. How was it that a mid-century traveling salesman from Missouri managed to record such a vast number of singers with such a variety of songs? What effort did this entail? What motivated him to do this work, which Hunter himself always claimed was mostly a hobby? All big projects start with big questions and end with some new ones. Nelson will discuss her process of discovery as well as the ways in which Hunter’s life intersected with those of his ballad bearers, and throughout the program, she will sing songs from some of her favorite informants.

Sarah Jane Nelson is a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who has been playing traditional music for folk festivals, New England contra dances, and other regional events for over a decade. She is an old-time fiddler, guitarist and vocalist with the duo High Strung Strummers and the pianist for Gypsy Minor, a dance band that is regularly featured at both the New England Folk Festival and the Down East Folk Festival each spring. She has been a finalist in “twin fiddling” at Lowell’s Banjo & Fiddle Contest.

When she’s not playing Sarah writes about traditional music; over the years she has written arts stories and commentaries for a variety of publications, including New Hampshire Public Radio, Orion, The Concord Monitor and American Craft, among others. Her story, “The Crooked Road Meets the Conservatory” was published in the Fall 2012 issue of Fiddler magazine. Her remembrances of Francestown/Greenwich Village musician and poet Allan Block appeared in The Old-Time Herald and Fiddler, and her profile of musician and former New Hampshire “Artist Laureate” Rodney Miller appeared in the May 2015 issue of Fiddler. She is currently writing a biography of Ozark ballad collector Max Hunter, and has published several articles on this subject.

Sarah makes frequent appearances at libraries across New England where she discusses her biography project and shares her love of old songs and tunes.  In addition to occasional house concerts, she has performed at the Old Manse in Concord, MA, Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, the Deerfield Fair, and dance halls across New England. She is proud to be the designated accompanist for the Lowell Banjo and Fiddle Contest.