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Nancy Johnson Barker!

Nancy Johnson Barker: The Education of a Lifetime

Kevin Gibson

A long time ago, Nancy Johnson Barker set out on a journey. This journey became an education, one that would guide her life down an unforeseen path.

And this education she received is something she would ultimately pay forward, a thousand-fold. Maybe more.

Barker, who is founder of the Louisville Dulcimer Society, the Kentucky Music Week festival and the Kentucky Music Weekend festival, held at Iroquois Park and Amphitheatre, traveled the country for years playing dulcimer with her friends and living her dream. And afterward, she returned to Kentucky, settled in Bardstown and spent years teaching music in the Nelson County School System.

Was it all part of a grand master plan?

"Oh, I haven't planned a day in my life," Barker said, taking a break to talk with Louisville Music News while preparing for the 39th Kentucky Music Week, June 9-14 in Bardstown. "It has just happened to fall in place.

Nancy Johnson Barker

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Nancy Johnson Barker Nancy Johnson Barker

Nancy Johnson Barker

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Nancy Johnson Barker Nancy Johnson Barker

Nancy Johnson Barker

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Nancy Johnson Barker Nancy Johnson Barker

Nancy Johnson Barker

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Nancy Johnson Barker Nancy Johnson Barker

Nancy Johnson Barker

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Nancy Johnson Barker Nancy Johnson Barker

Kentucky Standard Band

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Kentucky Standard Band Kentucky Standard Band

Kentucky Standard Band

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Kentucky Standard Band Kentucky Standard Band

Nancy Johnson Barker

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Nancy Johnson Barker Nancy Johnson Barker

"It's just like the songs I write it's all there, the words, the music and everything; I just have to get them down on paper. That's the way I think all this stuff has happened. I feel like it's somebody's plan, but if you had told me I'd have been teaching school? And now I have all these [former students] who are still playing, and they love it, and it's a big part of their lives."

That education hasn't stopped at Nelson County students. In fact, it started well before that. If you are among the uninitiated, the Kentucky Music Week is not your typical music festival. In fact, it's almost the anti-Forecastle, insomuch as the attendees are not screaming, hipster fans, but rather hands-on participants in the whole thing.

All week long, young and old alike can attend workshops and classes to learn all sorts of musical craft from people from all over the country who know what they're doing.

And there are literally 150 or more classes one can consider, from dulcimer to ukulele to harmonica to guitar to vocals. You can even learn to play the penny whistle. There's also a kids' camp, where youngsters age 7-12 can get started learning how to play various instruments.

The classes span a wide gamut. You can learn to play blues on dulcimer in one class, then move on and then learn your favorite hymns on dulcimer in the next. Or, you can skip the dulcimer and take that digital photography class you've always wanted to take. Or perhaps learn to make antler baskets.

The point is, you can at least get your feet wet.

"We've got some instructors coming in to do one-time workshops," Barker said. "Say you want to try steel drum, but you don't want to go to the expense of buying one till you try it. Well, you can have an afternoon where you try it."

THE BIGGEST LITTLE FESTIVAL

The festival this year will be held entirely in Nelson County High School, with nearly 60 instructors, along with vendors, craftspeople and vendors. Barker said it was never supposed to get this big.

"It started small," she said of the 39-year-old festival. "If I'd known I have lot of help, don't get me wrong but If I'd known it was going to be this big, I might have though twice about starting it."

She takes a short chuckle break, and then continues, "I think we had 35 people the first year and we were shocked we had that many. It's now the largest of its kind anywhere. It's double our closest competitor as far as week-long dulcimer festivals."

There's that planning thing again. What's that they say about mice and men?

Perhaps the most fun one might have at Kentucky Music Week well, apart from the ghost-story night would be all the open jams. As Briscoe Darling used to say on "The Andy Griffith Show," "jump in where you can, and hang on!"

And it's really about the experience, and the people, if you see it the way Barker does. Asked how why she's kept Kentucky Music Week going for so long, she said, "It's the only time I get to see a lot of these people. It's purely self-serving."

But she also ventures to say that that experience is a shared bond, a common experience, one that keeps people coming back. Heck, it's what transfixed her and has kept her so close to the music she loves.

"A folk festival is this gathering of unity," Barker said. "It's people who are playing music together in a jam session or listening to a folk music artist. There's this oneness with the audience. When I stand on stage … it's like these are all people I've invited to my house, and they're sitting on my front porch. I think they feel that way too."

She said you know you're making music out of the love of it if you experience that "rush of feeling like you're one with the music and the people and the movement of the people that are playing. You can almost touch it. I know you think I'm hokey, but I've felt it."

She felt it for the first time when she was a teenager. Around age 18 or 19, she was dating a guy who gave her a dulcimer as a gift.

"I took it home, brought it in the front door, and my mother said, 'What are you doing with a dulci-more?'" Barker said. "She knew all about it from Eastern Kentucky where she was raised. My mother was very musical. I guess I get the love of it from her. She died at 95 and was able to still sing beautifully."

Barker said all of her brothers and sisters played instruments. The dulcimer became her thing. "I just fell in love with it."

It wasn't too long before she began teaching dulcimer at the Doo Wop Shop.

"More and more people wanted to play it," she said, referring to these humble beginnings in the early 1970s, "so we started the Louisville Dulcimer Society, which is still going strong today."

See what happens when people start playing music together? It becomes a community thing. But Barker had some other destinations on her mind.

'HOWLING WOLF SAVED MY LIFE'

Not long after, Barker set out on the road in Volkswagen camper named Amelia with a friend named Caroline Dunnavan. The destination? To play music wherever, whenever and however. Another friend, Sandi Nipp, would later join her on her journeys.

"There was always a reason for us to be on the road," Barker said. "Seriously, that's a book I played music with everybody: John Hartford, a lot. Norman Blake. Sam Bush played backup on my first two albums."

She found out that her love for music and the dulcimer was matched perhaps only by her love of traveling and seeing new places.

"But I'm a Taurus," she said, "so I had to have my home with me. So I had this VW camper and I lived in it."

Nipp played an upright bass fiddle to accompany Barker's dulcimer.

"Betsy was the bass's name," Barker said. "We would position Betsy so she was in the front seat. She would barely fit. When we needed gas, we would stop along the road, I'd pull out the dulcimer, and she'd pull out Betsy and we'd play, and people would gather and fill up our tank for nothing. Like I said, it's a book."

Here's the opening chapter: At a Chicago blues joint, she and two male friends found they were in the minority and were not feeling terribly welcome by the crowd.

"Howling Wolf saved my life one night," Barker said. "I was living in Chicago and somehow heard about Howling Wolf being at this joint. Some friends and I went there; there were two guys and me. We were the only white people within a five- or six-mile area. We didn't think anything about it, but we were intruders and they let us know. 

"[Howling Wolf] had to come down off the stage and made us his guest and took care of us all night. He knew we were there for the music. He was just the sweetest man. Sometimes you find yourself in a situation that you're just not prepared for. We got lucky."

Like she said, it's a book waiting to be written. There are plenty of other stories, she admits. Of course, with two annual events and a dulcimer society to think about, finding time to write might be an issue. Regardless, she enjoys reminiscing.

"I'm just an old hippie who traveled in a VW camper and lived in a VW camper and loved it all," she said. "Somehow it was all part of my education to teach me what I need to know. Then my husband and I started doing concerts in the schools."

See where this is going?

"We were picked up by the Kentucky Arts Council," Barker continued, "which led me to my job later in Nelson County schools. It just has all been little pieces of the puzzle. I have been so lucky to be able to do this and make a living at it. I got to teach dulcimers and piano for a living. It was a dream job."

It all comes full circle starting June 9. Send your child to Kids Camp, and he or she will not only learn about music but they'll learn other crafts and will even make their own "canjo."

"It's like a dulcimer, but made with cans," she said. "The reason we do [Kids Camp] is so parents can take a class and know their children are not just having a babysitter, they're having a cultural experience at the same time."

And the quality instruction not to mention the fun keeps people coming back, and keeps them learning, much like Barker did in her VW camper.

"It's a great opportunity for people to really gain some skill," she said. "In a week, you can change your life musically. And it's close enough to Louisville that folks can drive back and forth. It's just lovely. The school we're in has plenty of classrooms, it's all on one floor, it's air-conditioned, lots of parking. We have a full-time concession stand, so people don't even have to leave once they get there. And we have evening activities too.

"It's an educational experience," she concluded. "Even the concerts are education based you're going to learn something just by watching these folks."

You may see Barker with dulcimer in hand during Kentucky Music Week. She and her ensemble the Kentucky Standard Band doesn't play much these days, although they did record a new CD last year "just to keep us young," Barker said.

More likely, it's a way to keep that eternal road trip ongoing. One might even say the same for the Kentucky Music Weekend ever since a teen-aged version of Barker first held that dulcimer in her hands, she's been learning. And teaching.

"It was my education," she said of her lifelong experience with music, "and now others are being educated by that experience."