The Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center at Fairmont State University presented two awards at the Midwinter Gathering for the Friends of the Folklife Center on Friday, Feb. 24.
The awards presented were the B.B. Maurer Folklife Scholar Award, which honors a person who has made an outstanding contribution to the preservation and perpetuation of the Appalachian cultural heritage, and the Traditions Salute Award, which honors a person who has demonstrated a passion and commitment towards the enhancement of West Virginia's folk culture through education and public resources.
Marc Harshman, Poet Laureate of West Virginia, is the 2016 recipient of the B.B. Maurer Award. Harshman, a former teacher, is an author of both poetry and children’s picture books that highlight the Appalachian region, its traditions and culture. He has served as a host storyteller and judge of the West Virginia Liar’s Contest in Charleston for more than 20 years.
“In both my poetry and my children’s stories, I have tried to emulate the best of the spirit of Appalachia and its people,” Harshman said of his selection as recipient of the award.
Bill Stalnaker, founder of the Johnnie Johnson Blues and Jazz Festival in Fairmont, is the 2016 recipient of the Traditions Salute Award. He is not only an English and journalism teacher in Marion County, but is also an accomplished guitarist and composer. Stalnaker shares his passion for West Virginia folk culture with his students and is dedicated to commemorating the legacy of local bluesman, Johnnie Johnson.
These awards are a way to highlight those who have a love for, curiosity about and research that furthers the heritage of the area, something Patricia R. Musick, Interim Director of the Folklife Center, believes is worth celebrating.
“Recipients of these awards reflect and embody the mission of the Folklife Center, which is ‘the identification, preservation and perpetuation of our region’s rich cultural heritage,’” Musick said.
Marc Harshman, B.B. Maurer Folklife Scholar Award Recipient
Harshman is the author of both poetry and children’s picture books. His 14th children’s book, “Fallingwater,” about the famous house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is to be published in 2017. Harshman co-wrote the story with Anna Smucker, another well-respected West Virginia author of children’s books.
As a younger man, Harshman worked for many years as a teacher. He was a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and at West Virginia Northern Community College, where he taught composition and creative writing. He later taught fifth and sixth grades at the Sand Hill School, one of the last three-room schools in West Virginia. In addition, he once served as an instructor for the historic Appalachian Writer’s Workshop at the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Ky.
Speaking about his selection as the recipient of the B.B. Maurer Award, Harshman stated: “I certainly am honored that I should receive such an award, and I recognize the importance of Dr. Maurer. In both my poetry and my children’s stories, I have tried to emulate the best of the spirit of Appalachia and its people. I rejoice in the beauty of its varied landscape, and yet I attempt to speak with an honesty about this place I call home, to look at the darker currents that thread West Virginia’s life and name them.”
A native of Indiana, Marc Harshman first came to West Virginia in 1969 as a student at Bethany College. He has traveled extensively throughout Canada, Britain, Denmark and Iceland, but West Virginia is the place he calls “home.” After graduating from Bethany College in 1973, Harshman earned a Master of Arts in Religion from Yale Divinity School in 1975 and a Master of Arts in English from the University of Pittsburgh in 1978.
Harshman recently returned from a trip to England, where he presented poetry readings at the Greenwich Book Festival in London and the Murenger House, an ancient pub in Wales. While there, he was honored to read his poetry alongside the Welsh poet Mike Jenkins and his friend, John Freeman, a retired professor of English at Cardiff University in Wales. Harshman said he has been traveling to Britain since the 1980s and he enjoys hiking in the Black Mountains of Wales while there. He said the region reminds him of West Virginia because of its rural, post-industrial landscape and its generous people.
Harshman’s first poetry chapbook, “Turning Out the Stones,” was published in 1983. His other chapbooks include “Rose of Sharon” (1999), “Local Journeys” (2004) and “All That Feeds Us” (2013). He also has two full-length poetry collections, “Green, Silver and Silent” (2012) and “Believe What You Can” (2016), published by the Vandalia Press of West Virginia University.
Harshman’s poem, “A Song for West Virginia,” was written to commemorate West Virginia’s Sesquicentennial on June 20, 2013. He was commissioned by the Wheeling National Heritage Area to write the poem. It was presented on West Virginia’s 150th birthday, first with Gov. Tomblin on the dais at the state capitol in Charleston and later that evening in Wheeling during a performance of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra.
Harshman’s children’s books include: “A Little Excitement” (1989); “Snow Company” (1990); “Rocks in My Pockets,” co-written with the late Doddridge County storyteller Bonnie Collins (1991); “Only One” (1993); “Uncle James” (1993); “Moving Days” (1994); “The Storm” (1995); “All the Way to Morning” (1999); “Red Are the Apples,” co-written with his wife, Cheryl Ryan (2001); “Roads” (2002); “Only One Neighborhood” (2007); “Mountain Christmas” (2015); and “One Big Family” (2016).
One of Harshman’s most recent books, “Mountain Christmas,” appeals to both adults and children alike because it features Santa Claus flying over popular West Virginia locations such as the state capitol, the Greenbank Observatory, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge and Blackwater Falls. Santa also sees a coal miner and a towboat on the Ohio River along his route.
Harshman and his wife Cheryl live in Wheeling. The Harshmans have one daughter, Sarah Jayne, a graduate of Vassar and The Pratt Institute.
Harshman has received numerous awards, both as an educator and an author. He received honorary doctorate degrees from both Bethany College and West Liberty University in recognition of his life’s work. In 1994, he received the Erza Jack Keats/Kerlan Collection Fellowship from the University of Minnesota for his research on Scandinavian myth and folklore. He was honored as English Teacher of the Year by the West Virginia English Language Arts Council in 1995. In addition, the West Virginia Arts Commission awarded him a Fellowship in Poetry in 2000 and a Fellowship in Children’s Literature in 2008. He has won awards for his short prose works from Newport Review and several of his poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
His children’s book, “Only One,” was a Reading Rainbow review title on PBS TV. “The Storm” was a Junior Library Guild Selection, a Smithsonian Notable Book for Children, a Children’s Book Council Notable Book for Social Studies and a 1995 Parent’s Choice Award recipient.
His poems have appeared in many journals, including The Georgia Review, Emerson Review, Salamander, 14 Hills, Poetry Salzburg Review, Gargoyle, The Progressive, Appalachian Heritage, Shenandoah and Kestrel. His poems have been anthologized by Kent State University, the University of Iowa, the University of Georgia, SPM Publications (London) and the University of Arizona presses.
Bill Stalnaker, Traditions Salute Award Recipient
Bill Stalnaker has contributed much to West Virginia folk culture. An accomplished blues guitarist and composer, he founded the Johnnie Johnson Blues and Jazz Festival in Fairmont. Married to actress and drama professor, Cathy O’Dell, he is also an English and journalism teacher who shares his love of West Virginia by telling folktales.
For the past eight years, Stalnaker has taught at North Marion High School, where his students enjoy “Folklore Fridays” when they read the stories of Dr. Ruth Ann Musick and Patrick Gainer and also tell tales from their own experiences.
“Folklife is the story of the people,” he said. “I try to relate the stories in our books to real life, to make connections to the students’ grandparents and great-grandparents.”
Stalnaker has numerous stories to share about his own ancestors who emigrated from the Rhine Valley of Germany: “Our family members were some of the first settlers in West Virginia. One ancestor, Samuel Stalnaker, fought alongside George Washington and ran around with Daniel Boone.”
Storytelling is not the only thing passed down in the Stalnaker family. His family’s music also had a great influence on his teaching.
“Sometimes, I’ll play folk music for my students, the original mountain style and, of course, the blues. My granddad and my great-granddad taught me the folksongs. Those songs are one of the reasons I love living in West Virginia. They’re alive in these mountains,” he said. “I’m proud to be from here because we Mountaineers are resilient. Historically, misfortunes have befallen the mountain people, such as natural disasters, but we are traditionally able to overcome obstacles and keep on going. These troubles show up in our folksongs, so I try to give students a sense of pride and place.”
The blues have also been important to Stalnaker. Not only did his father have one of the first rock and roll bands in the state, “The Shades,” but he also had a record collection that Bill loved to listen to. He was especially fond of the blues records of Elvis Presley, Bobby Blue Band and Chuck Berry.
“I’ve been surrounded by the blues since I could walk,” Stalnaker said. He received his first guitar when he was 4 years old. His father showed him a few chords. The rest, he taught himself. He was singing in nightclubs when he was 14, and he was lead guitarist in a band with friends when he was 20.
Stalnaker said he feels that he gained his musical skills in the traditional way: “I have no formal music education. I consider myself a ‘Roads Scholar’ because like so many musicians that play roots-type music, my education came from my experiences on the highways and byways.”
Whatever the source of his skills, they have won him many opportunities. He was in the movie, “Strangest Dreams: Invasion of the Space Preachers,” that aired on the USA Network. Soon after, he began composing music for radio and TV jingles, as well as soundtracks for PBS productions. He composed music for a successful WNPB silent fund drive and for Sam Shepherd’s play, “A Lie of the Mind.” In addition to appearing on numerous PBS productions, Stalnaker has performed at various fairs, festivals and colleges in the region. He has been involved in the Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins as a Guest Artist and Master Instructor. He has played parts in two upcoming movies, including “The Last Flag Flying” with Laurence Fishburne and “Johnnie Be Good,” which is a documentary about the late Johnnie Johnson.
Stalnaker said he hopes that the Johnnie Johnson Blues and Jazz Festival he founded will continue. Since 2002, it has been an annual event held in mid-July at Palatine Park in Fairmont. In 2005, Gov. Joe Manchin proclaimed the festival a “West Virginia Jewel of the Hills.”
Stalnaker became fascinated with Johnnie Johnson at age 9 when he discovered a library book that identified Chuck Berry’s piano player, Johnnie Johnson, as a native of Fairmont. Curious, he began asking around town for people who knew Johnson. He met a few who remembered him, but not many realized that Johnson, who was then living in St. Louis, Mo., was not only famous as a member of the Chuck Berry band, but that he actually wrote music for many of the songs that made Berry famous. This was revealed by Keith Richards, musical director of “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n Roll!”
He finally met his idol in 2001 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. In the same year, Stalnaker organized a Homecoming Concert for Johnnie Johnson that was attended by approximately 2,000 people. In 2002, Bill was instrumental in getting the Bellview Bridge dedicated to Johnson. The same year, Johnson received an honorary doctorate from Fairmont State University. He visited Dr. Judy Byers’ folk studies class at FSU. When she asked Johnson how he felt about having a bridge named in his honor, he replied, “Oh, it’s pretty nice having something like that named after you. When I’m gone from here, I’m gonna sit on the end and collect tolls.”
Sadly, Johnnie Johnson died in St. Louis in 2005 at age 80. According to his wife, Francis: “He was somebody that West Virginia can really be proud of because he was a native son.
The Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center at Fairmont State University is dedicated to the identification, preservation and perpetuation of our region’s rich cultural heritage, through academic studies, educational programs, festivals and performances and publications. For more information about the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center, visit www.fairmontstate.edu/folklife.