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Northern Arts Series: Earthwork Music
Northern Arts Series: Earthwork Music Seth Bernard and May Erlewine
Northern Michigan musicians talk about their music and the lovely peninsula they call home. (2008-09-25) Far from Detroit Rock City sits a tiny island in Lake Michigan called Beaver Island. And it's there where a group of northern Michigan musicians decided to hold a week-long retreat.

Michigan Radio's Jennifer Guerra caught out with them at their campsite to talk about their music and the lovely peninsula they like to call home.

Almost all of the musicians sitting around the campfire were born and raised in northern Michigan. And all of them plan to stay here. Singer songwriter May Erlewine or Daisy May as she's known to her fans says who she is as a musician is very much tied to where she grew up:

"A lot of it has to do with the climate and the mass amounts of water and lush greens in the summer, and then going into the cold, cold winter and with so much snow. Growing up with those cycles, the beautiful fall with all the leaves. Maybe it's not descriptive always in the music, but I feel it's a huge part. And it effects my songwriting in ways that we probably don't even realize or that I don't even realize. But I feel it, you know."

Seth Bernard says he was "brought up to see the role of the musician or the folk singer as an important one in that we're communicating things to the community on behalf of the community."

Bernard plays guitar and sings often with May Erlewine. They're both part of the northern Michigan music collective known as Earthworks. It's named after the farm Bernard grew up on in Missaukee County.

The collective is made up of a close circle of friends. Some met each other at music festivals, others met while studying at Interlochen. And they all play on each other's albums...which Bernard says is just one of the reasons he loves the idea of a collective.

"And also the larger idea of having a role in building culture in this area," continues Bernard, "and in communicating ideas about the environment, or social justice, empowering youth, building community, and getting people excited about their region. Those are things that we're all interested in and excited about. And we can work on these things together with this collective that we found ourselves in more effectively than if we were just on our own."

The wider Earthwork collective is made up of local families and activists and farmers. Several of the musicians themselves grew up on farms, and almost all were raised with a sort of homesteading ethic. They place a real emphasis on sustainability and simplicity. And they use their music as a way to give back to the land.

"Music has this way of bringing the community together. And so that's a good place to talk about things that are important to the stewardship of our place. Like the water crisis, for example. Music has a huge role in the stewardship of the Great Lakes. And in engaging people in that stewardship. So we're lucky to be empowered in that way and I think we feel responsible to keep doing that."

The Earthwork musicians also feel a responsibility to carry on the musical tradition they've inherited. Like Susan Fawcett. She plays traditional fiddle music. She learned most of it by hanging out with her musical elders at festivals and around town where "there's just all these musicians in their 40's and 50's who are just sitting around and playing and just being so welcoming to people coming in and listening and learning old time music by ear."

So if you find yourself up north one of these days, and you pass by a barn or a campsite where people are playing fiddle music, and playing on guitars and cellos...you might want to drop on by. Who knows? You could even get a free lesson out of it.