‘Finding the Singing Spruce’ – A discussion with author Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth and State Folklorist Jennie Williams

By Matthew Young, RealWV

CHARLESTON, W.Va. –  “When I first came into this project, I was interested in the connection of how people define what ‘heritage’ meant in West Virginia – and, more broadly, in Appalachia.”

That’s what author Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth told attendees at Taylor Books Friday, regarding the earliest days of planning his first full-length book, “Finding the Singing Spruce: Musical Instrument Makers in Appalachia’s Mountain Forests.” Released in November 2023 through West Virginia University Press, “Finding the Singing Spruce” follows three Appalachian instrument makers while exploring the deep connections between music and environment.

“What are the methods that people (instrument makers) use, and how does this intersect with different kinds of environmental policies?” Waugh-Quasebarth continued. “I followed those two questions.”

A native of Charleston, Waugh-Quasebarth serves as visiting assistant professor of Comparative Studies, as well as director and archivist at The Ohio State University’s Center for Folklore Studies. Having earned his PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Kentucky in 2019, Waugh-Quasebarth is well-versed in the study of craft traditions and economies in mountain regions around the world. 

While researching for “Finding the Singing Spruce,” Waugh-Quasebarth quickly realized that “apprenticeship was the way to go.” Between 2014 and 2018, Waugh-Quasebarth took a hands-on approach to learning the craft. 

“Doing that apprenticeship work enabled me to really get into the specific methods that people were using, and make that a useful resource for other makers to really figure out their own ways to do it,” Waugh-Quasebarth explained. 

Joining Waugh-Quasebarth for the discussion was State Folklorist Jennie Williams with the West Virginia Humanities Council, who explained that the Mountain State has similar apprenticeship programs available to those who wish to learn new skills. 

“We manage a really cool folklife apprenticeship program at the Humanities Council,” Williams said. “I get to know a lot of people who have these wonderful experiences. It’s one-on-one in a lot of cases, it’s not like classroom learning.”

“So much of what’s taught can’t be verbalized, which is a really key piece of this,” Waugh-Quasebarth added. “It’s things that are felt, things that are smelt, things that are listened to very critically – that’s something you have to really build up over time.”

Something that Waugh-Quasebarth learned during his time as an apprentice was the concept of “tonewood” used in the assembling of acoustic instruments. 

“It refers to the kinds of wood that people use to make these instruments,” Waugh-Quasebarth explained. “The wood comes from very specific species (of trees) and is processed in very specific ways.”

“[It’s about] listening to things – the trees, and the wood itself,” Waugh-Quasebarth noted. “How can we listen to it more actively and be more in tune to it, and understand that it has a voice?”

To learn more about Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth, or to purchase a copy of “Finding the Singing Spruce: Musical Instrument Makers in Appalachia’s Mountain Forests,” visit his website, at craftethnography.com. For more information about the West Virginia Humanities Council, including the Folklife Apprenticeship program, contact Jennie Williams at williams@wvhumanities.org, or visit wvhumanities.org

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